It is not in dispute that Itamar Vardi touched the 8-year-old boy in December 2016 after believing that the boy had littered.
It is the nature of the touch that is greatly contested.
The boy — a son of Jacqueline Craig — and one of his sisters allege that Vardi grabbed the boy around the back of the neck and forced him down on the sidewalk, only letting go once the child had picked up some raisins that had fallen from a package he’d tossed to a younger brother.
Vardi’s defense attorney, Bobbie Edmonds, insists that Vardi only touched the boy on the shoulder while directing him to pick up the trash.
It’s an incident that would not usually draw much attention. But it pushed Fort Worth into the national spotlight because of the controversial handling of the call by police officer William Martin — conduct that was recorded by one of the boy’s sisters and broadcast to the world through social media.
More than a month after the altercation, Vardi was issued a citation for assault by offensive contact. The Class C misdemeanor — the lowest level of criminal offense in Texas — is comparable to a traffic ticket and only punishable by up to a $500 fine.
But Vardi has pleaded not guilty and, on Tuesday his trial began to media fanfare usually reserved for capital murder cases.
“He’s seeking justice today,” Edmonds told jurors.
Vardi had been the first to call 911 on Dec. 21, 2016, after being confronted by Craig, his neighbor, regarding his reaction to her son allegedly littering.
He told call takers that a neighbor had deliberately thrown trash on his property and that he was concerned because a crowd was forming.
Craig would also call 911, reporting that Vardi had assaulted her son.
One of Craig’s daughters was recording when Martin responded to the scene. He talked briefly to both parties before asking Jacqueline Craig a question that would spark outrage: “Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?”
When she responded that littering did not give her neighbor “the right to put his hands” on her son, Martin could be heard responding, “Why not?”
Tempers quickly escalated, ending in Martin arresting Craig and two of her daughters. Though charges were eventually dropped, the video had already gone viral, sparking numerous protests and public demands for Martin to be fired.
Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald chose, instead, to suspend Martin for 10 days — a decision that seemed to only add fuel to the fire.
Martin appealed, but the discipline was upheld.
‘That’s not his child’
On Tuesday, jurors heard from the alleged victim in the case, now 9, and his 12-year-old sister.
Both testified they had been walking home from school when the alleged victim threw his younger brother a package of lemon raisins. Some of the raisins, they testified, fell from a hole in the bag onto the sidewalk.
Vardi, who had been outside painting his fence, ordered the alleged victim to pick up the raisins, then grabbed the boy’s neck and forced him down near the raisins when he did not do as instructed.
The sister said she ran for home, yelling at the man that she was going to tell her mom because “that’s not his child.” Her mother then came outside and exchanged words with Vardi, leading to police being called.
The alleged victim testified he went home after the encounter with Vardi and into his bedroom and did not witness his mother’s exchange with Vardi or police. He acknowledged under questioning by Edmonds that he later played basketball and catch with a football and that his uncle took him to the doctor later that night after he complained that his neck hurt.
Crimes Against Children Detective Benjamin Jones, the lead investigator into the alleged assault, testified that Vardi told him the boy had thrown trash on his property but that it was too small for him to see what it was.
Vardi told the boy several times to pick it up, then demonstrated for the detective how he placed his open hand on the boy’s shoulder and pointed to the trash that the child needed to pick up, Jones testified.
Jones said Vardi expressed regrets during the interview, saying he wished the incident and aftermath that stemmed from it hadn’t happened.
Regarding touching the boy, Jones said Vardi told him, “He wished he didn’t do that but that his intent was not to hurt [the boy] or cause any trouble.”
Jones testified he was not at work when a sergeant later issued the citation against Vardi. It had been signed by a fellow detective.
Under Texas law, a person commits assault by contact if he intentionally or knowingly causes physical contact with another person that he knows, or should reasonably believe, will be regarded as offensive or provocative.
Edmonds argued to jurors that Vardi’s touch was not offensive or provocative.
‘That I cannot answer’
City attorneys Holly Dozier and Christopher Austria argue otherwise.
Jones testified that he believed Vardi’s actions met the elements of the Class C misdemeanor, but Edmonds repeatedly pointed out in her cross-examination that the citation was only issued after the social media melee and protests.
Before Jones left the stand, Austria asked the detective if the citation was issued to Vardi because of the attention or because the case met the elements of the alleged crime.
“That I cannot answer. I do not know,” Jones replied.
Regardless of whether he’s convicted, Vardi still faces a federal lawsuit filed last month by Craig. The suit also names as defendants the city of Fort Worth and Martin.
In her lawsuit, Craig alleges Vardi caused her son a cervical sprain when he grabbed the boy and “violently” pushed him to the ground.
Lee Merritt, the Craig family attorney, was among onlookers at Tuesday’s hearing. He later told reporters that the case should have been handled as a felony.
“Whatever happens in this trial, it will be way short of the standard of justice that citizens should expect in the state of Texas,” he told reporters.
Testimony in Vardi’s misdemeanor trial is to resume Wednesday morning.