Lawyer takes blame for Hurt doing time


Stephen L. Miles says he's normally a take-charge lawyer, and that's why he has a hard time explaining why he stood by silently as Nathaniel Hurt rejected a plea offer that would have spared him prison.

"Maybe I got too close to him and lost my objectivity," Mr. Miles said yesterday, a day after Hurt became a convicted killer facing a mandatory prison term. "Who knows what was going on in my mind.

"As far as I'm concerned I'm the reason he's going to jail," said Mr. Miles.

The dramatic ending to the Hurt trial fueled water-cooler conversations yesterday among lawyers who could scarely believe the 62-year-old East Baltimore man turned down a chance for a suspended sentence in favor of a risky jury verdict.

Said defense lawyer Michael E. Kaminkow: "When it comes to balancing the risks of conviction or acquittal vs. a guaranteed walk, you take the walk."

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury Tuesday convicted Hurt of involuntary manslaughter and a weapons charge carrying TC mandatory prison term for the Oct. 10, 1994, shooting death of 13-year-old Vernon Lee Holmes Jr.

Mr. Kaminkow said that if Mr. Miles had had more recent experience in criminal trials -- the personal injury lawyer said he had not handled a murder trial in a decade -- he would have more forcibly persuaded his client to take the deal.

The turn of events left Mr. Miles searching for a way to keep his client out of prison. He said he hopes his client will be a good candidate to remain free on bond while pursuing an appeal of his conviction.

Meanwhile, police were stepping up their complaints about Mr. Miles yesterday for his accusations that detectives had hidden evidence favoring Hurt, and for his likening of a police weapons expert to a Nazi commandant.

The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police was preparing to file a complaint with the state Attorney Grievance Commission for comments made by Mr. Miles on television and radio. Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier complained that police officers had been personally attacked.

"If you have a professional issue about the way evidence was handled, that's one thing," Commissioner Frazier said. "But to call people liars and to call people Nazis and make those kinds of allegations, I think are personally offensive and very counter-productive to the social fabric of this city."

The commissioner added that Mr. Miles style was "demonstrably ineffective."

Mr. Miles responded: "Tell them I said sticks and stones can break their bones but names will never hurt them. If the commissioner was more concerned about detectives investigating homicides properly than some comments a lawyer made, the people of Baltimore would be a lot better off. He's a silly man."

Mr. Miles said yesterday that he had recommended that Hurt take a plea offer before his murder trial began. That offer would have had Hurt plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter with no sentencing recommendation from prosecutors. Nonbinding guidelines showed he should receive 3 to 8 years, but, Mr. Miles said, Hurt could have been eligible for parole after serving a brief portion of a short sentence.

Hurt turned down that offer and went to trial.

Late Tuesday afternoon, after the jury hearing his case had been deliberating for 12 hours, Hurt agreed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a suspended sentence and probation. Mr. Miles recommended that he take this deal.

But the jury announced it had reached a verdict before the dea could be consummated, and Hurt had a chance to change his mind. This time, Mr. Miles made no recommendation, and Hurt decided to take his chances with the jury.

"I've got a tough man here," Mr. Miles said just before the jury returned to deliver the verdict.

Hurt was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and of using handgun in a felony or crime of violence. The weapons charge carries a mandatory, minimum five-year prison term without parole.

Lawyers interviewed yesterday said the process of recommending for or against plea offers can be among the most crucial duties of a criminal trial lawyer.

Baltimore defense lawyer John M. Hassett said he had a client who wanted to plead guilty to armed robbery for an eight-month sentence, but the case was weak.

"I refused to let the guy plead guilty," Mr. Hassett said yesterday, recalling that prosecutors subsequently dismissed the case against his client last month.

Defense lawyer Joan C. Fraser wondered whether Mr. Miles' pronouncements that he would win the case had clouded Hurt's judgment at a crucial moment.

The lawyers said the profession's ethics demand that the lawyer give advice, but that the decision in the end is the client's. Still, Mr. Miles said he was not using that as an excuse. "Any criminal lawyer can make any client do what he wants," he said. "That's always been the way of the world."

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