Was it a case of road rage between a white bicyclist in Georgetown and a black driver? Or was it a racist incident that turned violent?
The August confrontation, according to prosecutors in the District, unfolded in the overnight hours as Maxim Smith was biking along M Street in front of a frustrated driver who began honking his horn.
As the driver, Ketchazo Paho, began to pass the bike, authorities say the situation escalated. Smith hit the car trunk with something, and Paho stopped. Paho, 35, began to call 911, then grabbed the bike as Smith tried to pedal away. Prosecutors say that’s when Smith repeatedly called Paho the n-word and struck him in the head with a metal bike lock.
“Smith was outraged,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alyse Constantinide said in her opening statement before a crowded courtroom Thursday. “How dare this man, this black man, blow his horn on him and try to pass him. How dare this black man call the police on him.”
But one of Smith’s lawyers told the jury his client was acting in self-defense in the midst of a tense encounter.
“He feared for his life,” Albert Amissah said. “He grabbed the U-lock and used it to escape.”
D.C. Superior Court jurors must now decide which version they believe.
Smith, 25, is charged with two counts of assault as well as destroying property. In a rare move for federal prosecutors, they also added a racial bias enhancement — the legal term in the District for a hate crime — to the case. If the jury concludes there was a racially motived attack, Smith would face additional time in prison. The trial is set to continue Monday, and Smith’s lawyers said they expect him to testify before it ends.
Before it began, attorneys and prosecutors squared off over whether the jury should hear evidence that Smith allegedly used the n-word during the altercation. While it is at the core of the prosecution’s case, defense attorneys said it would prejudice the jury against their client.
“In this climate today, we are not going to have a fair trial of a white man calling a person in Georgetown a [n-word],” said Justin Okezie, one of Smith’s attorneys.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Korba argued that omitting the word from statements Smith allegedly made distorts the evidence. Korba said at one point after the altercation, Smith asked Paho, “Are you going to call the police now [n-word]?” Korba argued that censoring the n-word at the end of the question would change the question’s context.
At one point in pretrial proceedings, Judge Kimberley Knowles and defense attorneys discussed whether the word was universally offensive and whether there was a difference in meaning if the user pronounced the word with “-ger” at the end or a “-ga.” The defense argued the latter word is used by some in the black community as a form of endearment or familiarity.
Knowles said either variation of the n-word is “not always offensive” to people, black or white.
The judge ultimately agreed with prosecutors and said jurors would be able to hear the n-word as evidence.
“If you take the word out, it changes the meaning of what he said,” Knowles said. “It’s up to the jury to decide if he said it and what he meant by it.”
Prosecutors unsuccessfully sought to argue to the jury that Smith had a pattern of racially motivated attacks.
In December, they said, he was charged in a misdemeanor case in which authorities alleged that he damaged the window of a car used by a Lyft driver. In that incident, Smith was accused of swerving his bicycle erratically and obviously texting while riding, forcing the Lyft driver to slow down. When the driver caught up to Smith and cautioned Smith about erratic biking, authorities said Smith struck the car window and called the driver the n-word.
But Knowles decided the jury could not hear about that property damage case because that trial is set for July.
Okezie said in pretrial proceedings that his client is not racist. He said Smith is a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington and “has black people in his life and loves black people.” At Smith’s initial hearing following his arrest, about a half-dozen of his friends, many of whom are black, filled two rows of the courtroom in support.
Smith was released from jail after his arrest but was ordered to attend outpatient drug and alcohol counseling sessions and stay out of trouble. At a hearing in January, a court officer testified that Smith twice tested positive for cocaine, and a prosecutor said Smith “might” have been intoxicated at the time of the incident.
Earlier this year, Knowles ordered Smith back to D.C. jail after finding he failed to comply with her orders.
It is difficult for prosecutors to prove that crimes are motivated by racial bias. Earlier this week, a black D.C. woman was found guilty of assault after authorities say she pulled out a knife and slashed the face of a Hispanic woman at a bus stop in Northwest Washington in 2016, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. The women had bumped into each other minutes earlier. After slashing the victim’s face, prosecutors said the woman, Camille Covington, 34, yelled out, “I don’t like Hispanic women.” However, the jury did not believe the attack was racially motivated and rejected the racial bias enhancement.
On Thursday, Paho took the witness stand and described the encounter with Smith.
“He kept calling me n----- over and over again and kept hitting me on my hand, on my arm and on my head,” Paho testified.
Paho denied threatening Smith, striking Smith or doing anything other than holding Smith’s bicycle, trying to keep him from leaving the scene.
Paho said he did not realize he was hit in the head until he saw a woman nearby scream and then saw the blood covering his face from the gash. Authorities have said he was hospitalized and received 21 stitches and several staples.
Korba, the prosecutor, asked Paho why he didn’t fight back.
“I’m not a violent person. I wanted to make sure I was on the side of right. And I’m also a 6-foot, 4-inch black man and he’s a 5-foot, 7-inch white man. It’s 1:30 in the morning in Georgetown. I didn’t want the police to come and see me and shoot and kill me thinking I was the attacker and then realize later I was the victim.”