In the last moment of solitude remaining to Nathaniel Hurt before he would inadvertently sentence himself to prison, he sat his tired body on a little chair, folded his hands as if in prayer, and talked of a sense of inner peace.
"How do you feel?" he was asked.
"Fine," he said firmly.
"That's the way he works," Hurt said. He nodded his head slowly. "God is watching."
Then Hurt, full of sweet religious faith, full of confidence that he was releasing himself from his long legal ordeal, stepped into Judge Ellen Heller's courtroom and made his worst mistake since the actual moment he picked up a handgun last Oct. 10 and fired a shot in the direction of a 13-year old kid named Vernon Holmes Jr.
He could have walked. For the rest of whatever is left of his life, the 62-year old Hurt can brush away every other thing he knows, and he'll be left with that awful, ironic, inexplicable fact: He could have walked, he had every reason to grab his freedom with both hands, and he chose instead to take a chance that he never should have been allowed to take.
With a jury deadlocked and apparently going nowhere -- "hopelessly deadlocked," jurors had said in a note to Judge Heller -- Hurt's attorney, Stephen L. Miles, and prosecutor Mark Cohen asked Hurt if he'd plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter if all sentencing would be suspended.
Hurt said OK. He was ready to cop the plea, ready to accept inadvertent guilt, ready to admit to nothing more than he'd already admitted in court -- that, yes, he'd fired a gun when these neighborhood kids were harassing him and, yes, the Holmes kid undeniably lay dead in an alley a moment later and, yes, whatever connection there was between the two events was not intentional -- when, to everyone's shock, there came a couple of knocks from the jury room.
They had reached a verdict. For two days they couldn't reach one, and if they'd taken maybe two minutes more, Nathaniel Hurt would already have accepted the deal and walked away. Instead, he was told he could think about it some more, and what he thought about wasn't just the stuff of courtroom testimony.
There was the makeup of the jury: four elderly men, roughly his age, men who'd worked all their lives the way Hurt had worked, men who understood the difficulties of growing old and facing young people out of control, and would identify with him.
And it was a mostly black jury, as well. Nine blacks, three whites, deciding the fate of the black man Hurt, a jury that had heard prosecutor Cohen ask Hurt why he hadn't called the police for help.
"You don't live in the city, do you?" Hurt replied. "They might strike me down and swear I had a weapon in my hand."
There was some laughter from the jury box over that one, and a young black juror turning to an older one and whispering, "He got that right."
And there were the four alternate jurors, dismissed when deliberations began, all of whom told reporters they'd have voted for acquittal. So Hurt thought the jury was on his side. He thought this, and he knew that his attorney saw it the same way because, as the hours dragged by, and the deliberating went on, here was Miles, bouncing through the courthouse corridors and the recessed courtroom, letting everyone know, "You can bet money, that jury's 11-to-1 for my man."
He was pretty full of himself, this Miles.
Over the long days of testimony, there he was in all his self-advertised fullness: repeatedly reminding the jury that he'd taken money "out of my own pocket" to investigate this case; storming after police whose investigation he'd called not only inept but corrupt; likening one officer to a Nazi commandant and snapping "Sieg Heil;" virtually stalking prosecutor Cohen around the courtroom until Judge Heller ordered Miles to sit down; and then standing outside the courthouse each night to offer his play-by-play analysis for the TV cameras.
And now, with Nathaniel Hurt prepared to take a deal giving him his freedom, and there came the knock on the door signaling a jury verdict, here was Miles again. Strutting through the courtroom, grinning broadly, dead certain the jury was announcing an acquittal.
Nathaniel Hurt sat on a little chair, having talked with Miles for a few moments. Now Hurt was reaching for a little peace of mind, talking of God, trying to put that night of last October behind him. Knowing that, if found guilty, he'd face five years in prison on the gun charge, but balancing that with the belief that the jury was leaning his way.
"I told him," Miles was saying now, glancing back toward Hurt, "this one's in his hands, I ain't telling him what to do."
A moment later, it was over. Hurt went for the jury verdicts. Guilty and guilty they were, involuntary manslaughter and illegal use of a handgun in a crime of violence.
The jury hadn't bought the argument about fear, not when Hurt had run after a little kid and shoved him around. Jurors hadn't bought the argument about self-defense, not when the kids were down in the street below and Hurt had shot from his fire escape instead of retreating into his house. They hadn't bought the argument about a second gunman, especially not after Hurt admitted he'd hidden a shotgun and rifle so the police wouldn't take them away.
"But the murder weapon, you left in your home?" Miles asked.
"Yes, sir," said Hurt.
There it was: the two of them, inadvertently referring to Hurt's handgun as "the murder weapon," while simultaneously trying to convince this jury of some other, mysterious gunman nobody ever saw, shooting bullets nobody ever found.
But the moment fled by, and at the end it was just Nathaniel Hurt standing there, believing he'd lived a good life, believing he'd done what anyone might do when he's had enough of these infuriating kids, believing this jury would understand him and let him go, and turning down the plea bargain giving him his freedom.
"It's in your hands," Stephen L. Miles had said to him.
What Miles might have offered his client was advice from one of his own TV commercials: "Let's talk about it."