Eight years later, bullet claimed a life A woman is dead, justice is in doubt

February 23, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

The police account says it took Aaron Wayne Harper only seconds to point his weapon at a rival drug dealer, then compress the trigger. It took eight years for the bullet to kill Michelle Deneen Bennett.

Eight years for hospital beds and wheelchairs, for painful infections and skin-graft operations. Eight years of painful struggle for Michelle, who grew slowly weaker from the bullet left in her spine.

"She was 'most always in pain," says Mary Jaringan, her mother.

Michelle "Poochie" Bennett's life as an ordinary teen-ager left her with that bullet, disappearing on a summer night in 1983 at a West Baltimore playground. After the bullet, she was a meaningless tragedy, another damaged child carted by paramedics from the George B. Murphy Homes housing project.

She died at Mercy Medical Center on Jan. 5 of this year. An autopsy found her death to be a homicide, caused by complications from the original gunshot wound.

But the complications don't end with the medical history.

Eight years after Aaron Harper allegedly shattered a young life, Maryland's criminal code prevents prosecutors from charging him with the death of Michelle Bennett. Because she did not succumb within a year and a day of the assault, her death cannot be tried as a murder.

Maryland's "year and a day" law exists to ensure that criminal defendants are charged only in deaths that result directly from an assault, rather than from prolonged medical problems. For any victim who dies after more than 366 days, police and prosecutors must be content with assault charges.

But in this case, that didn't happen. Although police immediately identified the man alleged to have shot Michelle, they never arrested him because of administrative mishaps. Instead, Aaron Harper remained free to deal drugs and shoot people in and around the Murphy Homes.

Time and paperwork conspire to bury most of the justice system's mistakes, but years after anyone in authority had ceased to think about that summer night on the playground, a report on Michelle Bennett's autopsy arrived in the Baltimore police department's homicide unit.

"To think that this girl suffered like that for eight years," says Det. Sgt. Roger Nolan, who reviewed the old case and found the lost warrant at District Court. "She went through all that she did for the rest of her life, and all the while this guy was out on the street like nothing happened."

Detectives immediately arranged to have Aaron Wayne Harper, now 28 years old, arrested.

But justice, so long delayed, may still be denied. Prosecutors say they will review the case to see whether an indictment for attempted murder can be brought against Aaron Harper. The legal uncertainty is understandable -- the key witness is dead; others must be tracked down -- but they offer little solace to the people who were there for years, watching Michelle die slowly.

"All this while we thought he was locked up," Mrs. Jaringan says. "People would ask my daughter what happened to the man who did this to you, and she would say, 'He's in jail for it.' I believe she died thinking that."

'It hurt her'

Mary Jaringan heard the gunshots outside her low-rise apartment, but she paid them no mind: Live in the Murphy Homes long enough and you get that way. Drug dealers might be shooting each other to pieces, but she believed 16-year-old Michelle was upstairs, putting her infant son, Vernard, into bed.

"My neighbor started banging on the wall, but I didn't know why," she remembers. "Then her friends came running up to my door saying, 'Poochie's been shot.' "

She ran down to the benches outside the high-rise at 725 George St., where her daughter was on the ground, bleeding and crying. The paramedics arrived, then carefully lifted the young girl and raced her to the shock-trauma center at University Hospital.

"She kept saying she couldn't feel her legs," recalls Mrs. Jaringan, a mother of six who works as a Baltimore school crossing guard. "We didn't believe her at first. We thought she was just frightened."

The bullet had lodged in Michelle's spine. She was paralyzed from the chest down.

Before the shooting, Michelle Bennett had talked about a future with her young son and his father, about attending Douglass High School in the fall, about going to work as a hairdresser after high school. She was always a beautiful child, rail thin, with big, dark eyes and a fashion model's cheekbones.

Before the shooting, it was her dream to have her son grow up in a world apart from the Murphy Homes, where she had lived her whole life. "She was a smart girl, and strong-willed," says Debbie Harris, a patient representative at Mercy Medical Center who befriended Michelle during her long stay there. "I believe that if this hadn't happened to her, she could have succeeded in raising herself up."

After the shooting, she was consumed by depression and anger.

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