On the last day of school, May 26, 2000, Nathaniel
Brazill, a student at Lake Worth Middle School in Florida, shot his
teacher Barry Gunrow. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison without the
possibility of parole.
A state appeals court upheld the second-degree murder
conviction of a 16-year-old boy who fatally shot his English teacher on
the last day of school three years ago. The Fourth District Court of
Appeal also upheld the 28-year sentence given to the teenager, Nathaniel
Brazill. Nathaniel was 13 when he shot the teacher, Barry Grunow,
35, at Lake Worth Middle School on May 26, 2000, after Mr. Grunow
refused to let him to talk to two friends. The youth's lawyer, David
McPherrin, said he should not have been convicted of second-degree
murder or sentenced as an adult.
Nathaniel Brazill, 14, was sentenced July 27 in a
Florida court to 28 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
Brazill was convicted as an adult on May 16 of second-degree murder in
the shooting death of a 30-year-old seventh grade teacher at a middle
school in Lake Worth, Florida on the last day of classes in May 2000. He
was only 13 years old at the time.
The trial and sentencing of this teenager is the
latest widely reported case of what has increasingly become standard
practice in the American judicial system: prosecuting children as adults.
Last month in Broward County Florida, 14-year-old Lionel Tate was
convicted of first-degree murder. He was 12 years old when his six-year-old
playmate died of injuries inflicted by Tate as he acted out moves he had
seen on a TV wrestling show. Tate’s mother rejected a plea bargain in
the case, contending the death was an accident, and the teenager was
subsequently sentenced to life in prison without parole under Florida’s
mandatory sentencing laws.
Nathaniel Brazil and his defense have not denied that
he fired the shot that killed language arts teacher Barry Grunow on May
26, 2000, although they say it was an accident. Defense attorney Robert
Udell said at trial that the teenager thought the gun’s safety was on
when he pointed it at the teacher. Brazill had been suspended earlier
that day for throwing water balloons in the school cafeteria. He
returned later and asked Grunow if he could enter the teacher’s
classroom to speak with two students. When Grunow said no, Nathaniel
pointed the gun at him and it went off, killing the teacher with one
bullet to the head.
Although the jury assembled to judge the case
rejected the prosecution’s argument that the shooting was premeditated,
they handed down a conviction of second-degree murder. Under the new
Florida sentencing laws, the judge was required to impose a sentence of
25 years to life. Many news reports on the 28-year sentence—which will
be followed by two years of house arrest and five years’ probation—commented
that it was lenient under the circumstances. This so-called lenient
sentence will keep Nathaniel behind bars until his early 40s, with
little opportunity for rehabilitation or psychological treatment.
For the most part, the political establishment has
come to accept the basic premise of the adult prosecution of juveniles:
if a child allegedly commits an “adult crime” he or she must “pay” as an
adult. According to this view, consideration of the child’s mental
maturity, psychological health, and social or personal situation should
take a back seat to what is seen as the overriding need of society to
lock up these “bad seeds.” In Nathaniel Brazill’s case, the prosecution
put aside the young man’s background and painted the defendant as a
cold-blooded killer, incapable of being rehabilitated.
Prosecutor Marc Shiner commented following the
judge’s sentencing: “This was a heinous crime committed by a young man
with a difficult personality who should be behind bars. Let us not
forget a man’s life has been taken away.” According to the law-and-order
mentality so prevalent today in prosecutors’ offices across the country,
a crime is a crime, and the criminal is responsible for it.
But there was a time not so long ago when juveniles
were treated differently in the criminal justice system. The trials of
Nathaniel Brazil, Lionel Tate and other children as adults have been
made possible by changes in laws in virtually every state over the past
decade. In 15 of these states, the decision whether or not to charge
children as adults is left up to the prosecutors, many of them elected
officials wanting to be seen as being tough on crime.
