Prosecutors in the trial of 10 black youths accused of a Halloween beating of three white women on Thursday abruptly pulled a key witness whose testimony had been erratic and occasionally incoherent.
Just the day before, Marice Huff, 35, surprised the court when he testified that police had conducted a tape-recorded interview with him -- evidence that was not turned over to the defense.
After court that day, he told prosecutors he no longer wanted to identify any of the minors on trial because his wife had become upset by a Geraldo Rivera television segment on the attack.
"Mr. Huff is now living in a hotel, away from his family," Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Bouas told the court Thursday. "He does not want to identify anyone."
The revelation capped four days of mounting frustration among attorneys, and defendants' and victims' families, over the plodding, disorganized course of this trial.
Defense attorneys pleaded with Judge Gibson Lee to let the nine girls and one boy, ages 12 to 18, go home for Christmas. None has a criminal record, and each has been in juvenile hall since Oct. 31.
"It's not their fault that this process has taken so long," said attorney Darrell Goss. "I think we're at the point now we're really starting to cause some irreparable harm to these children and families."
He said the minors are all involved in school and track and have caring families who come to court every day and would make sure their children arrive next week for trial. "This is a weekend children look forward to unlike any other," attorney Jack A. Fuller said.
Lee said he appreciated their concerns. He listened to another motion and then said, "The motion for release is denied. I'll see you Wednesday."
Several of the younger girls sobbed. Parents wiped their eyes as they walked out.
It was a tumultuous end to a tumultuous week.
The minors are charged with assault with the intent to cause great bodily harm. Eight of them face a hate crime enhancement to their sentence if convicted.
Given the chaos and darkness of the scene that night, Bouas has had difficulties getting witnesses who can solidly identify the minors as having directly taken part in the assault.
Initially, Huff appeared to be a strong witness for the prosecution. He was the good Samaritan who broke up the beating that night in Bixby Knolls. Bouas argued to the judge that his "character and courage have evidentiary value." But his ability to identify the minors quickly became a contentious issue.
Huff had told police on three occasions that he could make out only one individual that night: a boy who is not on trial. Then Monday, Bouas said she had a meeting with Huff a few days earlier in which she showed him photos of the minors and he said he recognized six of them, five as assailants.
"It's an outrageous type of identification that severely prejudices the defendants," said attorney Mark Rothenberg.
The judge ordered a hearing on whether Huff could testify about individual identities. In the meantime he allowed him to testify about the sequence of events of the night.
During his testimony Tuesday, Huff mumbled much of his account of the attack. At first, he said, it looked like the victims knew the assailants, even as they yelled slurs and threw things at them. "It was laughter."
Someone kicked one of the women, he testified. "I was seeing people just attacking, you know what I mean?"
Throughout most of the testimony Huff's tone was matter-of-fact. But as he recounted saving one of the victims from the attackers, he sobbed.
On Thursday, Bouas said she had met with Huff, and he no longer wanted to testify about the identities. She handed over convoluted notes from the meeting.
Then in a closed meeting, the district attorney's office and the defense agreed not to call Huff back to the stand for redirect or cross-examination. The defense was still concerned that Huff was certain about one identification: a girl with red braids he said kicked him that night.
Bouas also informed the defense attorneys that the police interview with Huff had been taped over, one attorney said.