Vernon Holmeses keep us all up nights

January 11, 1998|By MICHAEL LESKER

On the morning after Nathaniel Hurt slept in his own bed for the first time in 14 months, and everyone felt wonderful because this nice man was home from prison after inadvertently killing 13-year-old Vernon Holmes, you could visit the ground floor of the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse, juvenile section, and see how the various conditions that sent Hurt to his gun more than three years ago are unchanged.

For here was an entire wing of Vernon Holmes types, kids in trouble, boys and girls, many of them teen-agers but plenty of them younger, all of them desperate for parental help, and they filled up a big waiting room, and more of them spilled into a dank corridor where they filled every bench, and beyond that, up a small staircase, there was the juvenile holding cell.

There were about 30 boys in there. The girls have their own cell. In the boys' cell, they wore leg irons and sullen expressions to mask any anxieties they felt. A guard said there had been a tough 9-year old the day before, and a 10-year old, not so tough.

And there was another kid, maybe 5 feet tall, who looked as though he'd been here before.

"How old are you?" he was asked.

"Eleven."

"What's the charge?" a courthouse official was asked.

"First-degree rape."

"It wasn't that," said the 11-year old. "She's my girlfriend. She said it was OK."

The "girlfriend" is 15. The 11-year-old and a buddy, who is 13, were allegedly taking turns with her. At 11, this kid is already articulate in the ways of legal defense.

And you could look at these kids in the holding cell, and the ones down below in the hallway and the waiting room, and each is a Vernon Holmes waiting to happen. Holmes was running the street without supervision; so are most of these kids. Holmes had been shuttled between foster homes; so are many of these '' kids. Holmes had his problems in school; so do many of these kids.

It was October 1994 when Nathaniel Hurt, driven to rage by countless nights of kids harassing him for no reason, finally went to the gun. Vernon Holmes, 13, running away, couldn't outrace a bullet intended only to frighten him.

The killing angered not only those who pitied young Holmes, but many who defended the elderly Hurt because they identified with him. They've got kids in their own neighborhoods who are no different, who lack adult guidance and have learned the apparently infinite patience of the juvenile justice system.

Some of these kids sat in the Mitchell Courthouse last week, the morning after Hurt's prison sentence was commuted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Among the conditions of that parole: Hurt has to sell his house, or rent it, and move.

But where? This city has neighborhoods full of Vernon Holmes types, and this courthouse corridor showed some of the evidence.

"What are you here for?" a big 16-year old named Shawn was asked.

"Nothing," he said sullenly, sprawled on a bench between his girlfriend and his grandmother.

"Nothing?"

"Just a court date."

"For what?"

"Nothing.

"Nothing?"

"Violation of probation."

"Probation for what?"

"My last offense."

"Which was?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Assault."

He glanced toward his grandmother. A lot of kids had their grandmothers with them, the actual parents having long since ++ ducked behind a veil of drugs, having abdicated all actual responsibility. One of these grandmothers sat with a young boy and girl. She sought full-time custody of them, she said, because their mother, strung out, had now disappeared.

"When did she last see the kids?"

The grandmother gestured to her grandson. He is 9. She said the boy's mother appeared at her house some months ago and went to the boy's bedroom.

"Took his VCR," she said, "and haven't seen her since."

The boy curled his body in close to his grandmother. Several feet away, a juvenile case worker called the name of a defendant. Her voiced echoed down the corridor. No response. She called another name, and a third. No response.

Another woman pointed to a 13-year-old boy and wondered when his case would be called.

"What's the charge?"

"Probation," she said. "Last time was assault, which he did, see? But this time, I think he was just running with a pack of bad boys."

"What did they do?"

"Well," she said slowly, "something got set on fire. I think it was a picture hanging in a hallway of some building."

"He set the fire?"

"I don't think so. I think it was just this bad bunch of boys," she said. She gestured toward the boy. "But, see, I think he produced the matches."

So it went across the morning: grandmothers showing up for children whose parents are otherwise occupied; or those kids shuttled from one foster home to another; and those kids who have now figured out the system, who know that it's gotten too crowded to come down hard on any but the meanest cases and the hardest kids.

Which brings us back to Nathaniel Hurt, who finally slept in his own bed last week. Perhaps he slept peacefully. But there were scores of kids in the Mitchell Courthouse on the morning after he returned, as there are every day, and each one is a potential Vernon Holmes, and thus entire neighborhoods go through their nights with eyes wide open.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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