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Eight years later, bullet claimed a life A woman is dead, justice is in doubt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The police account says it took Aaron Wayne Harper only seconds to point his weapon at a rival drug dealer, then compress the trigger. It took eight years for the bullet to kill Michelle Deneen Bennett.

Eight years for hospital beds and wheelchairs, for painful infections and skin-graft operations. Eight years of painful struggle for Michelle, who grew slowly weaker from the bullet left in her spine.

"She was 'most always in pain," says Mary Jaringan, her mother.

Michelle "Poochie" Bennett's life as an ordinary teen-ager left her with that bullet, disappearing on a summer night in 1983 at a West Baltimore playground. After the bullet, she was a meaningless tragedy, another damaged child carted by paramedics from the George B. Murphy Homes housing project.

She died at Mercy Medical Center on Jan. 5 of this year. An autopsy found her death to be a homicide, caused by complications from the original gunshot wound.

But the complications don't end with the medical history.

Eight years after Aaron Harper allegedly shattered a young life, Maryland's criminal code prevents prosecutors from charging him with the death of Michelle Bennett. Because she did not succumb within a year and a day of the assault, her death cannot be tried as a murder.

Maryland's "year and a day" law exists to ensure that criminal defendants are charged only in deaths that result directly from an assault, rather than from prolonged medical problems. For any victim who dies after more than 366 days, police and prosecutors must be content with assault charges.

But in this case, that didn't happen. Although police immediately identified the man alleged to have shot Michelle, they never arrested him because of administrative mishaps. Instead, Aaron Harper remained free to deal drugs and shoot people in and around the Murphy Homes.

Time and paperwork conspire to bury most of the justice system's mistakes, but years after anyone in authority had ceased to think about that summer night on the playground, a report on Michelle Bennett's autopsy arrived in the Baltimore police department's homicide unit.

"To think that this girl suffered like that for eight years," says Det. Sgt. Roger Nolan, who reviewed the old case and found the lost warrant at District Court. "She went through all that she did for the rest of her life, and all the while this guy was out on the street like nothing happened."

Detectives immediately arranged to have Aaron Wayne Harper, now 28 years old, arrested.

But justice, so long delayed, may still be denied. Prosecutors say they will review the case to see whether an indictment for attempted murder can be brought against Aaron Harper. The legal uncertainty is understandable -- the key witness is dead; others must be tracked down -- but they offer little solace to the people who were there for years, watching Michelle die slowly.

"All this while we thought he was locked up," Mrs. Jaringan says. "People would ask my daughter what happened to the man who did this to you, and she would say, 'He's in jail for it.' I believe she died thinking that."

'It hurt her'

Mary Jaringan heard the gunshots outside her low-rise apartment, but she paid them no mind: Live in the Murphy Homes long enough and you get that way. Drug dealers might be shooting each other to pieces, but she believed 16-year-old Michelle was upstairs, putting her infant son, Vernard, into bed.

"My neighbor started banging on the wall, but I didn't know why," she remembers. "Then her friends came running up to my door saying, 'Poochie's been shot.' "

She ran down to the benches outside the high-rise at 725 George St., where her daughter was on the ground, bleeding and crying. The paramedics arrived, then carefully lifted the young girl and raced her to the shock-trauma center at University Hospital.

"She kept saying she couldn't feel her legs," recalls Mrs. Jaringan, a mother of six who works as a Baltimore school crossing guard. "We didn't believe her at first. We thought she was just frightened."

The bullet had lodged in Michelle's spine. She was paralyzed from the chest down.

Before the shooting, Michelle Bennett had talked about a future with her young son and his father, about attending Douglass High School in the fall, about going to work as a hairdresser after high school. She was always a beautiful child, rail thin, with big, dark eyes and a fashion model's cheekbones.

Before the shooting, it was her dream to have her son grow up in a world apart from the Murphy Homes, where she had lived her whole life. "She was a smart girl, and strong-willed," says Debbie Harris, a patient representative at Mercy Medical Center who befriended Michelle during her long stay there. "I believe that if this hadn't happened to her, she could have succeeded in raising herself up."

