Reflections on a broken windshield in a shattered city

October 26, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

It wasn't your everyday murder. A 61-year-old man, later described as a solid citizen, fires four rounds from his .357 Magnum into a crowd of kids who have committed the great crime of breaking the windshield of his '83 Chevy.

Vernon Holmes, a 13-year-old, takes a bullet in the back and dies.

What makes the story unusual -- we live in a time where the violent death of a 13-year-old approaches the commonplace -- is that the shooter, Nathaniel Hurt, attracts so much sympathy. His East Baltimore neighbors are so sympathetic that they helped bail him out.

He may not have been right, the neighbors say, but given the circumstances, it's completely reasonable that a man can snap.

I was having trouble grasping this concept until a friend made this semi-profound observation.

"If what he did isn't understandable," my friend said, "then why I do find myself understanding him, at least a little?"

Here's where we are: A man kills a kid for breaking a windshield with a rock; many people understand, at least a little.

How did we get to this point?

Statistics tell part of the story. We are at war with kids, or, more to the point, they're at war with us. From 1988 to 1992, violent crime by juveniles grew by a mind-numbing 68 percent. In Baltimore, and in Baltimore County as well, kids (those under 18) commit about 25 percent of all serious crimes.

And, these days, a 13-year-old isn't always a 13-year-old. He can also be someone with a gun. A 13-year-old with a gun is not someone you can take by the collar and bring home to his mother. He is someone who may kill you.

We all hear the stories of gangs and of drugs and of guns and of streets of danger. We all hear scary stories of scary kids out of control. Wasn't Hurt's frustration everyone's frustration?

The problem with this story is that, as with much in life, it's not the neat fit we'd prefer. It would have been better if Hurt had been menaced or if he'd been afraid to leave his apartment.

Hurt was not afraid. He was angry. According to his lawyer, he had been feuding with these kids for a few years. Hurt says they'd routinely tip over his trash can or ring his doorbell and run.

According to the story the police tell, the feud escalated when one of the kids claimed Hurt owed him money for work he'd done. Four kids threw two buckets onto Hurt's fire escape. Hurt gave chase, but the kids got away.

An hour later, Hurt found one, age 11, and punched him. Six kids, all 11 to 13, came back to avenge their friend and began throwing rocks and bottles at the car. Hurt, standing on his fire escape, killed young Vernon. The cops say he didn't fire a warning shot, but fired directly at young people scrambling for their lives.

Later, Hurt would dispute that notion, saying he didn't mean to hurt anyone. Maybe he didn't.

Or maybe he was angry enough to kill.

People wonder why he didn't call the police. According to the cops, he hadn't called at all. That's the classic middle-class question. It isn't one that many people in Hurt's neighborhood asked.

In parts of the city, you tend not to call the police, who are not necessarily your friends. Besides, rock-throwing isn't a high priority in a city that has a murder nearly every day. These are neighborhoods where nothing much seems to work. The police don't work. The courts don't work. Laws don't work.

Shooting a kid doesn't work either. But, you have to admit, it is taking a stand.

And this stand seems to resonate with some people, in much the same way that Bernard Goetz's violent stand against muggers in a New York subway resonated.

To many, it doesn't matter that Hurt was apparently more annoyed than menaced by these kids. What matters is the prism through which they choose to look at the story.

Vernon did not look menacing. He was a short, skinny kid who had never been in serious trouble. In fact, life may have been more violent to him than maybe the other way around. At the time of his death, he was living in a foster home, with as many as eight other kids.

What's obvious is that Vernon didn't deserve to die. The killing can't be justified. It's all out of proportion -- a life for a windshield. A grown man should know better.

And yet, many understand, at least a little. What could be sadder?

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