Nathaniel Hurt's 1994 case resonates in death of teen

Baltimore man who shot a 13-year-old boy spent 14 months in prison

July 13, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Just as he does every warm summer day, Nathaniel Hurt tended the snowball stand behind his tidy rowhouse on East North Avenue yesterday and tried not to dwell on the events there eight years ago that made him synonymous with vigilante justice in Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods.

Defense attorneys say Hurt's case will be the template in the unfolding story of a West Baltimore handyman charged with shooting a teen-ager trying to steal a bicycle from his yard.

Hurt shakes his head at the cycle of city violence that he says will be repeated.

"It's sad. I don't think that man meant to hurt nobody," Hurt, 69, said of the handyman, Edward Day, as he filled plastic foam cups with crushed ice and sweet syrup for kids holding up rumpled dollar bills. "He don't belong in jail."

Hurt, a retired steel worker, went to prison for 14 months for the shooting death in October 1994 of a 13-year-old. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and a handgun offense after Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. was killed by a bullet that Hurt fired to scare away young people vandalizing his car.

At his trial in 1995, Hurt testified that he never meant to hurt anyone. His case became something of a referendum on how far residents can go in defending themselves and their property in the city's most lawless neighborhoods, and it left many watchers unsure about where to place their sympathies.

Experienced trial attorneys said yesterday that the scenario is likely to be repeated in the case of Day, 54, known as "Mr. Fix-it" in his Harlem Park neighborhood and now charged with the shooting death of 15-year-old David Stewart.

"What you're really coming and doing is asking a jury to in effect nullify the charge ... to try to get the jury's mind around the notion of all the troubles and hardships that come with living in an urban environment," said A. Dwight Pettit, a long-time criminal defense attorney in Baltimore. "I realize the tragedy. None of this mitigates the loss of life to the teen-ager. But here's a person, in his house and on his own property, who people obviously think highly of, and he's put - if not in a direct threatening position - a position of some apprehension."

Maryland law allows for the use of deadly force if an individual has a reasonable belief that he is in imminent danger and uses no more force than would be considered reasonably necessary.

Baltimore attorney David B. Irwin said it is a difficult argument, however, in the case of someone who is simply protecting belongings.

"It's very difficult under Maryland law now to say that because someone was on your property and trying to steal your stuff, that you can use deadly force," Irwin said.

That was what the jury in Hurt's case found in 1995, handing down a guilty verdict moments after Hurt turned down a plea agreement with state prosecutors that would have spared him a prison term. Jurors said they sympathized with Hurt, but that did not change the fact that a boy had been killed.

Hurt's attorney, Stephen L. Miles, had tried to argue that Hurt suffered from "urban fear syndrome" from the beleaguered conditions of his East Baltimore neighborhood. A judge sharply limited that defense, noting that it had no scientific validity.

But attorney Warren A. Brown, who is representing Day, said that underlying theme could be part of a valid defense.

"Look at it realistically, OK?" Brown said. "It's maybe not fair, but it's reality - you've got an inner-city kid, which is synonymous with trouble, and you've got an older black man who was minding his own business. There's going to be a certain amount of sympathy for that."

That has proved true in other cases. Two decades ago, in a case that drew national attention, a Baltimore County jury acquitted 68-year-old Roman George Welzant in the shooting death of an 18-year-old boy and the wounding of another teen-ager after the boys threw snowballs at his Eastwood home.

More recently in Baltimore, many residents sided with Albert Sims, 78, who shot a 15-year-old boy in July 1998 after Sims' Cadillac was hit with a brick in the 1600 block of Llewelyn Ave. Sims, the only resident in a block of vacant houses, was eventually found not competent to stand trial.

Last year, a Baltimore County grand jury declined to indict brothers Dominic "Tony" Geckle and Matthew Geckle, who killed an unarmed man and injured two others who had broken into the Geckles' concrete plant in Glyndon. The grand jury found that the brothers were protected from prosecution under state self-defense laws.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening commuted Hurt's five-year sentence, allowing him to leave prison in January 1998 after serving 14 months. Glendening called the case a "tragic, difficult circumstance for everyone."

Hurt was ordered to move out of his East North Avenue rowhouse where the shooting happened, but he eventually returned to living there after his supervision by parole officials ended last year.

At his snowball stand, within several feet of where Hurt fatally shot the teen-ager, the elderly man's daughter said the real problem lies with parents who fail to discipline and supervise their own children. The result is teens left roaming the streets with little to do and little sense of right and wrong.

"People fail their own kids," said Sharon Hurt, 45. "What my father did wasn't right. But when is it going to stop? When are people going to start being responsible for their own kids."

Hurt predicted no time soon.

"It's going to happen again," he said. "And again and again."

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