On a quiet day on a quiet street, a terrible moment

DAN RODRICKS

April 17, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Rob Hicks will be excused for not understanding, in that first instant, why Pam Basu kept screaming -- constantly screaming -- and struggling.

Last Sept. 8 in Savage, Hicks was in the rear of his buddy's Chevy pickup, looking over the hood, from a distance of about 10 car lengths behind Basu's BMW. He could see two men, one decidedly older and taller than the other, punching, pulling and kicking a woman with dark hair.

"I didn't know what she was fighting for so hard," Hicks, an auto body repairman, said in a large and bright Howard County courtroom the other day. He admitted to thinking what any of us might have thought if suddenly, on a terribly ordinary morning on a terribly ordinary suburban street, we saw a man and a woman fighting at the side of a car. He thought it was "a family problem," a domestic battle that had spilled onto a public road.

"Not just for the car?" one of the prosecutors, Michael Rexroad, asked, and Hicks agreed. He couldn't imagine a woman screaming so hard so long and fighting so passionately for a car, even a BMW.

And he couldn't understand why, after being pushed to the pavement, the woman got up and reached back into the driver's-side window. "She was fighting back," Hicks said, "like she wanted something . . ."

Hicks, who testified for an hour to describe what he saw in less than a minute, presumedly could not see the child in the safety seat in the rear of the BMW. He made no mention of it in his otherwise detailed account of the attack on Pam Basu.

Of all the gruesome testimony that came out of the first week of the trial of Bernard Eric Miller, 17 years old and one of the two men accused of taking part in the carjacking murder of Basu, Hicks' words might have been the most stunning.

"I didn't know what she was fighting for so hard . . ."

And now he certainly must know.

Pam Basu, 34, was fighting for her child, Sarina, 22 months old at the time. Two men had commandeered the car. In the next instant,they would be gone, Sarina and all. So Pam Basu wrapped her left arm around the driver's door. Police believe it became entangled in a seat belt. The car sped up, dragging Basu, who kept screaming.

"I heard her scream till she was out of sight," Hicks said. "Worst thing I ever saw . . ."

The prosecutors have a videotape of the place where Basu's body finally landed after being dragged for more than 1 1/2 miles. They have color enlargements of crime lab photographs. They have maps and aerial photographs to show the route the BMW took. They have police and crime experts to describe the long trail of evidence along the stretch of road where the body was dragged. Yet, the testimony of eyewitnesses struck the deepest chords. And the confluence of ordinary people in a courtroom was striking.

Rob Hicks, that tragic day, was in the back of his buddy's pickup truck because the cab was filled with his buddy's kids, on their way to school. Kevin Brown was working, driving a dump truck, when he saw Basu's struggle.

Keith McLamb happened to be driving on Gorman Road when the speeding BMW ran a stop sign, a woman hanging from the driver's door. Stephanie Donnelly was walking from an elementary school when she saw the same thing.

This testimony emphasized why the Basu case stands out from thedaily grind of crime in America -- it happened where awful things usually do not happen. It constituted a violation of a safety zone suburbanites believe they inhabit. It happened in a way that challenges the most twisted imagination. And it happened to innocents -- the victim, her family and everyone who happened to see the BMW coming down the road that day. Those of us who do not live in the inner city might be thoroughly numb to reports of drug-related murders there, or we appreciate it only in some abstract, film-at-11 way. But the Basu case approaches not only the outer limits of cruelty, but also the tattered edges of our sense of civility.

The defendant in the present trial hardly has the visage to match the cruel nature of the crime with which he is charged.

Bernard Miller is the younger of two men accused of Basu's murder; he is alleged to have been the passenger in the BMW. Miller, who was 16 when Basu was killed, wears clean shirts and wool sweaters that fit tightly against a still-developing adolescent body. He is baby-faced, moon-faced. He sits impassively -- a juvenile attempt at stoicism? -- at the trial table.

When Rob Hicks and other witnesses testified about Pam Basu's struggle, when they described the blood along Gorman Road, and when one of the prosecutors took Sarina Basu's car seat, covered with the sooty film of fingerprint dust, out of a plastic bag so the jury could see it,the young Miller showed no discernible reaction, but he blinked madly, more than a blink a second.

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