Nathaniel Hurt gambled his liberty yesterday and lost.
Moments after rejecting a last-minute plea offer that would have spared him jail, Hurt was convicted of manslaughter and a weapons charge in the killing of a 13-year-old East Baltimore boy. With that, he faces a mandatory prison term.
Hurt, who was charged with first-degree murder, was ready to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a suspended sentence. But, when the 62-year-old East Baltimore man learned the jury had reached a verdict, he changed his mind on the plea offer.
As Hurt stood in stoic silence, the jury announced its verdict: guilty of involuntary manslaughter, guilty of use of a handgun in a crime of violence. The handgun charge carries a minimum, mandatory sentence of five years in prison without parole. Baltimore Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller set sentencing for June 12.
Hurt said he had felt confident of an acquittal because the jury had deliberated for 12 hours over two days.
"I figured that was in my favor," he said as he returned to his home on East North Avenue. "It ain't no problem. I made a decision and I have to live with it."
Earlier, as reporters and television cameras trailed him outside the courthouse, he was asked whether he was worried about prison. His one-word answer: "Nope."
Prosecutor Mark Cohen said he was pleased with the jury's decision. "The state never contended Nathaniel Hurt was a bad fellow.
The state just contended that on Oct. 10, 1994, he committed a criminal act."
Hurt's decision provided a dramatic ending to a trial that at times seemed a referendum on vigilante justice in the inner city. Hurt testified that Vernon Lee Holmes Jr. was among the neighborhood boys who had threatened and tormented him for weeks before the October shooting. He said he fired four shots from his second-story fire escape to fend off an approaching mob.
In the end, however, one juror said the case turned on a more fundamental question: Did Hurt fire the fatal bullet? The bullet that killed the boy was never recovered, and the defense tried to suggest that other shots were fired that night.
One juror said the panel felt tremendous sympathy for Hurt as well as the slain boy. But the juror said Hurt broke the law when he chose to shoot instead of retreating to his house and calling police.
"I think there was a very strong consensus that he had been pushed really far," said the juror, a 26-year-old man who refused to give his name. "Your emotions say, 'I don't want this guy to go to prison.' But at the same time . . . we came to agreement it was his bullet that killed the boy."
Most jurors, escorted by sheriff's deputies down a freight elevator away from a throng of reporters, were loath to discuss their long deliberations, other than to say the decision was difficult.
The male juror said that when the 12 first retired to the jury room about 1 p.m. Monday, a majority felt that Hurt should be found not guilty, with the others voting for involuntary manslaughter. With five to seven votes during the two days of deliberations, the panel debated how likely it was that someone else fired the bullet that killed young Vernon.
The juror said, "We had a varying degree of memories of how many witnesses said more than four shots were fired."
The jury sent a note to the judge asking for help on that point. After the lawyers in the case reviewed transcripts and found that only two witnesses said they had heard more than four shots, that testimony was read to the jury. From there, the panel was able to conclude that there was one shooter, said the juror.
While the jury was coming to terms on a verdict, the machinations that would create the final drama began to unfold.
Hurt's lawyer approached Mr. Cohen with a proposal. A tentative deal was struck: Hurt would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and would receive a suspended sentence and probation. The judge would determine the length of the suspended sentence and the term of the probation.
Judge Heller took the bench and the offer was described. She called a recess to consider whether she would approve the deal.
Less than five minutes later, a knock was heard on the jury room door. There was a verdict, and Hurt had to make his choice.
Hurt made the decision in a deserted hallway outside the courtroom. His 44-year-old son sat with him on a wooden bench. Defense attorney Stephen L. Miles laid out the options, and then left, giving his client five minutes to decide.
It didn't take that long. With a bob of the head, Hurt said: "I'm going with the jury."
Minutes later, as the verdicts were announced, Hurt stood with his arms folded behind his back. He seemed intent on maintaining his poise. A few minutes later he sat down and nervously fidgeted with his pants pocket, but his face remained stone-like.
As he left the courtroom, going home on $200,000 bail to await sentencing, the pressure of the situation seemed more visible as he struggled to zip up his jacket.
During the trial, Mr. Miles attempted to present testimony that Hurt lashed out because he was a victim of "urban fear syndrome." The defense also criticized the police investigation as slipshod and biased, accusing detectives of hiding evidence of a second shooter. In his closing argument, he likened a police weapons expert to a Nazi commandant.
After yesterday's verdict, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier issued a statement, saying that comments Mr. Miles made about Lt. Charles J. Key were "outrageous."
In the neighborhood where Hurt lived and Holmes died, opinions over the verdict were split.
"It was wrong, but it was self-defense," said Alice Street, who has lived on East 20th Street for two years.
But Mona Wilson, 17, said the issue was clear for her -- Hurt deserves to go to prison, she said emphatically. "Insurance would have paid for his car window," she said. "He should have been adult and let it go."
Mr. Miles said he was devastated by the verdict -- so much so that he claimed that Hurt was consoling him afterward. "He rolled a hell of a risk," Mr. Miles said. "I guess I'll take to my grave the fact that I left it up to him."