After the shooting, she was consumed by depression and anger.

"She never told me much about what happened except to say she'd been shot by accident," Ms. Harris says. "She said that she was never angrier than when she was at shock-trauma. She didn't want to talk to anyone there."

After months at shock-trauma, she was transferred to the Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital. Staffers there tried to help with her rage. For a brief time, they succeeded. She talked about going back to school and getting a place of her own.

But always, a dark mood returned. Michelle would sit alone for hours, failing to move herself as paraplegics must to avoid excessive pressure on their skin. Bedsores became chronic ulcers, and repeated hospital stays became necessary.

"It was a vicious cycle," Ms. Harris says. "For a time, she would get excited about getting her life back together, but then she would suffer a medical setback and whatever she was working toward would be abandoned. She felt trapped."

'She had given up'

Michelle never came to terms with her paralysis. She would rarely talk about her condition or allow herself to be photographed. She even went through old photo albums, tearing up Polaroids that showed her in the years before the shooting.

"Some people learn to live with it,"

Mrs. Jaringan says. "But she couldn't. It hurt her not to be able to do the things she wanted. She wanted to do things with her son, be a mother to him, but she couldn't."

Even with her mother, she rarely talked about the shooting or Aaron Harper, whom she knew casually from the projects. When pressed, she would say only that the shooting was drug-related, that her assailant had been gunning for her girlfriend's boyfriend and had hit her with a stray bullet -- an account that detectives say is essentially correct.

In the hospital, her anger often flashed at doctors and nurses. One surgeon battled her for years as one skin-graft operation after another became reinfected.

"She was a strong and intelligent woman," says Dr. Tracey Nimmerrichter, a physician at Mercy. "But you just couldn't get her to care for herself. We would fight with her all the time to convince her that she could do things with her life, and there were periods when she would seem to get herself together emotionally. But it never lasted."

Michelle's friendships with the hospital staff grew only in time. When she first arrived at the hospital, she chased doctors and nurses away with blistering insults. She signed a contract in which officials promised that staff would not approach her or speak with her except to provide care.

After months of silence, the young patient relented.

"She was so angry at first," recalls Ms. Harris, who was among the first to break through the emotional walls surrounding Michelle. "But eventually, she decided to take the first step by saying a few things to people."

Gently, Ms. Harris and others prodded Michelle, encouraging her to help with hospital Christmas decorations, or throwing her a surprise bedside birthday party. At one point, she persuaded Michelle to counsel another angry young man who had been hospitalized with a gunshot wound and was threatening to discharge himself with an injured leg.

"If you get the treatment, you'll be able to walk out of here one day," Michelle told him, according to Ms. Harris. "But I'll never walk out of here. Be thankful for what you have."

At times, the young woman let herself dream again. In early 1989, in a lighthearted ceremony at her bedside, she tore up the contract that she had signed with the Mercy staff. Then she asked for paper and pens, and began sketching clothing designs, telling people she wanted to learn fashion design. She talked about going to hairdressing school. She even tried to keep a place of her own in a handicapped apartment facility on East 20th Street.

But always, the infections and ulcers returned, shattering the dreams, leaving Michelle Bennett bitter. By late 1989, her time at the 20th Street address was limited to a few days at a time.

"She tried to take her son up there," Mrs. Jaringan recalls, "but she found that she couldn't care for him and she sent him back to live here. That really hurt her. But she had such a hard time taking care of herself."

That was the deepest cut of all: "She wanted to save her son from the life she thought he would have in the projects," Dr. Nimmerrichter says. "One of the hardest things for her was realizing that she wasn't going to be able to do that."

Last year, Michelle was back at Mercy. Her once-beautiful face was gaunt; her arms and legs, little more than bone. The open wounds on her buttocks and legs were horrible. Doctors, therapists and nurses who had known her for years would watch, frustrated and saddened, as their patient and friend lost what was left of her will.

"She had given up," Ms. Harris says. "You could see that she wanted out of the cycle. She didn't want the life that was left for her."

