The Hurt Verdict

April 16, 1995

The jury that found Nathaniel Hurt guilty of involuntary manslaughter and a weapons violation in October's fatal shooting of a teen-ager whom Hurt said had vandalized his car made a difficult judgment that combined compassion with the requirements of justice.

The jury threw out a more serious charge of first-degree murder. But the charge of using a handgun in a crime of violence carries a minimum, mandatory five-year sentence without possibility of parole. Unless his conviction is overturned on appeal, Hurt will spend the entire time behind bars.

Hurt, 62, presented a sympathetic figure to both the jury and the public. He seemed to epitomize the predicament of ordinary, decent people who struggle to lead normal lives despite the crime and violence that surround them on all sides.

He testified a group of youths had tormented him for weeks with threats and had vandalized his property. The defendant described the shooting of 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. as self-defense. But the facts showed the boy was shot in the back as he was running away from Hurt's house.

Hurt may well have feared for his life at some point during that fateful evening. But at the moment he pulled the trigger, he was acting not to repel imminent danger but as a vigilante. The verdict reflected the fact that however fearful and frustrated Hurt may have felt, there was no justification for his taking the law into his own hands.

Some have pointed out the irony that right up until the end, Hurt could have avoided prison had he agreed to a plea bargain. The prosecution offered a suspended sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to the involuntary manslaughter charge.

But would such a resolution truly have served justice? One can empathize with the person who in a moment of weakness commits a crime of passion. But society can never condone shooting innocent people simply because they vex us.

That is the reason behind mandatory minimum sentences for crimes of violence that involve the use of handguns. In a nation awash in firearms-related homicide, citizens who lawfully possess guns must nevertheless be held strictly accountable for how they use them. It's sad that it cost the destruction of one life and the possible ruin of another to drive home that painful lesson.

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