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Boy, 14, Given 28 Years in Killing

Court: Judge rejects the prosecution's bid for life term. Nathaniel Brazill will serve time in juvenile facility until he turns 18.

July 28, 2001|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — A 14-year-old boy, convicted of murdering his favorite teacher by shooting him between the eyes, was sentenced to 28 years in prison Friday after the judge rejected the prosecution's argument that he is not redeemable and should be locked up for life.

Nathaniel Brazill stood impassively in a red jail uniform, his legs in shackles, as the sentence was pronounced. "Words cannot really express how sorry I am, but they are all I have," he said during the court proceedings Thursday in West Palm Beach. The teenager could have received anywhere from 25 years to life.

Brazill, then 13, shot English teacher Barry Grunow at point-blank range last year after Grunow refused to let him talk to two girls in his classroom at Lake Worth Middle School.

Brazill's murder trial attracted national attention because of concern about growing violence in the country's schools and the decision by prosecutors to try the seventh-grader as an adult. He was convicted of second-degree murder earlier this year.

Before imposing the sentence, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Richard I. Wennet weighed diametrically opposed arguments from relatives of the victim and the young convict--as well as from prosecution and defense attorneys.

Brazill's mother, Polly Powell, sobbed as she pleaded for leniency. "Nathaniel is my first born, and I love him like nobody else can. I just ask you that you please have mercy on him," Powell told the judge. "We know he's done something wrong. I've said that from the beginning, and we know he must be punished."

Brazill admitted to pointing the .25-caliber pistol that he had taken from his grandfather's cookie jar at Grunow but said that the gun went off by accident.

The 35-year-old teacher, who was married and had two young children, was killed by a single bullet.

"This was not an accident. I think Nathaniel should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," Phyllis Grunow, the victim's mother, told the court. The slain teacher's brother, Steven Grunow, described Brazill as a "criminal in training" and asked for a life sentence.

Assistant State Atty. Marc Shiner insisted that Brazill's lack of evident remorse before and during his trial sent chills up his spine. "This young man deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail without parole," Shiner said. "That's the only way we can be sure he will never hurt another person again."

Defense attorney Robert Udell countered that Brazill "is one of the finest young men I've ever met," with an unblemished record until the May 26, 2000, shooting--the last day of the school year. "I know what Nathaniel did. But keep in mind, he was 13, and he has to be given a second chance," Udell urged Wennet. He requested a 25-year term.

Wennet said Friday that he had given "some great consideration" toward re-integrating Brazill into society, and the sentence he meted out showed that his approach was closer to the thinking of the defense than that of the prosecution. The judge imposed 28 years in prison--to be served in a juvenile facility until Brazill is an adult, at which time he will be transferred to an adult prison. After his release, Brazill will be subject to two years of monitored house arrest, then five more years of probation.

Wennet also ordered Brazill to take anger management classes and to obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma.

In March, another Florida boy, 14-year-old Lionel Tate, was sentenced to life in prison for beating a 6-year-old family friend to death. He was 12 at the time of the crime. That trial sparked calls throughout the state, echoed during the Brazill case, for undoing changes in Florida's criminal justice system that have made it easier to try minors as adults.

"[The sentence] is a lot less than we would have expected," a relieved Nathaniel Brazill Sr., the boy's father, told reporters outside the court. "Today we start the healing process."

"I know my son will be coming home some day," Powell said, her eyes brimming with tears.

The brother of Grunow's widow, Pam, called the sentence too light. "I can't speak for all of the family, but I can tell you that it just wasn't enough time," Nick Hlawka said.

Brazill also was sentenced to a five-year prison term, to run concurrently, for pointing the gun at another teacher.

He still faces charges of perjury because of a letter he wrote from jail that, according to prosecutors, asked a friend to change the story she had told police about the shooting.

Brazill has been jailed since the day of Grunow's death. Before he was led out of the courtroom Friday, Brazill's lawyer requested that the boy be allowed to touch his mother, which he hasn't done in more than a year.

Wennet refused to allow the contact between mother and son.

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