Trial under way for man charged in teen's death

March 31, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Nathaniel Hurt went to trial yesterday on a murder charge, hoping to be judged a decent man who was justified in firing his .357-caliber Magnum to fend off a group of persistent young vandals -- killing a boy who was 13.

As his trial began in Baltimore Circuit Court, prosecutors and their first witnesses cast the 62-year-old East Baltimore defendant as a bully. A husky 11-year-old boy, for example, said Mr. Hurt chased him down on the street and beat him up.

But Mr. Hurt's lawyer told jurors the youngsters who smashed Mr. Hurt's 1983 Chevrolet with bricks and bottles before the shooting were "little thugs." Defense attorney Stephen L. Miles then told jurors: "You are going to like Mr. Hurt. He's a decent, honest, law-abiding citizen."

Mr. Miles said his defense will include a sociologist's presentation on "urban fear syndrome" -- a condition that he suggested explained Mr. Hurt's acts. He said the boys' months of threats and harassment left Mr. Hurt feeling besieged -- and, by Oct. 10, prompted him to fire warning shots from the fire escape of his home in the 800 block of E. North Ave.

Prosecutors say one of those shots struck and killed 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. The real issue, prosecutor Mark Cohen argued, is that Mr. Hurt was in no danger when he got his gun and fired from the sanctuary of a second-story fire escape. He said Mr. Hurt simply took the law into his own hands.

"You can call them kids, or you can call them thugs. You can call them what you want," Mr. Cohen told the jury in his opening statement. "All he had to do was go in his house and make a 911 call."

Mr. Hurt, retired from the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant at Sparrows Point, is charged with first-degree murder. As the trial was about to begin yesterday, he asked for a recess, apparently to mull an offer in which the murder count would be dropped in exchange for his guilty plea to manslaughter. He then could have hoped for a merciful sentence from Judge Ellen M. Heller.

He decided to go to trial.

Perhaps the biggest gamble for Mr. Hurt is that if he is found guilty of murder or manslaughter at trial, he also could be convicted of using a handgun in a crime of violence -- an offense that carries a minimum of five years in prison with no parole.

Wearing a white shirt, open at the collar, and black slacks, Mr. Hurt appeared tense through much of the court session. He occasionally removed his glasses and rubbed his hands across his face. His son and two daughters were in court.

The first day's prosecution witnesses included 17-year-old Robert England, who was the slain boy's foster brother. He said he saw Mr. Hurt beat 11-year-old Kenyon Cypress, and then he saw Vernon and some other boys throwing bricks and bottles at the man's car.

"The man came out onto his porch, and I said, 'He's got a gun,' because I saw something in his hand," young England said. He testified that Vernon said, "I'm not scared of him or his gun."

As the boys fled, shots were fired and Vernon dropped in an alley.

Evelyn Boston, who lives nearby, said she came out of her house and saw Mr. Hurt "peeping" into the alley.

Mr. Miles demanded to know why Ms. Boston did not relay such an important detail to police who interviewed her in October.

Mr. Miles is best known for his television advertisements promoting his personal injury practice. He said this is his first murder case in a decade, and that he took the job because he is friendly with the Hurt family.

Yesterday, he was aggressive throughout his cross-examinations, and he took every chance to impress upon the jury that Mr. Hurt lives in a high-crime area. Over Mr. Cohen's objection, he asked the officer who first arrived at the shooting scene whether he knew that some 11,000 crimes had been reported in the city's Eastern District last year. The officer didn't know, but the point seemingly was made.

When young Kenyon, the 11-year-old, took the stand to quietly say Mr. Hurt beat him, Mr. Miles focused on the boys' habit of spitting on motorists, stoning buses and other misdeeds. When the boy acknowledged that he and his friends have vandalized Mr. Hurt's property since the shooting, Mr. Miles quietly laughed and asked, "That didn't even scare you off?"

Leaving court, Mr. Hurt, who is free on $200,000 bond, appeared more relaxed. Asked by reporters how he was holding up, he smiled and said, "So far, so good, but I can't comment right now. My attorney will kill me."

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