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The government’s star witness would rather not be on the stand today in D.C. Superior Court. Even if she hadn’t already said as much, it’s all there in her body language. She slumps back in her chair, never taking her leather jacket off, and mumbles curt answers for the court with her right hand covering her mouth.
Still, on this January afternoon, she tells the court what the prosecutor needs her to: that she saw a group of boys beat a man nearly to death in Southwest last year. Two kids are sitting handcuffed across the well of the court, one wearing a green collared shirt and the other a purple one. (Because both are juveniles, Washington City Paper agreed not to disclose their names or any identifying characteristics as a condition of observing the proceedings.) The boy in green shakes his head as the woman testifies, while the boy in purple closes his eyes and fidgets in his chair like a child tortured by classroom boredom.
“They all was just kicking him and stuff,” the witness says. “They were saying, ‘Fuck his ass up.’…When they hit him with the bottle, he fell.”
“Did you ever see the white man again?” the prosecutor asks, referring to the victim.
“Never seen him no more. Never heard his name.”
David Sobelsohn is the victim’s name, and he’s a Southwest D.C. resident and advisory neighborhood commissioner. Sobelsohn was walking to a community meeting on the night of March 2 last year when he was beaten by kids and robbed of his cassette player and wallet, which held about $40 (“Where Did the Time Go?” 7/28/06). After a three-night stay at Washington Hospital Center, he left with a list of injuries and ailments that read like a health history questionnaire: headaches, nausea, dizziness, partial loss of hearing, loss of appetite, fear of strangers, a broken cheekbone, and a concussion, not to mention bouts of panic, despair, and claustrophobia.
Sobelsohn’s drubbing was so severe that the witness says she later wondered whether he had died. He sustained bruises to his brain, and over the course of the next two months he would repeatedly lose his new memories. His daily life became so difficult that he developed what he described at the time as “logorrhea”—he couldn’t stop thinking and talking about the incident and its aftereffects.
“I was a damaged person, and I still am a little bit,” he said during the summer. “Something needs to be done, if at all possible, to see that these kids don’t want to do this [again].”
Sobelsohn was vocal about the assault, which had made local newscasts, and the incident garnered more public attention than the typical D.C. murder. An extraordinary amount of policework went into the case.
Sobelsohn was frustrated to learn just how difficult it is to find a witness willing to testify about a crime in the District. After all, a slew of people stood at the scene before cops arrived, but a responding officer noted that most of them scattered “like flies” when the cruiser rolled up, according to court testimony. The government’s case hung almost entirely on whether the woman on the stand would make an in-court identification of the boys. Police stumbled upon her only after exhausting every other angle in the case.
After the assault, D.C. police detective Robert Saunders knew of at least one witness: an off-duty security guard who called 911 and gave a report to police at the scene. “He was the best thing we had and the only thing,” Saunders says. But the guard was extraordinarily cagey about an interview, and he changed his phone number and moved after detectives paid a visit to his home.
Detectives learned the identities of the attackers through a reliable informant, but they still needed courtroom testimony. They had a strategy to get it: At least one of the teens had taken part in the beating of another pedestrian in Southwest. As older drug dealers would have seen it, these kids were bringing unnecessary attention from police and needed to leave the neighborhood. Saunders hoped to leverage that friction. The plan was to collar a prominent neighborhood dealer who knew of the attack, then flip the dealer on the boys. But the dealer had left the neighborhood, probably in search of quieter corners. The detectives had no choice but to go directly at the boys.
According to Saunders, the boy in green and the boy in purple might generously be called hard cases. They were in their early-to-mid-teens at the time of Sobelsohn’s attack, and when Saunders visited them in custody at the city juvenile detention center on Mount Olivet Road NE, they were cursing, spitting, and pounding on their plexiglass cage. One of them called Saunders a “bald-headed motherfucker.” Saunders made another attempt to interview them with their parents at the 1st District police station, with no more success. “I hate y’all police motherfuckers,” one said in front of his mother. “Get me the fuck out of here.”
“They’re so young,” Saunders says, “but it’s like they’re so old.”
Acting on a tip, Saunders then went after a third boy alleged to be involved in the attack, bringing him and his mother down to the police station for questioning. When the mother said she was hungry, Saunders sensed an opening and hustled to the Maine Avenue Wharf, where he sprung for a box of steamed jumbo shrimp—“These were the real big ones,” Saunders explains—which the mother devoured.
“Boy,” she instructed her son between shrimps, “you tell them what they need to hear.” The boy coughed up a statement incriminating himself, but he refused to testify against any accomplices he may have had. He eventually pleaded guilty in his own proceeding for Sobelsohn’s assault and received probation.
