A one-time member of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch group testified Wednesday that he now regrets getting out of his car to calm a black teen carrying a nail-studded plank.
Testifying in his own defense, Eliyahu Werdesheim, 24, said the agitated teen broke the plank off a wooden pallet after their first encounter and he believed verbal de-escalation skills he learned in the Israeli military would help defuse the situation. The newest member of the Shomrim of Baltimore watch group believed it was just a misunderstanding.
“I was going to try to reassure him that I was just a neighborhood watchman,” he said. “In hindsight, I very much regret the decision. But at the time, I had successfully de-escalated situations many times before.”
Werdesheim is charged with his 22-year-old brother, Avi, with second-degree assault, false imprisonment and carrying a deadly weapon, in the 2010 beating of the then-15-year-old boy. The brothers, who are white and Jewish, opted for a bench trial after withdrawing a motion to move their trial because publicity comparing their case to the fatal shooting of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
Circuit Judge Pamela White heard closing arguments in the case Wednesday and is expected to announce her decision on Thursday afternoon.
Eliyahu Werdesheim testified that he was on his way home with his brother when he heard a call on the Shomrim radio for a suspicious person and responded. He found the teen looking into windows of homes and trying the door of an SUV, he said.
Once the teen saw him watching, Eliyahu Werdesheim said he got out of his car and explained that he was a Shomrim member and he was watching because he had seen the teen walking in people's yards. He testified that his brother, Avi, who was not a Shomrim member, got out of the car, told the teen he didn't belong there, he belonged in school, and that upset the teen, who replied he didn't have school.
The teen walked away, but he pulled a plank from a wooden pallet near a home under construction and carried it with him, Werdesheim testified.
“Maybe he was nervous and having the wood made him feel better,” he said. “I understood why he was nervous. There was misunderstanding.”
As he drove on, he saw a woman walking a dog and worried that the situation could be bad and he decided to try to de-escalate it, he testified. He made sure his brother stayed in the car and hoped to reassure the agitated teen that they were just the neighborhood watch.
Werdesheim testified that when he got out of the car and began to speak, the teen rushed at him, raising the board, and he noticed the nails sticking out. He couldn't run or get back in his car, so he deflected the board with his left arm and hit the teen in the head with his right hand, which still held his radio. He and attorney Andrew Alperstein re-enacted the exchange for the judge using a replica board.
When the teen hit the ground, the board fell and Werdesheim said he threw it away so it couldn't be used again. Other Shomrim members ran up and one told the brothers to leave because their presence wasn't helping, he said. Werdesheim said when he got home and called Alperstein, who is now his attorney in this case, to ask him about Maryland self-defense law.
“I was sure I was defending myself,” he said, but he wanted to get a better understanding of the state's law.
Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Wiggins asked Werdesheim why he felt it necessary to reignite the situation if the teen was not walking on people's property anymore.
“I had no reason to think it would end badly,” he said.
In his closing arguments, Alperstein reminded the judge of the many conflicting accounts from witnesses and lack of testimony from the alleged victim, who was excused after he refused to testify any longer last week. The teen's testimony was stricken from the record, though the judge did allow the recording of the teen's 911 call.
Avi Werdesheim's attorney Susan Green reminded the judge that the teen did not identify her client in a photo array and witnesses testified that he was not near the physical confrontation and did not have the radio.
Wiggins told White in his closing that the teen armed himself with the plank but never did anything aggressive. He said Eliyahu Werdesheim held the teen on the ground and the wound on the back of the teen's head means he was hit with a radio by a second person, Avi Werdesheim.
The case is about freedom, misunderstandings and fear, Wiggins said. The teen feared the defendants and their fear of the unknown drove them to confront the teen, he said.
“They wanted him out of the neighborhood. ... They agitated him enough that he got the stick,” he said. “He was just a scared kid just trying to get to the bus stop.”