The entire judicial framework has shifted so
dramatically that the distinction between prosecuting adults and
juveniles is becoming more and more blurred. In Nathaniel Brazill’s
case, he found himself in a situation where the Florida state legal
setup was heavily weighted towards charging him as an adult and,
following his conviction, the trial judge was mandated to impose a
minimum sentence of more than twice Nathaniel’s age at the time of the
What is rarely questioned in the media, however, is
the legitimacy of prosecuting a child as an adult. No one cries out:
these are children! Laws prohibit them from driving a car,
purchasing alcohol and cigarettes, voting or serving in the military,
but they are allowed to be prosecuted according to adult laws and
sentenced to draconian prison terms, in some instances in adult
facilities where they face physical and sexual assault. The century-long
tradition of the juvenile justice system’s role in protecting and
rehabilitating the youth in society has been turned on its head.
There is a certain unease among the population to
changes which have taken place in the judicial system over the past
quarter century—the resumption of executions, mandatory prison sentences,
corruption and increased violence on the part of police, and now the
prosecution of juveniles as adults. But lacking an alternative
perspective the majority generally defers to the law-and-order
atmosphere cultivated by the political establishment and broadcast daily
in the news. In the absence of an approach that looks to the class and
social relations in society as the ultimate roots of this violence, the
policy of government authorities predominates: more police repression
and judicial retribution.
The most cursory examination of any of these juvenile
cases reveals lives plagued by personal problems, and Nathaniel
Brazill’s story is no different. Although he was an honor student with a
perfect attendance record, family relations at home were strained.
Nathaniel’s mother, Polly Powell, an assistant food services director at
a Lake Worth retirement home, was involved in several abusive
relationships. Police reported that there were 17 domestic incident
reports at her home in the six years prior to the shooting. One of Ms.
Powell’s partners demanded that Nathaniel move out of the house.
Nathaniel was also reportedly fascinated with weapons
and wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement or the military. He
spent a good deal of his spare time playing simulated fighter pilot
games and visiting military-related web sites. The bullet that killed
Barry Grunow may very well have been discharged accidentally, as the
defense contends. But the fact that the teenager responded to being
suspended from school by riding his bicycle to retrieve a .25-caliber
handgun is a telling indictment of a society that sees violence and
individualism as the answer to every problem.
What transpired that day at Lake Worth Middle School
tragically affected two lives. Barry Grunow, referred to by Nathaniel
Brazill as his favorite teacher, died, leaving behind a wife and two
small children. Nathaniel will be imprisoned for close to three decades.
Class conscious working people should be outraged at a political
establishment that advocates the incarceration of its youngest citizens
as a legitimate response to disturbing social problems.
Florida Teenager Declares Sorrow for Killing
By Dana Canedy - The New York Times
July 28, 2001
A 14-year-old boy facing 25 years to life for murder
told a judge and the victim's family today that he never intended to
shoot his favorite teacher and was sorry for the killing.
''Words cannot really express how sorry I am, but
they're all I have,'' the boy, Nathaniel Brazill, said, reading from a
statement at a sentencing hearing in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. He
called his victim, Barry Grunow, 35, a great man and teacher.
''As I look back on that day I wish it had not
happened and that I could bring Mr. Grunow back,'' said Nathaniel, who
was shackled and wearing an orange prison uniform. ''Regardless of what
anyone thinks, I never intended to harm Mr. Grunow.''
In May a jury convicted Nathaniel of second-degree
murder for shooting Mr. Grunow between the eyes after the teacher
refused to let him into his classroom on the last day of school a year
ago to say goodbye to two girls. By rejecting a verdict of first-degree
murder, the jurors spared the boy from a sentence of life in prison
Most of Mr. Grunow's family and friends asked the
judge today to sentence the boy to the harshest penalty, life in prison.
But the teacher's widow, Pam Grunow, said she could not recommend a
''I don't know what price Nathaniel should pay for
taking Barry's life,'' Mrs. Grunow told the judge. ''That's not my job;
I don't have the wisdom.''
