The governor's discretion Commuted sentence: Hurt case shows drawbacks of tying judges' hands.

December 27, 1997

PLENTY OF people can understand the frustration of Nathaniel Hurt, who in October 1994 had endured weeks of harassment by unruly young people in his East Baltimore neighborhood. But in this case the frustration led to tragedy when Mr. Hurt fired a handgun and fatally wounded a 13-year-old boy who lived in a foster home nearby.

Nathaniel Hurt refused a plea bargain -- and ended up with a five-year prison sentence. Because the crime involved a handgun, a 1972 Maryland law allowed the judge no discretion in sentencing, despite circumstances that might have justified a more lenient term.

But Governor Parris N. Glendening still has the power to commute sentences, and he announced this week that on Jan. 6, he will sign a commutation order for Mr. Hurt, releasing him from prison after serving 14 months.

Ironically, the five-year sentence imposed on Mr. Hurt was for the unlawful use of a handgun, not for firing the shot that killed Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. For that, Mr. Hurt was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, a crime that drew only a three-year sentence to run concurrently with the longer handgun penalty.

Society has good reasons for punishing handgun use, especially in the commission of a crime. But this case shows why legislators should be careful about tying the hands of judges with mandatory sentences. Except for a fatal act of fear and anger, Nathaniel Hurt was the kind of citizen and neighbor cities need.

Nothing can bring back Vernon Holmes Jr., but Mr. Hurt has paid for his crime. Governor Glendening is right to commute his sentence.

Pub Date: 12/27/97

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