A final blow came last summer. Michelle's brother, Ricardo Bennett, was shot to death while walking to his car in the Murphy Homes.

"She was pretty close to him and when that happened, she began to have hallucinogenic delusions that she was with him, or that she was talking to him," Dr. Nimmerrichter says. "At the end, her mother said that she believed Michelle wanted to die, and I think she's right."

'We'll never know'

Mary Jaringan sat in an East Side district courtroom two weeks ago and stared at the man who police say destroyed her daughter's life. She had long ago heard his name, but she had never seen his face.

For the last eight years, she believed Aaron Harper was in prison for shooting Michelle, something that her daughter said repeatedly. It is true that nearly five years of the last eight, Harper was in a prison cell. But that had nothing to do with Michelle Bennett.

Born and raised in West Baltimore, Harper graduated from Douglass High School without learning to read or write, according to court records. City detectives say he was tutored for the Murphy Homes drug trade by an uncle, Frank Harper, who was murdered in 1982.

By the time he turned 18, Harper was selling clips and capsules of cocaine in the stairwells and courtyards of George Street and Argyle Avenue. Arrested twice on drug charges as a juvenile, he had been given probation.

On that July night in 1983, Michelle Bennett told officers, it was Aaron Harper who shot her while chasing a competing dealer. Two other witnesses also gave statements to police implicating Harper.

Yet rather than obtaining an arrest warrant, Central District officers did little more than monitor Michelle's condition at the hospital. Satisfied that she would survive, an officer noted in a report that the victim would obtain a warrant on her own after leaving the hospital.

In the homicide unit downtown, Det. Harry Edgerton, who investigated the shooting scene, read that report and decided to do more. Three days after the shooting, he took some photos to Michelle Bennett's hospital bed and watched as she picked out Aaron Harper.

Nine days later, he obtained an arrest warrant for assault with intent to murder from a District Court commissioner. The warrant was registered in the court computer, but what happened next is anyone's guess. Detective Edgerton, who has handled hundreds of shootings since 1983, says he has no recollection.

"I don't think I'd go to the trouble of getting a warrant and then not trying to serve it," he says. "But after eight years in the homicide unit, I honestly can't remember much about the case."

For their part, there is no indication that district officers tried to serve the warrant. Nor is there any reference to the warrant in the department's central records division, where it would surface whenever Harper was arrested. Detective Edgerton's case file and notes were purged by the department years ago.

"We'll probably never know what happened," Sergeant Nolan says. "But I can tell you that this isn't the first warrant that's ever gotten lost, and the system being what it is, I daresay it won't be the last, either."

'I want that boy to know'

A month after Michelle's shooting, Detective Edgerton was reassigned to duties outside the homicide unit. About the same time, Aaron Harper was arrested for drug distribution. Two months later, he was arrested on cocaine charges.

He spent several months in prison. Then, in December 1984, Harper shot and wounded a female drug customer and was sent to prison for about four years. Since his release in 1989, Harper has been arrested on drug charges that are pending.

After each arrest, no one -- from prosecutors, to police officers, to pretrial caseworkers -- managed to discover the warrant for Michelle Bennett's shooting.

Nothing in all this surprises Roger Nolan, the sergeant who found the lost warrant in the court computer. After all, the District Court computer printout lists thousands of unserved criminal warrants and is inches thick. For years, the criminal justice system has been choking on its caseload.

But Sergeant Nolan says that in this case, at least, there is an obligation and an opportunity to set right the last eight years.

"This girl went through hell for the last eight years of her life," he says. "And I know Maryland law says you can't charge anyone with her murder, but the fact remains that she was killed by that bullet. For some reason with this case, we've been given a second chance."

As for the victim's mother, she says she harbors no bitterness toward individual prosecutors or police officers, or even Aaron Harper, for that matter. But she is angry with a system that so quickly lost track of the man accused of shooting her daughter, losing sight of him even as Michelle Bennett's long nightmare was just beginning.

"I stopped being angry with him a long time ago," she says of Aaron Harper, "but I want that boy to know what she went through. I think she would want him to know it."

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