The prosecution and the defense painted contrasting
pictures of the boy, one of a cold-blooded killer and the other of a
troubled teenager whose family and school missed warning signs of
''This defendant's demeanor sends chills up my spine,''
the prosecutor, Marc Shiner, said.
Mr. Shiner asked the judge to sentence Nathaniel to
life in prison or, barring that, to 40 years followed by lifetime
He said that Nathaniel's age alone did not warrant
leniency and that the boy's demeanor during the trial was proof of his
lack of remorse.
The defense argued that the judge should not read
anything into Nathaniel's demeanor because the boy was accustomed to
holding in his emotions, whether about the physical abuse he saw between
his mother and two stepfathers or his mother's diagnosis of breast
cancer the month Nathaniel turned 13.
''He's a child, and that's who committed this crime,''
Nathaniel's lawyer, Robert Udell, said before asking the judge to
sentence the boy to 25 years in prison.
In the most emotional testimony, Nathaniel's mother,
Polly Powell, said she could not explain her son's actions but prayed
that, in time, he would be forgiven.
''I don't know what happened to my baby,'' Ms. Powell
said, adding that if her personal problems contributed to his actions,
''I take full responsibility.''
She pleaded between sobs for the judge to be lenient,
saying: ''I just ask you that you please have mercy on him. We know he's
done something wrong. I've said that from the beginning, and we know he
must be punished.''
The judge, Richard Wennet, said he would announce the
sentence on Friday.
Nathaniel, who was 13 at the time of the shooting, is
the second 14-year-old in South Florida to be tried as an adult this
year on charges of first-degree murder. The first, Lionel Tate, was
convicted of that crime in January and sentenced to life for beating a
6-year-old playmate, Tiffany Eunick, to death. Lionel was 12. His lawyer
argued that Lionel killed the girl accidentally while imitating
wrestling moves. Lionel is serving his sentence and awaiting the outcome
of appeals. Gov. Jeb Bush denied his request for an early clemency
Both the Brazill and the Tate cases have prompted
debate about trying of young offenders as adults. In May, State Senator
Walter Campbell called for changing the way Florida handles young
violent offenders. And the human rights organization Amnesty
International, which monitored both cases, has urged an overhaul of
At the hearing today, Palm Beach County sheriff's
deputies testified that Nathaniel was not the silent and solemn young
man he appeared to be in court. They testified that in his holding cell
between court appearances, Nathaniel was unruly and joked about shooting
But a child psychologist who testified for the
defense said Nathaniel's actions probably reflected a false bravado and
his young age. The psychologist, James Gabarino of Cornell University,
also testified that the shooting of Mr. Grunow was the act of a child
dealing with overwhelming problems. Mr. Gabarino said that coupled with
problems at home, Nathaniel's suspension and perceived rejection in Mr.
Grunow's refusal to let him speak to a girl he had a crush on caused the
boy such distress that the victim ''may not have mattered."
Nate Brazill, Sentenced to Grow Up in Prison
By Tim Roche - Time.com
Friday, Jul. 27, 2001
After 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill was convicted
of second-degree murder in May for the shooting death of his
favorite teacher, he rode back to the Palm Beach County Jail in
silence. Tried as an adult, he had faced the possibility of being
found guilty of Murder One. As he strode into the 12th-floor cell he
shared with other youths accused of violent crimes, the Florida
teenager could hardly imagine the life in prison awaiting him when
the judge eventually sentenced him. "What up, Nate?" the others
greeted him. "Saw you on TV. Coulda done worse." He laid on his bunk,
crying alone in his cell. Later that night, the others crowded
around the TV to watch an episode of Law & Order. It was about a
school shooting, captured on video, a case just like his. Nate could
not stay and watch. He retreated to his cell.
On Friday morning, Nate gulped silently as Circuit
Judge Richard Wennet finally determined his fate: Instead of life in
prison, Nate will serve 28 years, followed by another seven years of
house arrest and probation. His jail buddies were right again — he
could've done a lot worse. Prosecutors and relatives of teacher Barry
Grunow had asked the judge to imprison him for the rest of his life. Or,
at least, for 40 years.
