Hurt case shows our kids scare us

December 25, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the spirit of the season, Gov. Parris N. Glendening will commute the prison sentence of Nathaniel Hurt, a merciful gesture that will please those who figured Hurt got a raw deal but will do nothing at all for 13-year-old Vernon Holmes, lying cold and mostly forgotten in his grave.

The governor operates from motives both pure and political, but his gesture gets us not an inch closer to the real problem, which cannot be brushed away even in this hour of peace on earth: We are frightened of our own children.

Vernon Holmes ran with a pack of kids who taunted the 65-year-old Hurt for weeks before Hurt ran out of patience, and he stood on his porch on the night of Oct. 10, 1994, and pulled the trigger of his .357-caliber Magnum. He intended to fire a warning shot over everyone's head and failed. A bullet struck Holmes and killed him, and when Hurt went to prison he said he was sorry, but he was adamant about this gang of terrorists.

He was right - and yet, everyone should have seen these terrorists in court. They're the ones who infuriated Hurt night after night, tossing rocks at his car, tossing trash into his yard. They're the kind of kids who worry neighborhoods across the whole city.

There was the chubby 11-year-old named Kenyon, who was not quite 5 feet tall; and the 12-year-old named Arthur, who was still in the fourth grade; and there was the 9-year-old named Domenic, who was sucking his thumb in a courthouse hallway moments before they brought him in to testify.

Then there was another kid, grunting his answers sullenly. As he took the witness stand, he was asked if he remembered giving a statement to city police. He did. Would he now read a printed copy of that statement to the jury?

"No," said the boy.

"Can you read and write?" an attorney asked.

"No," said the boy.

"No?"

"A little bit," said the boy.

"Can you read letters?"

"Yes," said the boy.

He was shown three letters on a page: C-U-T. He read the letters aloud, one by one.

"And what do these letters spell?"

"I don't know," said the boy.

In the public schools of Baltimore, he had somehow been promoted to the sixth grade. He was 11 years old. He was one of the procession of kids marched into the Hurt trial, kids produced routinely in this city, kids moved from one foster home to another because their families have come undone, and the kids lack not only moral guidance but also tenderness. And in this void there comes a stripping away of simple civility.

Vernon Holmes was living in a foster home when his life ended. And they brought out the woman in whose home he had been living. The woman's name was Lewis. At the time of the troubles, she had eight foster kids living in her house on East 20th Street, each one bringing in a little state subsidy.

Over the years, Lewis testified, she'd had maybe 50 of these kids. Now, on the night of the shooting, she saw a crowd gathering in a nearby alley. They were gathered around Vernon Holmes, her foster child.

"I saw Vernon laying on the ground," she said. Her words hung in the courtroom air for a moment and then went away. Lewis shrugged her shoulders. There was nothing more she cared to say.

This was the world of Vernon Holmes, who ran with this bunch of kids who taunted Nathaniel Hurt night after night, until Hurt lost control. Nobody in charge of their lives ever told them to stop, because no one ever took charge of their lives.

Does this justify the shooting? Of course not. Hurt could have called police, could have called 911, could have sought out Holmes' foster mother and, through her, perhaps found a social worker assigned to his case. The system's a mess, and sometimes it takes forever, but it's all we've got, and it beats sending some 13-year-old to his death.

But it's a measure of an entire community's frustration and fear when a guy like Hurt, a big, strong man, a man who contributed much to his neighborhood, finds himself so enraged that he finally goes for the gun.

When the Hurt case came to trial in April 1995, it was remarkable how many people sided with him. He'd killed a 13-year-old child, but they identified with Hurt. Not with the man who killed but with the man who cringed, who was infuriated by children out of control.

Today, on a day we give presents to children, the elderly Nathaniel Hurt gets his gift, after 14 months in prison.

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

Surely he is, and surely this does nothing for the late Vernon Holmes. But it reminds us, in this season of innocence, of the dreadful fear we have of our own children.

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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