TOWSON, Md. — A jury found white supremacist Brandon Higgs guilty Wednesday of first-degree assault, attempted voluntary manslaughter, hate crimes, and related firearms charges.
Higgs, a 25-year-old former Navy cryptologist with ties to neo-Nazi groups, was convicted of assaulting two black men, Elvis Smith and Robert Peete, during a 2018 altercation in Reisterstown, a suburb of Baltimore. Smith was shot in the leg.
The jury deliberated for about three hours Wednesday evening before delivering their verdicts. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 23.
Higgs shook his head in disbelief while being led out of the courtroom. Members of his family broke into loud sobs and shouted “I love you” as court officers escorted him away.
The verdict marks an end to a long ordeal for the two victims, both of whom were left traumatized by their encounter with Higgs. HuffPost exclusively interviewed Smith, 60, and Peete, 49, last year for a story examining hate in America.
On Dec. 20, 2018, Smith and Peete had been at work laying concrete on a driveway near Higgs’s house when a dog belonging to Higgs got loose and ran through the wet concrete. The three men exchanged some angry words before Higgs returned to his house.
He reemerged from the house a short time later carrying a loaded gun and accosted the two men with racist remarks, according to the prosecution. “Nigger, this is my ’hood,” he allegedly said. ”Black motherfuckers, go back to Africa.”
He was accused of pushing Smith, who pushed him back. Smith then hit Higgs with what’s called a come-along, a rake used to smooth concrete. At some point, Higgs drew a gun and a tussle ensued, with Peete hopping into the melee to help Smith.
As they wrestled, Higgs’s gun fired once, sending a bullet tearing through Smith’s leg, shattering his tibia. Smith and Peete then beat, disarmed and restrained Higgs until police officers arrived.
“We know what this case was about,” John Magee, a prosecutor for the state’s attorney’s office, told the 12 jurors Wednesday inside the Circuit Court of Baltimore County. “Hate.”
Magee repeated the slurs Higgs had allegedly hurled at Smith and Peete: “Nigger, this is my ’hood” and “Black motherfuckers, go back to Africa.”
Magee said it pained him to say such “awful” words out loud in court but that it was important for the jury to hear them.
Over and over again, Magee emphasized to jurors that Higgs, after the initial altercation with the dog, went home and remained there for 10 to 15 minutes.
“Nothing else should’ve happened, but it did, and it did because of Mr. Higgs,” Magee said. “Mr. Higgs comes back locked and loaded to finish what he started, with a round in the chamber and a spare magazine.”
“He’s looking for provocation. He’s looking to incite a violent response.”
Near the conclusion of his remarks, Magee pointed out Smith, who was sitting in the courtroom, a wooden cane clutched in his right hand.
“Now he’s permanently injured,” Magee told the jury. “He’ll never be the same. There’s a rod in his leg.”
We know what this case was about: hate. John Magee, prosecutor for the state's attorney's office
Higgs’s defense attorney, James Crawford, used his closing argument to tell jurors that Smith shared some blame for what happened.
“Smith was not correct in doing what he did with the come-along,” Crawford argued. “It’s called escalation.”
Higgs, he argued, was acting in self-defense when he drew his gun.
Most of Crawford’s closing argument emphasized that while Higgs may have made racist statements — at one point Crawford repeatedly called his own client “stupid” — there was not sufficient evidence to prove he had control of the gun when it fired.
The prosecution did not introduce evidence detailing Higgs’s deep connections to some of the white supremacist groups who helped organize the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White supremacist chat logs leaked to Unicorn Riot, a media collective, showed Higgs expressing a murderous hatred of black people. In one post, Higgs hailed Dylann Roof — the white supremacist who murdered nine Black worshipers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 — as “St. Roof.”
“Brb hookjng [sic] up my nigger mulcher to the truck,” he wrote in one chat group for people planning Unite the Right.
“I decided I’m going to create my own group called Baltimore Animal Control and buy those dog patrol poles with the snare at the end and wrangle niggers with it,” he wrote in another chat group.
“Also want to leave bear traps in Baltimore city with buckets of KFC chicken.”
This is a developing story. Check back for more information.