Talk to school teachers about the sentence, and you
can understand why they feel Nate got off lucky. Murder is murder, they
say. Had he killed a police officer, another public servant, there is
little doubt that he would have received life. With 29 school employees
killed violently on the job since 1992, the National Education
Association is now offering homicide insurance to the 2.6-million
members of the union. Talk to the family of the slain teacher, and you
can understand why they do not want to be walking down the street some
day and bump into the killer of their loved one.
Still, the question remains whether the seventh-grader
deserved more or less. The judge may have ordered him to get his GED and
take anger-management courses in prison, but can Nate be properly
rehabilitated growing up inside? How much should he suffer for one fatal
mistake? He had been an honor student. He had been mild mannered and
likeable, the kind of kid whom teachers and principals relied upon to
help settle schoolyard disputes. He loved school, and he loved Barry
On the last day of school in May 2000, Nate was sent
home early because he had been throwing water balloons. He was told to
leave school, before he had a chance to say goodbyes to teenager Dinora
Rosales, his first serious girlfriend who only six days earlier had
given him his first kiss. Fuming, he went home, got a gun belonging to
his grandfather and returned to the school, where he stood outside
Grunow?s classroom and demanded to see his girlfriend. Grunow did not
take him seriously enough, so he cocked the gun. Then he fired one
bullet, which struck Grunow in the head. As his favorite teacher lay
dying, Nate ran.
In an interview with TIME before the jury convicted
him in May, Nate said he did not intend to pull the trigger. It just
happened. Afterward, he said, "I just felt like jumping into the lake
and drowning myself. I was disappointed. Disappointed in myself."
At his emotional sentencing hearing this week, Nate
read a statement as defense lawyers tried to persuade the judge to spare
him life in prison. "Words cannot really explain how sorry I am," Nate
told the judge, "but they're all I have." His mother, Polly Powell,
blamed herself for the tragic turn in her son's life. While he may have
been an A-student at school, he was surrounded by domestic abuse and
alcoholism at home. She never made good choices in men, she said. The
cops had gone to the family's house five times on domestic violence
calls. Just months before the shooting, Powell also was diagnosed with
breast cancer. "I don't know what happened with my baby," Powell told
the judge. "We need to search ourselves as human beings and see how can
we just throw away kids like this."
The teacher's widow, Pam Grunow, came to the
sentencing hearing, carrying a quilt made by her husband's students. She
told the judge, "Maybe tomorrow, another woman's husband, another little
boy's daddy and another great teacher won't be sacrificed in an angry,
As for other teenage gunmen who have been
incarcerated after school rampages, they received varying degrees of
punishment, serving everything from two years to multiple life sentences.
The 28 years handed down in Nate's case falls in the middle. He will get
credit for the 428 days he has served awaiting the outcome of his trial.
Already, the months of confinement in an adult county
jail have hardened Nate. It has forced him to turn inward in a seemingly
callused, sullen and uncaring way. Teachers who see him now cannot
believe how much he has changed. He also has grown; the puberty that no
doubt helped drive many of his actions that fateful day, from his
decision to arrive at school with flowers for a sweetheart to his
pointing the gun at Grunow, have made Nate larger, broader across the
shoulder, his voice deeper. He no longer looks like a child.
Even at 14, Nate still does not see the world like an
adult. Adult inmates can often recall every detail of a crime even years
afterward. Someday, Nate is likely to be serving a sentence for a crime
that has receded like any childhood memory. Most people, by the time
they reach their 40s, would have trouble remembering the names of
seventh-grade teachers. Thirty years from now, Nate probably won't
remember what Barry Grunow's face looked like. But no doubt he will
remember the name.
Brazill convicted of second-degree
murder, sentencing looms
May 16, 2001
A Florida jury convicted Nathaniel Brazill of
second-degree murder with a firearm for shooting Barry Grunow,
deciding that the boy did not plan to kill his seventh-grade
The panel of nine women and three men deliberated for
16 hours before returning to a tightly packed and anxious courtroom. As
the court deputy read the panel's verdict, mixed emotions washed across
the faces of the two families torn apart by the shooting.
