City man who shot, killed 13-year-old to be freed Governor commutes five-year sentence in controversial case

December 24, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron and Brenda J. Buote | Thomas W. Waldron and Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will commute the five-year prison term of Nathaniel Hurt, the East Baltimore man who fatally shot a teen-ager out of frustration in 1994 after weeks of harassment by unruly youths, the governor's office announced yesterday.

Glendening said he will sign the commutation order Jan. 6, meaning that Hurt, who has been in prison for 14 months, will remain incarcerated until then.

Aides said the governor was announcing his decision now because, under the Maryland Constitution, he must publicize a pending commutation before taking action.

The Hurt case generated national publicity as the longtime Bethlehem Steel employee became a symbol of city dwellers frustrated by crime and out-of-control youths.

"I believe Mr. Hurt has paid greatly for this very unfortunate and sad event, and I believe he is truly sorry for what happened," Glendening said in a statement.

"While I fully support the strict laws designed to reduce handgun violence, I also believe that any good policy must be tempered with compassion in order to have true justice."

Hurt, now 65, fired a handgun from his North Avenue rowhouse at a group of youths on the night of Oct. 10, 1994, killing 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr., who was in foster care in a nearby home.

Hurt was convicted in 1995 of involuntary manslaughter and a handgun offense, and a judge imposed a mandatory five-year term for the firearm violation.

Vernon's family reacted angrily yesterday to news of Hurt's pending release.

"I don't think nothing good can come of this," Vernon's paternal grandfather, Govan Holmes Sr. of Edgemere in Baltimore County, said of Hurt's commutation.

"He did the crime, he should serve the time.

"I'm an older man than he is," said Holmes, who is 70. "If I killed a man, I'm sure I'd serve more than a year."

Holmes said that he and his son -- Vernon's father, Vernon Lee Holmes Sr. -- are considering filing a civil suit against Hurt.

During his trial, Hurt testified that he fired the shot that killed Vernon in frustration, after being harassed by a group of boys for weeks.

Sympathy for Hurt grew when it was reported that as the jury was deliberating during his 1995 trial, Hurt turned down a plea-bargain offer that would have meant no prison time.

After Hurt's conviction, the judge was required to impose the five-year term. Hurt lost his appeal and began serving his term in October 1996.

Glendening, who for the past two years declined to issue any of the traditional "Christmas commutations," said he decided to act in the Hurt case after receiving hundreds of letters and calls from people saying Hurt's five-year sentence was too harsh.

The governor said he reviewed the petition for commutation submitted by Hurt's lawyers, the case files and letters on his behalf.

"The case is truly a tragedy for all concerned," the governor said.

Hurt is serving his sentence at the Maryland Division of Correction's minimum-security facility in Sykesville.

As part of the commutation order being drafted for Glendening to sign, Hurt may not own or possess any firearms or other "dangerous weapons."

A prison spokesman said last night that Hurt declined to be interviewed.

Stephen L. Miles, Hurt's lawyer, said he went to the Carroll County prison Monday to tell Hurt about the commutation after receiving word from the governor's office.

"I'm the happiest guy in the world that he's getting out," Miles said. "He's not the kind of guy that belongs in jail."

Miles said he hopes to take Hurt out for a modest celebration once the commutation is official next month and Hurt is released.

"He would just like to go get a quiet glass of wine," Miles said. "He's a very reserved man."

Hurt's son, Leroy Nathaniel Hurt, issued a statement through the governor's office calling his father a "loving and caring individual."

"There are two victims in this case: Vernon Holmes and my father," Leroy Hurt said.

But Vernon's grandfather said he takes exception to such comments, contending that the only true victim, his grandson, has been forgotten -- abandoned first by his mother, Avis Cross, who placed him in foster care, and then by a legal system that will allow his killer to go free.

"He wasn't a bad boy," Holmes said. "He was just looking for someone to love him."

As word of Hurt's pardon spread in his East Baltimore-Midway neighborhood, which overlooks Green Mount Cemetery, residents along North Avenue said they were happy that the man they affectionately call "Peanut" is coming home.

"It's the greatest Christmas present I could have asked for," said Peggy Washington, 50, who has known Hurt since he moved to the neighborhood about eight years ago.

"Peanut is a generous man. There was many a day he'd be out there at 6 a.m., cleaning off the sidewalk and our stoop," said Washington, whose youngest daughter has visited Hurt in prison several times.

"The kids in the neighborhood liked him, too. He was always giving snowballs to the children."

Hurt operated a snowball stand behind his house, and Vernon occasionally helped out to earn pocket change.

Although the residents of the 800 block of E. North Ave. are a close-knit group, Washington and others said they live in constant fear of drug dealers.

"The night Peanut fired that gun, he didn't mean to hurt anyone," Washington said. "He was just frightened. He didn't know if the ** kids who were messing with his car were on drugs or carrying weapons."

In Hurt's absence, friends have maintained his three-story rowhouse, at the corner of North and Homewood avenues.

No one answered the door there yesterday.

A note hangs on the front stoop, asking visitors to drop packages at the community association housed next door.

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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