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CORNERED BY CRIME

Larry Jackson's world is one mile from the postcard perfect Atlantic Ocean, where the waves splash against rolling sand dunes behind stucco cottages. It is a bleak snapshot of broken houses, broiling asphalt and the haze of exhaust from nearby Interstate 95. Earlier this summer, Jackson's mother was serving 60 days in the Palm Beach County Stockade for possession of crack cocaine. Once, when Jackson was visiting her at the jail, he became so upset a guard had to walk him outside to comfort him.

"He cried," says his mother, Theresa Smith, 33, who has been convicted on drug charges twice in the past two years. "It hurt him to see his mama in jail."

Around the neighborhood, Jackson, an 18-year-old senior in high school, is known as "Little Bit." Too small to play football, he joined the Santaluces High School varsity squad this year as the team manager. He bags groceries part time at Publix.

"Here's a kid who has led a law-abiding life in otherwise gruesome circumstances," says Joe Mincberg, a friend of Jackson's football coach.

Until one recent October night.

Jackson tangled with Eric Pinkney, whose lengthy police rap sheet lists his street name as "Sir Pink." Jackson says he saw Pinkney trying to sell crack to his mother. Jackson shot Pinkney four times. He's charged with attempted murder.

Pinkney denies he was selling crack the night he was shot. Jackson's mother denies she was looking for crack that night. Neither has been charged.

But this particular night of violence is not about the usual turf war over drugs or stray bullets flying.

"What makes this case different is that you have a very mild, shy, African-American kid who tried to interject himself between a drug dealer and his mother," says Mincberg, a West Palm Beach attorney who has volunteered to represent Jackson. "He had reached the limit of his endurance."

Jackson shot a man who police say was unarmed, but a strange thing happened in the community. Friends, family and even strangers stood up for the young man everyone calls "Little Bit."

After two nights in jail, Jackson's high school football coach, his grandmother and members of the community spoke before a judge, persuading him to erase the $10,000 bail. Jackson is under house arrest as he awaits his Nov. 7 arraignment.

When Delray Beach businessman John Prescott read about the shooting in the local paper, he started calling business owners to raise money for Jackson's case. Prescott has never met Jackson, but he has come face-to-face with a "spaced-out crack addict" who robbed his Shell station at gunpoint last year. He admires what Jackson did.

"Here's a kid who has grown up in the face of crack, poverty, misery and frustration. He manages to stay in school, to help his grandmother," Prescott says. "And our society looks at what he did as wrong."

For most of his life, Jackson has lived with his grandmother, Carol Clemmons. Mincberg describes her as the "family nucleus. She holds it together."

Her house is home base for Jackson, his two siblings, his mother, and his 6-month-old son, Dominique. It is a cream-colored house with terrazzo floors and no air conditioning and is in need of some repair. But it is a family home, family-owned.

About six blocks from Jackson's grandmother's, there is a tiny convenience market. Day and night, people hang around outside the market. Where there is shade, there is usually a card game. The corner is an open-air drug bazaar, with merchants approaching all cars that slow down.

About two blocks behind the market is a small city park with tennis, basketball and racquetball courts. Though the grass is neatly kept and the hoops have new nets, the parking lot is where the action is.

From the market, lookouts keep watch for patrol cars. When they spot one, they yell, "Man down," alerting the dealers near the park that the police are on the way.

Eric Pinkney is a familiar figure in this part of the neighborhood.

Only 19, he has several criminal convictions, ranging from the sale of cocaine to aggravated battery and assault.

About 10 o'clock one recent Monday night, Jackson went looking for his mother. He and a friend, Alton Moore, 17, drove to the market.

They found his mother, Jackson claims, trying to buy rocks of cocaine from Pinkney. He says he was "embarrassed" that his mother was buying crack in front of his friend. He pulled his car in front of his mother's, blocking her way. This enraged Pinkney, who, according to Jackson's statement to the police, said he was carrying a large amount of cocaine and ordered Jackson to move his car.

Jackson refused, and Pinkney punched him in the face. Jackson was no match for the 6-foot-5 Pinkney, so he backed off. "I'm gonna kill him," he said to Moore as they left the park.

Jackson went to his house and retrieved a .38-caliber revolver. The gun, legally registered in his grandmother's name, was loaded.

Moore persuaded Jackson to let him carry the gun for safekeeping. Minutes later, Jackson and Moore saw Pinkney on the sidewalk between the market and the park. Even though the gun was tucked into Moore's pocket, Jackson threatened Pinkney, saying he had a gun.

Pinkney dared him to shoot, Jackson says.

Jackson struggled with Moore for the gun. When he got it, he was standing about seven feet from Pinkney. He fired four times. Pinkney was hit _ three times in the chest, once in the leg.

Jackson and Moore ran, dropping the gun as they ran back to Jackson's grandmother's house. When they arrived, they called the police.

The detective who questioned Jackson that night described him as "scared and remorseful."

Hours later, Jackson was charged with attempted murder.

News of his arrest traveled fast, at school and in the neighborhood.

"I was surprised. He's not a bad kid," says Marvin Boyd, a tailback for the Santaluces Chiefs. "He was under pressure."

Jackson's family couldn't raise the $10,000 bail, so he stayed in jail.

But almost immediately, help began pouring in.

At a hearing two days after the shooting, Bob Brock, the Santaluces High School's football coach, Mincberg and Jackson's relatives spoke before Palm Beach County Judge James Bollinger, who agreed to release Jackson without a cash bond. He remains under house arrest.

Jackson has been ordered to stay at his grandmother's house when he's not at school. A small electronic bracelet strapped around his left ankle makes sure of this.

Jackson's mother attended her son's bail hearing. "She showed a great deal of interest at the hearing," says Mincberg. "The realities of life just didn't place her in a role of care."

His mother was 15 when Jackson was born. He has two brothers, ages 3 and 9. "They're all sweet boys," their mother says.

For almost two weeks, Pinkney recuperated in a second-floor room at Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach, a patch of surgical tape covering the bullet hole in his chest. To pass the time, he watched TV or talked on the phone. He was released from the hospital over the weekend.

Jackson has received numerous death threats, most likely from those in the neighborhood who don't want him talking or naming names in the investigation of the shooting, Mincberg says.

Late last week, on the advice of Santaluces High School security officers, Jackson transferred to another high school.

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