Paula Powell, Brazill's mother, sobbed silently after
the verdict was read. But Grunow's brothers, widow and mother weren't
smiling in triumph, instead staring straight ahead.
Standing erect in front of the shocked courtroom and
dressed neatly in a beige button-down shirt and black tie, Brazill, 14,
remained largely stoic throughout the proceeding, as he had during the
trial and on the stand.
"He said 'not too bad,'" defense attorney Robert
Udell recalled after the verdict. "He didn't say anything else and he
went back [to a private room] and he cried."
Most of the Grunow family did not comment on the
verdict, but the victim's brother, Curt Grunow, told Court TV they were
"very disappointed" and felt "the jury must have been watching a
Although Circuit Court Judge Richard Wennet could
conceivably sentence the 14-year-old Brazill to life in prison, the
verdict was a small victory for the defense. The boy was charged with
first-degree murder and faced a guaranteed sentence of life behind bars
without parole if convicted of the more serious charge.
The prosecution pressed hard throughout the trial for
a first degree murder conviction, arguing that Brazill made statements
before the shooting that indicated he planned the killing. But the jury,
instructed by Judge Wennet that premeditation meant thinking "long
enough to allow reflection," decided that the boy was not guilty of the
higher charge. They also convicted Brazill of aggravated assault with a
Both prosecutor Marc Shiner and defense lawyer Udell
said that the sentencing phase of the trial, scheduled by Judge Wennet
for June 29, will be all important. Florida law gives judges wide
sentencing discretion for second-degree murder, which is defined an act
"evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any
premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual."
Brazill could serve a minimum of 21 years in prison
to a maximum of life behind bars.
Prosecutors have said they will seek the application
of a statute that increases prison terms for crimes committed with
firearms. But Udell claims that law, known colloquially as "10/20/life,"
does not apply to criminals younger than 16. The lawyer also said that
his client's age and spotless prior history give Wennet the option of
sentencing Brazill to less time than the statutory minimum.
Udell said he might ask a psychologist who examined
Brazill to testify during the sentencing hearing. Dr. Phil Heller was
expected to take the stand during the trial, but the defense decided not
to call him for undisclosed reasons.
"He was not a sociopath," Heller said in a telephone
interview after the verdict.
Shiner would not disclose a sentencing hearing
strategy, but said he was pleased with the jury's decision in the trial.
"We were confident going into this case that the jury
would make the right decision, a just decision. And we are confident
that they did," said the prosecutor. "The jury did what they thought was
right and what the law requires them to do and the system works."
Brazill shot Grunow on May 26, 2000, the last day of
classes for Lake Worth Community Middle School. A boy without any
history of disciplinary problems, Brazill was suspended that day for
throwing a water balloon.
Upset that he would not be able to say goodbye to two
friends for the summer, he returned to school with a gun and demanded
that Grunow let him see the two girls, who were in his class. When the
teacher refused, Brazill shot him between the eyes.
The highly emotional trial featured the testimony of
23 students — including Brazill — and many more teachers and community
figures. Several of the children broke down on the stand when recalling
the shooting of a beloved teacher by the mild-mannered and well-liked
After the verdict, school officials and community
leaders spoke of looking ahead and healing those scarred by the shooting.
"We're gonna be there for kids and we're gonna be
there for teachers. As needs arise, we'll do what's best," said a somber
Kevin Hatcher, principal of Lake Worth Community Middle School. "I am
very excited that we'll have the opportunity to provide some closure
prior to the school year ending."
The Reverend Thomas Masters, chairman of the
Coalition for Justice and a vocal opponent of the decision to try
Brazill as an adult, said it was necessary to mix compassion and
"We must continue to pray for the healing of the
Grunow family," he stated. "At the same time we're going to have to go
back to the drawing board and fix the juvenile justice system."