Avi Werdesheim, 20, and, Eliyalu Eliezer Werdesheim, 23, charged with assaulting a black teenager while members of Shomrim, a Jewish neighborhood patrol group, leave the Circuit Court after their arraignment.
Baltimore, MD - As outrage grows across the country about the shooting of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in Florida, a Baltimore case with some similar themes could come back into the spotlight this week: the trial of two members of a community patrol organization in Northwest Baltimore accused of assaulting a black teenager.
The incident occurred in November 2010, with charges brought against Eliyahu Werdesheim in December and, later, against his brother, Avi. There are some parallels - vigilantism, race, and self-defense - but also major differences - most notably the fatal outcome in the Florida case but also the handling by law enforcement.
With the trial scheduled to begin, here's a refresher on some of the facts in each case.
The Werdesheim brothers were members of a group called Shomrim, Orthodox Jewish volunteers who patrol their Northwest Baltimore neighborhood. The group has meetings and bylaws, as well as radios and matching jackets, and for years was praised by city officials and police for their efforts. In Florida, shooter George Zimmerman, described as white-Hispanic had helped set up a neighborhood watch program with the assistance of the Sanford Police Department and had been appointed the "captain" of the program, according to reports. Both have been accused of being overzealous - Zimmerman had called 911 dozens of times before the shooting incident, while some black Baltimore residents and even police officers said Shomrim members sometimes took their role too far.
Eliyahu Werdesheim worked for a security company and claimed to be an former Israeli special forces solider; Zimmerman wanted to be a police officer, having attended a four-month course at the local sheriff's department and enrolled in a local college and took law enforcement courses.
In both cases, the men pursued the victims but are making claims of self-defense.
In the Shomrim case, the 15-year-old victim said he was walking in the 3300 block of Fallstaff Road at about 12:45 p.m. when a vehicle pulled up and two males began driving next to him. The victim told police that the men followed him for a short distance, before jumping out of the vehicle and surrounding him.
The victim said the passenger grabbed him and threw him to the ground. The driver - who police believe was Eliyahu Werdeshem - struck the teen in the head with his radio and asked if he had "anything on him." Werdesheim is accused of telling the teen "You don't belong here."
A third man then got out of the vehicle, struck the teen in the back with his knee, and held him on the ground as they patted him down. Another member of the Shomrim group came to the teen's aid and was the person who called police, a supplemental report showed.
An attorney for Werdesheim, Andrew Alperstein, has said that the neighborhood watchmen were on alert about recent crimes and believed the teen was a suspect. The boy became angry as he was being watched, picked up a stick and attacked Werdesheim, Alperstein said.
"Mr. Werdesheim defended himself, and won that fight," Alperstein said, calling it "nothing more than a self-defense situation." Police said the boy suffered a broken wrist, but Alperstein, citing medical records, later said the teen had a "boxer's fracture," a knuckle injury often associated with punching an object with a closed fist. Sources also said the teenage victim had a juvenile criminal record including theft charges.
The facts available in the Martin case have been well-laid out in the media - Zimmerman called 911 and reported that he saw a "suspicious guy" who "looks like he's up to no good," lamenting that "these a--holes, they always get away." The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to pursue the suspect, which he ignored. Some believe Zimmerman can be heard uttering a racial epithet under his breath on the tape.
Martin was visiting his father at his home in a gated community and was walking back from a convenience store during halftime of the NBA All-Star game, and was carrying only Skittles, iced tea and a cell phone.
On a 911 call from a witness, someone can be heard yelling help; some believe it to be Martin, while a friend of Zimmerman told ABC News that the voice is Zimmerman's. Zimmerman claims he shot in self-defense, and had a broken nose and grass stains on the back of his shirt when police arrived.
Florida is a shall-issue state, and Zimmerman was carrying a legal firearm.
The investigation: There was a delay in filing charges in the Shomrim case of more than week - the incident occurred November 19, 2010 and charges were filed November 29 - but the charges were not prompted by public outrage and scrutiny: the case was unknown to the public until the filing of charges by police and prosecutors. Werdesheim was arrested on Dec. 1, and is free on $50,000 bond.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said at the time that Eli Werdesheim "took the law into his own hands, and the Baltimore Police Department will not tolerate acts of vigilantism from any organization."
Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein inherited the case when he took office, and prosecutors decided to drop first-degree assault charges against Werdesheim, prompting criticism from some. But Bernstein's office also filed new charges against Eli Werdesheim's brother, Avi, on January 20.
The current charges are: false imprisonment, second-degree assault, and possession of a deadly weapon. The case has been postponed several times but is scheduled for a March 29 trial.
In the Martin case, Zimmerman was never arrested and police strongly defended their decision. Much of the debate about that decision not to make an arrest has focused on Florida's self-defense laws known as "stand your ground," as well as other controversial decisions made by the Sanford Police Department. The Justice Department is investigating the case, while Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to investigate. A review of Florida's self-defense laws is also underway.
The reaction: The Shomrim incident sparked fears of racial unrest; in a profile of Wire actress Felicia Snoop Pearson, Rolling Stone cited the incident and wrote that "for a few tense days, safety in the city depended in part " on the efforts of a former gang member "sent as an emissary between the two communities."
Shomrim suspended the Werdesheims and they later left the organization, but Shomrim continues to perform neighborhood watch duties in Northwest Baltimore, including recently seizing bikes from teenagers that they believed to have been stolen. While Trayvon's family spoke out about the shooting, including an appearance at a rally in New York City, the family of the victim in the Shomrim case has not spoken publicly.
Leaders of the black and Jewish community, who have had simmering tensions but also long-productive relationships, also met behind closed doors to discuss tensions. A small protest was held at the Baltimore Circuit Court over Bernstein's perceived handling of the case, with some saying Bernstein needed to be more transparent and others accusing Jewish bias and racism, while a larger crowd turned out to support Werdesheim at his first court appearance, chanting "Innocent Until Proven Guilty."
Some of the same groups who were critical of Bernstein's handling of the case - including the socialist All People's Congress and the Southern Christian Leaderhip Council's local chapter - have been working to organize a Trayvon Martin rally Monday at Baltimore Police headquarters. A flier says "local victims of racism, bigotry and abuse" will speak out at the event.
By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun