The tragedy of a boy's death and the call that came too late


A young woman sitting against the wall in Baltimore Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller's courtroom laughed derisively when prosecutor Mark Cohen said the words, "All he had to do was make a 911 call."

Cohen was referring to Nathaniel Hurt, on trial in the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old kid named Vernon Holmes in the back one ugly night in October. It is alleged that Hurt fired a .357-caliber Magnum revolver from the fire escape at his house on North Avenue. He wasn't firing a warning shot, the state says; a man doesn't fire a warning shot down at a crowd of kids if his intent is to simply send them running. You don't pick up a gun because they've damaged your automobile with bricks and bottles, either.

"You just can't take the law into your own hands," Cohen told the jury, and you wonder if any of them believed that anymore.

A lot of people from Hurt's neighborhood think that stuff about calling 911 is a joke. They sympathize with him because they know about kids who sell drugs and act like thugs, who make noise and vandalize property, who hang around street corners, spiking the air with filthy talk, intimidating the old and the anxious and scampering away before the law can do anything about them. And the police? They never come fast enough, it seems, or do anything with permanent impact. So goes the rap, which explains the derisive laugh at Cohen's statement.

Cohen, an assistant state's attorney, is an honorable man, a respected and efficient lawyer who has spent half his life in the somber chambers of criminal justice. He's been immersed in this world a long time, and it is a world without end. You can barely hear Cohen speak sometimes for the wail of police sirens, harbinger's of tomorrow's docket, outside the courtrooms where he works.

Now he comes to the prosecution of Nathaniel Hurt at a time when the voices of vigilantes grow louder and hotter. Men and women gear up with guns because they've lost faith in police, lost faith in the very system to which men like Mark Cohen have devoted their careers.

But here was Cohen, sorting out the facts, laying out his case, declaring that, all things considered, what Nathaniel Hurt did on the night of Oct. 10 was "not justifiable under the law -- under the law."

Hurt, who is 62, is represented by the famous-as-advertised Stephen L. Miles, who brags about being a former assistant state's attorney.

Yesterday, Miles, tanned, groomed and double-breasted, delivered an opening statement that sounded like a closing argument. He seemed overanxious for a fight with Cohen and all devils who would dare claim that the death of Vernon Holmes was anything more than the accidental side-effect of a sick, lawless society. Under the circumstances Nathaniel Hurt faced on Oct. 10, Miles said, "A reasonable person could not have thought to call 911."

And those kids who had harassed him before the shooting? They were all thugs, kicked out of schools, kicked out of foster homes -- bad kids of whom the old people live in fear.

Not long after Miles had completed his blame-the-victim harangue, one of the neighborhood kids came into the courtroom. His name was Robert England. He was 17 but looked younger. He wore a baggy black suit, black shoes and a white shirt. His hair was in a short fuzz cut and the first sprouts of a goatee showed on his chin.

England was calm and clear in his answers to all of Cohen's questions.

Vernon Holmes was England's foster brother. They lived, with other foster kids, in a home on East 20th Street, not far from North Avenue.

On the evening of Oct. 10, England left the house for a store. On the way, he saw Nathaniel Hurt, the man who now sat but five feet away from him in Judge Heller's intimate courtroom.

England said he saw Hurt beating and kicking a chubby kid named Kenny -- "the little fat one," attorney Miles had called him.

"Me and two other boys, they had come over, and we asked [Hurt] why he hit the boy like that," England testified. "He said, 'He broke my window out.'" Then, England said, Hurt offered to show the boys the damage. He beckoned them to his house. They followed.

There were no broken windows, England said. And when Hurt disappeared inside his house, England became suspicious and worried. "I thought he was gonna get a gun," he said. "So we run up the alley [away from Hurt's house] and we see these other kids running down the alley with bricks and bottles. . . ."

Convinced that trouble was brewing, England decided to go straight home -- until he saw Vernon Holmes, his little foster brother, running with the other boys.

Then he saw Hurt on the fire escape. "Come on, he's got a gun," he told Vernon.

Vernon, the 13-year-old, said, "I'm not afraid of him or his gun."

Still, the two boys ran away from Hurt's house.

That's when the shots rang out.

Suddenly, Vernon dropped.

"I thought he was just playing," England said. "Then I rolled him over and there was blood coming out of his chest."

He picked Vernon up but couldn't carry him far. He stopped near a garage and yelled for help. A neighbor with a cordless phone called 911.

This time, in the courtroom, there was no derisive laughter at the mention of 911.

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