Nathaniel Hurt, accused of killing a 13-year-old East Baltimore boy, took the witness stand in his own defense yesterday to insist that his fear of an approaching mob led him to fire a string of warning shots the night Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. was slain.
"I thought I was shooting up in the air," Mr. Hurt told a Baltimore Circuit jury during his more than two hours on the stand.
At one point, Prosecutor Mark Cohen challenged the 62-year-old defendant, accusing him of blatant disregard for the safety of his neighborhood. "You didn't have any concern with what happened with those bullets you fired?"
"Nope," replied Mr. Hurt. "Because I had no intention of shooting anybody, and I didn't know I hit anybody."
Mr. Hurt's testimony came on the fifth day of his trial in Baltimore Circuit Court. He is charged with first-degree murder.
After Mr. Hurt left the stand, Judge Ellen M. Heller ruled that the defense could not present its planned defense that Mr. Hurt was a victim of "urban fear syndrome." The judge said the notion that a heightened fear of crime would shape the behavior of black, elderly city dwellers is not a scientifically recognized condition.
The judge said the defense witness, George Washington University urban sociologist William Chambliss, would be allowed to relay studies showing a greater fear of crime among inner-city residents. Dr. Chambliss is expected to testify when .. the trial resumes today.
RTC While questioned by his lawyer, Stephen L. Miles, Mr. Hurt was plainly soft-spoken. A few times, he removed his glasses and brushed aside tears before answering questions. At times, he shook his head and dropped his voice to a quiet rumble when he described his thoughts after the Oct. 10 shooting.
"I said, 'Oh Lord, I fired this gun,' " Mr. Hurt recalled. He then said he spent an hour lying on his bed thinking, ignoring the ringing of his telephone and oblivious to the police SWAT teams that had surrounded his house.
The defense continued yesterday to portray Mr. Hurt as a nice man who gave snowballs and food from his summer barbecues to the neighborhood children, only to be threatened and cursed in return. Men who had worked with him at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, along with neighborhood residents, testified yesterday that he was an honest man.
His demeanor changed when questioned by the prosecutor.
Twice yesterday, when Mr. Cohen asked him about the circumstances surrounding his arrest, Mr. Hurt said he had never been in trouble before. Those remarks led the prosecutor to ask for a bench conference -- apparently to ask Judge Ellen M. Heller for permission to ask Mr. Hurt about his 1980 assault conviction. However, Mr. Cohen asked no such questions when his cross-examination resumed, and the jury did not learn of the conviction.
The defendant was at times combative while being questioned by Mr. Cohen. By the end of the cross-examination Mr. Hurt was jabbing his finger toward Mr. Cohen for emphasis as he denied intending to shoot anyone.
At another point, Mr. Cohen asked the defendant why he had been reluctant to surrender to police. Mr. Hurt -- and one of the jurors, a young black man -- laughed.
"You don't live in the city, do you?" Mr. Hurt said to the prosecutor. "They might have shot me down and then swear there was a weapon in my hand."
Contradicting previous prosecution testimony, Mr. Hurt denied beating an 11-year-old neighborhood boy immediately before the shooting. Mr. Hurt said he only shook the boy, and he said he became fearful when he saw that a young man who confronted him about the incident with the boy had a gun.
"I said to myself, 'Oh Lord, what the hell did I get myself into now,?' " he testified.
Mr. Hurt said he concocted a ruse to return to his house.
Once there, he grabbed his .357-caliber Magnum from under a pile of scatter rugs and fired four shots from the fire escape of his East Baltimore home. He said he saw three groups of people marching toward his home.
Alluding to an earlier description of weeks of threats and profane torment at the hands of the Holmes boy and other neighborhood children, Mr. Hurt said: "They'd already threatened me, that they was going to get me, and I thought this was the time."
Mr. Hurt said he is right-handed, but he fired with his left hand because that was the hand he used to grab his weapon. He said he aimed at a wall, above the people in the alley.
"I was trying to fire over their head to get them out of the area," he said.