Young witness' veracity is key issue in Hurt trial

April 06, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

CLARIFICATION

Nathaniel Hurt, on trial in the slaying of a 13-year-old boy, was convicted in 1980 of assault and received a one-year suspended sentence with one year of supervised probation, according to court records. Articles in The Sun on Saturday and yesterday incorrectly stated that he had no criminal record.

The Sun regrets the error.

Nathaniel Hurt's trial on murder charges centered yesterday on whether a troubled youth could make a good witness, and the likelihood of an inexperienced shooter hitting a moving target.

Mr. Hurt's attorney, Stephen L. Miles, attempted to discredit the testimony of the victim's foster brother. Mr. Hurt is accused of fatally shooting 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. from the fire escape of an East Baltimore rowhouse on Oct. 10.

Mr. Miles has portrayed Mr. Hurt, who is 62 and has no criminal record, as a good neighbor pushed to the brink by the repeated vandalism and harassment of a pack of local youths. Prosecutors contend that instead of calling police, Mr. Hurt, safe on the second-floor balcony, fired a .357-caliber Magnum revolver into a crowd of fleeing boys.

Over the strenuous objections of Assistant State's Attorney Mark Cohen, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller allowed limited testimony from a teacher and an assistant principal who knew the foster brother, Robert England, as a student at Hamilton Middle School in late 1993.

Both said the teen-ager had a reputation for being "untruthful."

Out of the jury's presence, they told the court much more -- that he had been seen beating a child in the school parking lot, that he had stalked a teacher who witnessed the assault and threatened to kill her. Assistant Principal Jocelyn Kavanagh also said England had lied to her several times about going to class.

England, now 17, testified last week that he saw Mr. Hurt, angrover vandalism by a group of teen-age boys, beat an 11-year-old hours before the shooting. He said he saw a group of boys, including Vernon, throwing bricks and bottles at Mr. Hurt's car. Then Mr. Hurt came outside with the gun, he said, and Vernon dropped in an alley.

The 11-year-old himself later took the stand to describe the beating, and other prosecution witnesses supported much of Mr. England's testimony.

Mr. Cohen protested that the youth's experiences in school had nothing to do with the murder.

"These are not honor kids," he said. "The state never said they were good kids."

Mr. Miles also continued to pursue his theory that someone else could have fired the bullet that killed Vernon and that police either missed or concealed evidence.

Steven Silverman, a private detective and National Rifle Association firearms instructor, described the results of a test in which eight people with varying levels of experience with guns fired four shots -- the same number Mr. Hurt fired that day -- at two targets from a scaffold the height of Mr. Hurt's second floor.

One target was about 70 feet away, the closest point Mr. Miles says Vernon could have been hit and still fallen in a nearby alley. The other was about 100 feet away -- the farthest point from Mr. Hurt where Mr. Miles estimates the boy could have been shot.

None of the eight people, including two experienced marksmen, could hit either target, Mr. Silverman testified, suggesting that Mr. Hurt could have intended his shots as warnings.

Mr. Miles paid Mr. Silverman to do the test and to serve as his investigator on Mr. Hurt's case.

Mr. Cohen questioned Mr. Silverman's qualifications to make judgments about bullet holes and firing distances, forcing him to admit under cross-examination that the conditions of the test were quite different from the conditions on the 800 block of East North Avenue the day Vernon died.

"This is a case where the defendant is on his fire escape shooting down at a group of people," Mr. Cohen said.

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