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Baltimore County man found guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter, hate crimes

A Baltimore County jury on last week found Brandon Troy Higgs, 25, of Reisterstown, guilty of first-degree assault, attempted voluntary manslaughter, hate crimes and related firearms charges, after a three-day trial and more than three hours of deliberations.

A sentencing is scheduled for early April. Higgs also had 10 days to file a motion for a retrial. Higgs was originally charged with attempted first-degree murder.

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As the jury foreperson read the guilty verdicts the night of Jan. 29, members of Higgs’ family in the gallery began to cry and to hold each other for support. As the prosecution and Higgs’ defense attorney discussed scheduling a sentencing hearing, Higgs laid his head down on the table in front of him.

As Higgs was lead out of the courtroom by Baltimore County Sheriff’s deputies, one of his family members said, “We love you, you got this.”

Higgs turned and said, “Love you.”

Higgs was arrested in December 2018 after an incident where Elvis Smith, now 60, was shot in the leg after a fight broke out between the two. Finding Higgs guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter rather than attempted first-degree murder means the jury determined that Higgs acted in partial self-defense.

Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney John Magee argued that Higgs attacked Smith specifically because Smith, who was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a black man.

Smith testified that Higgs called him the n-word, and said that he needed to “go back to Africa.”

Higgs’ defense attorney, Jim Crawford, argued Higgs was acting in self defense, was trying to leave the scene of a fight and ultimately did not have control of a semiautomatic pistol when it fired and shot Smith in the leg.

In closing arguments, Crawford pointed to inconsistencies in witness testimony, especially regarding how a fight escalated and included a gunshot, saying, “We don’t have any one witness talking about what really happened here.”

“The state cannot tell you who had control of that weapon when it went off,” Crawford said.

Magee, in closing arguments, conceded to not having “every pretty, nice little detail wrapped up in a bow.”

But, Magee said, “We know what happened.”

After an initial conflict and exchange of words between Higgs and Smith, Magee said, Higgs went to his home, armed himself and “comes back to finish what he started.”

According to testimony from earlier in the trial, a confrontation between Higgs and Smith began after a dog belonging to Higgs ruined concrete work that Smith and two other black men had been working on Dec. 20, 2018.

Smith testified to being upset that the concrete was disturbed, and said Higgs told him to “kick” the dog if it got too close to him.

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Smith said he warned Higgs he would “kill” the dog if it bit him, because it was a large, intimidating pit bull.

Then, according to the testimony of Smith and two other witnesses, Robert Peete and Wendell Jones, there were some “words exchanged” as Higgs returned home with his dog.

A short time later, Higgs, who had been shirtless before, returned to the worksite where Smith, Peete and Jones were laying concrete, with a jacket on and his hands in his pocket, according to the testimony.

Higgs walked on to the lawn and approached Smith, getting into his face, telling him to “go back to Africa” and calling him the n-word, according to Smith’s testimony.

Smith testified he did not physically react until Higgs poked him in the chest, at which point Smith said he struck Higgs in the head with a concrete rake, also called a “come-along.”

At that point a fight broke out between Higgs and Smith, with Peete at some point jumping in, but the testimonies were inconsistent. Peete and Smith testified that they saw Higgs reach multiple times into his coat pocket for a gun.

The fight shifted, either because the group was wrestling or because Higgs was trying to move, to the edge of a driveway in the next yard over from the work site. Peete testified that he stared down the barrel of the gun and saw Higgs lift his finger as if to pull the trigger.

Smith was shot in the leg; he and Peete both testified it was Higgs who shot Smith.

Crawford, the defense attorney, argued that, because both men said they at various points had their hands on the gun or on Higgs’ hand or arm, it was not possible to say Higgs had control of the gun when it fired.

Baltimore County Police Department Detective Daniel O’Shea testified that the semi-automatic pistol that shot Smith would not have fired without being cocked or without a safety mechanism being deactivated. The detective also testified that he found two magazines on the ground near where the three men were fighting, one loaded with 12 bullets and the other loaded with 13.

Before the Jan. 29 closing statements, Crawford moved that Judge Dennis Robinson Jr. dismiss the charges of first-degree attempted murder, first-degree assault and the related hate crimes against Higgs arguing that the facts were not clear, and that Higgs did not confront Smith and Peete because they are black.

The judge, however, denied Crawford’s motion, saying he had been paying “careful attention” to all the testimony.

Even though the witnesses testimonies didn’t always exactly line up, Robinson said, it was up to the jury to determine whether the heart of the testimony was truthful.

The inconsistencies do “not make the case insufficient,” to be heard by the jury, Robinson said from the bench.

Higgs, asserting his constitutional rights, did not testify in the trial.

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