Bus case decision: Whom to believe?

The Baltimore Sun

Unique Curtis' testimony didn't help her five schoolmates, who were all found responsible yesterday for assaulting Sarah Kreager, who was punched, beaten and kicked in the face Dec. 4 and left lying in a gutter with one eye swollen shut and the socket broken in two places.

Unique sat on the witness stand Monday in a courtroom at the Juvenile Justice Center. Her hair was elegantly coiffed, as if it had been recently done. She slid her bangs from over her eyes and held her hands in front of her mouth as she testified. She seemed downright bashful.

Moments before, all eyes were on her when she entered Judge David W. Young's courtroom.

"Why's everybody looking at me?" she wondered out loud.

Why, because she was the last witness in what had become a long, sometimes torturous, grueling juvenile hearing. The looks were probably inspired by either relief or gratitude. I had to suppress an urge to hug Unique Curtis, who's a student at Robert Poole Middle School. By the time Unique finished testifying, I had a new appreciation of the Japanese film Rashomon, which tells the story of a crime through the memories of four witnesses who give accounts that conflict on major points.

Unique was on the No. 27 bus the day Kreager and her boyfriend, Troy Ennis, had a fight with Poole students. Kreager, Ennis and bus driver Danny Williams testified that at least 15 and possibly as many as 20 students were involved in the attack. Six boys and three girls were accused of the assault. The hearing for three of the boys has been delayed. One of the girls pleaded whatever the equivalent of guilty is in juvenile court. Yesterday, Young found the remaining five guilty - or "factually sustained" in juvenile court-ese - of a variety of offenses ranging from first- and second-degree assault to conspiracy to reckless endangerment.

Unique was one of the students who didn't get the booby prize of being accused. Whether it was because she was involved and never identified or had no involvement at all, only Unique knows. But finally, after months of hearing the accounts of Kreager, Ennis and defense attorneys for the accused students about what happened on that No. 27 bus, we finally got to hear an account from a student who wasn't accused of wrongdoing.

Also testifying Monday was Floyd Gross, who has to go to dialysis four days a week and was on the bus. Williams picked him up near a dialysis center at the corner of 33rd Street and Chestnut Avenue just as the confrontation between Kreager, Ennis and the students reached a boiling point.

Unique and Gross testified for the defense. Kreager, Ennis, Williams and Joyce King - the woman who had her daughter call 911 as she ran from her home to help Kreager - were prosecution witnesses. Listening to the testimony of all five in court, objective observers might feel they've been plunked down squarely into the middle of a new movie called Rashomon Meets The Wire.

Unique's testimony matched Ennis' on some key points, which directly contradicted the bus driver's account. Unique and Ennis both said that Ennis stood near the back door while Kreager sat down. Williams said that Ennis sat down but that Kreager never did since she was prevented from doing so by Nakita McDaniels, who was taking up two seats while she filed her nails. (McDaniels, who filed assault charges against Kreager that are part of the public record, has been the only juvenile named in media reports.)

Unique said that Kreager had a black eye and got angry when the students laughed about it. Unique repeated the allegation that Kreager whispered something to Ennis, who then said, "Spit on those niggers." Unique testified that Nakita reacted by shouting "Ain't nobody going to spit on me!" and that Kreager answered "Don't talk to him like that!" Kreager, Unique said, hit Nakita first.

Williams said Nakita struck the first blow, that he heard no remarks about spitting and that no racial epithets were used. Gross said he heard a commotion in the back but couldn't make out the words. But he did identify Nakita as the girl he successfully restrained from getting off the bus and who opened the window beside him to exchange angry words with Kreager, who, Gross said, was outside the bus "ranting and raving, with her fists raised, still arguing, like she wanted to fight." Gross also said Nakita told him that Kreager had spit on her. Unique didn't mention any of that exchange between Gross and Nakita.

In King's account, students threw Kreager off the bus and started beating her immediately.

King seemed to be the most reliable witness. Unique was at least as credible as Kreager and Ennis. Gross seemed more believable than Williams. The bottom line is that at some point this fight crossed the line from legitimate self-defense - assuming it was self-defense at all - into a first- and second-degree assault of Kreager.

And Young said he was satisfied that the evidence showed precisely that.


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