A key witness in the murder of a rabbi in Northeast Miami-Dade testified in court on Friday under security conditions that underlined the risk he is taking coming forward.
Prosecutors asked the court to shield his identity and image from the media. His testimony also was videotaped for possible future use in court — a reminder that authorities believe he might face deadly retaliation for his cooperation against one of the suspected killers, a 15-year-old Norland High student named Deandre Charles.
The much-anticipated testimony came in a bail hearing for Charles, accused of fatally shooting Rabbi Joseph Raksin during a botched robbery in August 2014.
The man — a 60-year-old construction worker — recalled waking up on a summer morning to hear “Help! Help!” through the crack of his bedroom window. He later drew himself a crude sketch of one of the suspected killers — a lanky young man with “bright eyes,” neat eyebrows and curly hair — that he supplied to police.
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“I didn’t want him to get away with it,” the man testified, later pointing at Charles as the young man running from the spot where a rabbi was shot to death.
“That’s him right there,” said the witness, identified only by his initials as NWE.
For his part, Charles and his family have repeatedly insisted that the teenager was at home on the morning of the murder.
“This case is really weak,” defense lawyer Adam Goodman told the judge on Friday.
The hearing comes one month after a grand jury indicted Charles for first-degree murder in a case that stunned the close-knit Orthodox Jewish community in Northeast Miami-Dade.
The hearing did not conclude on Friday, and will continue sometime in the coming weeks. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jason Bloch must decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to keep Charles behind bars before trial.
Raksin, who was visiting from Brooklyn, was shot as he walked to a synagogue. In accordance with his beliefs, Raksin had no valuables on him as he walked through the neighborhood that morning.
The state attorney’s office says that Charles also is tied to the killing through cellphone records, and that his DNA was found on a gun magazine left at the scene.
For prosecutors, the eyewitness was unusually thorough in a city where community members are often reluctant to get involved in police investigations. NWE, a native of Jamaica, was asleep in his bedroom when he heard Raksin’s final moments that morning. As he recounted the cries for help, Raksin’s daughter, Shuli Labkowski-Raksin, began to tear up as she sat in the courtroom gallery.
NWE went to his front door, opened the screen and peeked out. He saw two young men running northward. The first was short and squat, with long dreadlocks. He never saw his face.
But the second man — tall and lanky, wearing cream-colored pants and a yellow shirt — turned and looked at him directly. Minutes later, NWE walked a half block away and saw Raksin, mortally wounded, curled on the floor next to a light pole.
As police soon cordoned off the area, NWE tried telling a uniformed police officer what he saw. But, he testified, the cop shooed him away without listening. Unsure of what to do, the man returned to his home.
“I didn’t want to get involved right away,” NWE told prosecutor Marie Mato.
A few days later, the construction worker — no trained artist — made the sketch for himself. That drawing, later shown by State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle during a news conference, was widely lampooned after the Internet website Buzzfeed mistakenly described it as a police rendering.
He also made a map, with detailed notes and a map depicting two stick figures as the suspects. “Keep it quiet. Trying to help,” he wrote on his map.
Detectives spent weeks in the neighborhood searching for clues. Not long after, NWE approached Miami-Dade homicide Detective Michael Brajdic outside a police command center, slipping him the folded-up notes. Brajdic convinced him to go to the police station to give a formal statement.
By then, Miami-Dade police had already identified Charles as a possible suspect. His photo was included in a six-person lineup. NWE picked out Charles.
“It looked just like the guy,” he said.
“That was the same face you saw that day,” Mato said.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied.