Enough blame for all of us, and then some


Nobody comes out of this miserable case with clean hands, not 13-year-old Vernon Holmes who now lies in his grave, nor 62-year-old, previously blameless Nathaniel Hurt, nor this little pack of kids tormenting Hurt last October, nor the attorney named Stephen L. Miles who ought to get out of his client's way.

You want to look at a city on the skids, here's your picture: the retired steel worker Hurt, this model citizen, a man everyone should have as a neighbor over the entire course of a lifetime, this big, strapping fellow, and he's so infuriated, and so crazy out of his head, that he's firing a gun with little children in the street below him until one of them lies dead in an alley.

"Thugs," the lawyer Miles called these kids last week, when the state's case against Hurt opened in Baltimore Circuit Court.

"Breaking the windows of the defendant's car," agreed prosecutor Mark Cohen, "which they should not have been doing."

And then came this procession of the urban terrorists who were infuriating Nathaniel Hurt last October, the ones who tossed buckets into his yard and threw rocks at his car, and those in the shadows of a nearby alley when the bullet went into Vernon Holmes: a chubby little 11-year-old named Kenyon, not quite 5 feet tall; a 12-year-old named Arthur, who's made it all the way to the 4th grade; a 9-year-old named Domenic, who was sucking his thumb in a courthouse hallway before testifying; and each of them throwaway children, removed from dysfunctional families, living in a series of foster homes, sent to a series of public %J schools which haven't got a clue about reaching any of these kids.

And, of course, the one who never arrived in court, the deceased Vernon Holmes, described by one who knew his case as undersized, slow-witted, unattended by his parents, unloved by his foster family and desperately hungry for attention.

Do we minimize the heartache such kids gave Nathaniel Hurt? Not for a heartbeat, and such is the point: We now tremble at the actions of our own children. We cringe at the sight of pipsqueaks, not knowing who packs a gun, who stashes a knife, who arrives with intent to harm.

In East Baltimore last October, these kids decided to throw some buckets and plastic jugs into Hurt's yard. Why? According to defense attorney Miles, they'd been doing such things over the course of "years, months," though at week's end there had not yet been any such testimony.

In any event, they harassed him on the night of Oct. 10, causing Hurt to rush into the street and grab the 11-year-old named Kenyon, and commence to hit him. How hard? "Enough times to hurt him. The boy's face was swollen," testified 29-year-old William Miller, who was walking through the neighborhood at that moment.

When Miller asked Hurt why he was picking on a little kid, Hurt said they'd broken his window and asked them to follow him to his home. Hurt went inside alone. Miller saw no broken windows, but he heard someone say Hurt was going to get a gun. Miller took off running down an alley, where he heard some of the kids say they were going to break the windows of Hurt's car. He told them to go home instead and get their mothers, and then he walked to a sub shop a block away.

Minutes later, he testified, he heard glass breaking, and then gunshots. "What did you do?" he was asked.

"Ordered my sub," Miller declared.

Wonderful. Now Vernon Holmes lay in the street, where another foster kid, named Robert England, 17 years old, scooped him up and carried him to an alley. "Somebody help me, he's bleeding," England cried. Some women came out of their homes. The women put a blanket over Holmes and a pillow under his head. Holmes' eyes went back in his head, and then he was gone.

As he lay there, down the alley came his foster mother, Dorothy Lewis. During last October's troubles, she had eight of these kids living at her house on East 20th Street, each one bringing a state subsidy to Lewis. Over the years, she testified, she's had maybe 50 of these kids. Now she saw a crowd gathering in the alley.

"I saw Vernon laying on the ground," she said. She shrugged her shoulders. She had nothing more to say.

Defense attorney Miles, on the other hand, did. He said it loudly, and he said it aggressively, and he said such things that Judge Ellen Heller cautioned him three different times. Once, when Miles took it upon himself to call a prosecution witness "a liar," the judge told him, "You're not going to make accusations like that in my courtroom." When he replied sarcastically, "That's fair," she told him, "In this courtroom, you don't address the court this way."

But this was a small piece of Miles' performance. He angrily berated a city cop for not searching for bullet holes where Vernon Holmes died -- even though there was testimony Holmes was shot in the street and carried to the alley. He virtually stalked prosecutor Mark Cohen around the courtroom while Cohen was questioning witnesses, until Judge Heller told Miles to sit down. He accused the 17-year-old who'd tried to save Holmes of being "a lookout for drug dealers." He hollered at one of the women who tried to comfort the dying Holmes. He threw so many groundless accusations at the witness William Miller that Miller finally cried, "Am I on trial here?"

The final accumulation of all this is to make Miles the central figure in this drama, and not Nathaniel Hurt. Despite the charges against him, Hurt is still a very sympathetic man, who tried to help kids in the neighborhood, who worked hard all his life and deserved to spend his retirement in quiet dignity.

If his attorney would get out of the way, the jury might take note of such a man.

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