There they were, eight of this city's children shuffling through yesterday morning's gray and windy rain, coming up the hill on East Lexington Street in handcuffs and leg irons and not a single one of them taking notice of the man walking out of Clarence Mitchell Courthouse, whose name is Nathaniel Hurt.
For the moment, Hurt is free. Judge Ellen Heller sentenced him to five years in prison yesterday -- a mandatory five years without probation for illegal use of a gun, and three concurrent years for the involuntary killing of 13-year-old Vernon Holmes Jr. -- and minutes after sentencing, as Hurt walked out of the building temporarily free on $200,000 bail, here came these kids chained together, marching into the building in custody. Also, temporarily.
"Say hello to the newsman," said a guard who recognized a familiar face.
The kids twisted awkwardly and glanced through the grimy rain. Several were in their teens, but a couple were clearly elementary school age, and one of them, a peewee who wore an Orioles cap backward on his head, couldn't have been more than 7 or 8.
"How old are you?" the kid was asked.
"He can't talk," said the guard. He meant, for legal reasons. He meant, to protect the innocence of the child. He meant, to protect the purity of his legal defense.
In this city, such words are said with a certain caustic edge. Nathaniel Hurt, who shot and killed in a rage, is not the only one being driven crazy by children. The parents indifferent, the teachers overwhelmed, the police outmanned, the courts choked, we now have communities of kids growing up with their energy spilling out of their pores while their sense of right and wrong goes completely undeveloped.
Nathaniel Hurt touched on it in his final words before sentencing.
"The state's attorney," he said, "would have you believe Vernon Holmes was a saint. But he didn't live there. This little boy was a terror, an absolute terror." Hurt's voice broke, and then broke again.
"I didn't even see Vernon Holmes," he said. "I didn't even know he was in the neighborhood [that evening]. But he was shot because he was doing something he shouldn't have been doing."
And then, almost as an afterthought, he said, "I didn't mean to shoot him."
He only meant to shoot. At whatever. At a brick wall or an empty street, a shot that would land somewhere safely but scare the hell out of these kids who were bothering him every day. Only, as he ran down an alley from the shots, one of the bullets hit Vernon Holmes Jr. in the back and killed him.
So Nathaniel Hurt gets an automatic five years in prison. In our desperation to stop the killings, a lesson must be taught: Don't pick up a gun, and then you can't fire a gun. In a city averaging nearly a homicide per day, maybe it saves a life here and there.
As Hurt left the courtroom, prosecutor Mark Cohen said he found the case tragic. But he's been here before.
"How many homicide cases have you handled?" Cohen was asked.
"You mean, this month?" Cohen said.
"Overall," he said, "hundreds. Hundreds. Listen, I feel sorry for Hurt. But I feel real sorry for Vernon Holmes. He didn't have a chance. Hurt did. Hurt could have walked into the house and not gone for the gun, but he didn't."
So the city goes back to its dilemma. The gun trafficking grows, and people stay behind locked doors at night. The kids grow up without parents who pay attention, and some of them wander the streets and wind up chained to other kids, like the ones yesterday in the rain outside the courthouse.
"What's the charge against the little kid?" this guard was asked now.
"Can't say," said the guard.
This time, the answer was a little ambiguous. Can't say, because he doesn't know. Can't say, because he can't talk about juveniles. Can't say, because these kids start to take on a faceless quality.
Like Vernon Holmes, shifted between schools and foster families, no stranger to police, a tragedy waiting to happen. And now you looked at this little kid in the rain, the peewee in handcuffs, the one in the Orioles cap twisted backward who couldn't have been older than 8, and you realized a simple fact: Here was one more Vernon Holmes to haunt us, a child preparing to become a ghost.