Police still needed someone to take the stand, and Saunders eventually caught a break. He was investigating another Southwest incident, in which a youth was robbed at gunpoint of his North Face jacket. Saunders showed a photo spread of suspects to the victim and his mother.
When she examined the lineup, the mother blurted out, “That’s the same boy who hit the white man on the head!” After a follow-up interview, Saunders determined that the white man was Sobelsohn; the boy was the same one who’d robbed her son—the boy in purple who’s in court today. The mother had seen from her car the group of boys stomping Sobelsohn on the sidewalk, but she’d never called 911 and had never come forward to police. When a cruiser rolled up, she’d fled.
Saunders had trouble compelling the woman to testify. He says Sobelsohn couldn’t grasp the fact that police in D.C. generally don’t force citizens to take the stand and open themselves up to reprisal. The detective didn’t like Sobelsohn’s persistence in the matter. (Sobelsohn, who was still recovering from his head injury at the time, doesn’t remember calling Saunders during the investigation, but Saunders says he heard from Sobelsohn almost daily at one point.) Eventually, Saunders preferred to communicate through a third party, a friend of Sobelsohn’s. Saunders and Sobelsohn never met face to face.
As the months dragged on leading up to trial, Sobelsohn sent out occasional press releases to make sure his case was not forgotten. His frustration was barely veiled. “There’s an old saying that ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ ” he wrote in an e-mail to news agencies earlier this month, lamenting repeated trial delays. “After months of waiting, Commissioner Sobelsohn wonders.”
At the trial, the boys’ defense lawyers make it a priority to discredit the witness as vindictive, trying to avenge the robbery of her son’s North Face jacket. “This is a case about people getting what they want,” Tiffany Sizemore, the lawyer for the boy in green, argues in her opening statement. The government “wants a successful prosecution. The police want a nagging, complaining witness off their backs.” And the woman who will testify is “a mother who wants revenge.”
The mother doesn’t seem like the vengeful type, though she doesn’t come off as a model citizen, either. When asked why she didn’t hang around to tell police what she witnessed, or to point out the perps who still lingered at the scene after the attack, she doesn’t give the stock fear-of-retribution answer.
“I was running late,” she says without apology. “I said, ‘Oh no, I’m gone.’ ”
And she never intended to finger the boy when Saunders put the photo spread in front of her during his visit. “It slipped out, for real,” she says with a chuckle. Sure, she was angry about the boy stealing that “380-some-dollar coat” she’d bought for her son, she says, but the matter has already been resolved—the boy in purple has been sentenced in that case.
She identifies the boy in purple as the one she saw crush an oversize beer or liquor bottle on Sobelsohn’s head. The boy in green was there, too, she says. She knew both of them from the neighborhood. She’s seen the boy in purple “in stolen cars, police chases, jumpin’ out running.”
“Why are you being truthful here today?” prosecutor Lynette Collins asks her.
“Because I seen what I seen.”
And that’s enough for Judge Jerry Stewart Byrd, who makes his ruling after Sobelsohn has testified and the lawyers have delivered their closing arguments. “The case does rise and fall on” the mother’s testimony, says Byrd. “What she did is not consistent with a citizen who…should perform her duties in the community.…Yes, she was frustrated and fed up, but not biased.…[Her] testimony rings true to me.” He finds the boys responsible for the assault but not the robbery charges, which have been thrown out because no one saw them take anything from Sobelsohn’s pockets.
After the case, Sobelsohn expresses mixed feelings about the outcome to Collins and some friends who supported him during the trial. He says a fourth assailant is still at large, and he wishes the robbery charges had stuck. “I’m upset that somebody stole my wallet. All I know is I had a wallet with my things in it. The kid who already pled guilty—did he plead to robbery?” Sobelsohn asks Collins.
Saunders is within earshot. He doesn’t take part in the post-victory powwow. He sits silently in the hallway until he sees one of the mothers storm off after declining to speak with a reporter. “Shit is wrong,” she snaps. “Shit is damn wrong.”
Saunders shakes his head and rolls his eyes, turning to an onlooker for a small bit of relief. “Now do you see what I’ve been dealing with here?” he asks.
In a few days, the judge will announce that the boys are to be committed to the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) until their 21st birthdays, which could mean a combination of the notorious Oak Hill detention center and various group homes over the next several years. Upon hearing this news, the boy in purple will yawn.
“I could tell you, being committed [to DYRS], they should be thankful. With the things going on in that community and who they are, it could very well be saving their lives,” says Saunders. “For the next few years, anyway.”