Boy who shot Fla. teacher convicted of second-degree murder
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) – A 14-year-old boy who shot his English teacher to death on the last day of the school year was convicted of second-degree murder Wednesday, escaping an automatic sentence of life behind bars with no hope of ever getting out.
”Not too bad,” Nathaniel Brazill told his lawyers, who later said the boy wept as he was escorted from the courtroom.
Brazill had insisted that he only meant to scare the teacher and that the gun went off accidentally.
A sentencing hearing for Brazill was scheduled for June 29, and a battle was shaping up over the boy’s punishment.
The jury rejected a first-degree murder conviction, which carries a mandatory life sentence. A second-degree murder conviction carries a penalty of 25 years to life. A life sentence in Florida is just that – there is no chance of parole – and those given lesser terms must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.
However, defense attorneys say such measures were not intended for teens like Brazill and there is no minimum sentencing guideline Circuit Court Judge Richard Wennet must follow.
Brazill, who was also convicted of aggravated assault for pointing the .25-caliber pistol at another teacher, appeared puzzled as the verdicts were read, frowning and furrowing his brow. His lawyers said Brazill had hoped for a manslaughter conviction.
”I don’t think Nathaniel can think past the next 10 minutes. He doesn’t know 10 years, 20 years, 30 years in jail,” defense attorney Robert Udell said. ”It’s a lifetime to him. He doesn’t understand those numbers.”
In March, 14-year-old Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing a 6-year-old girl in 1999. Tate claimed the death was an accident while he was imitating pro wrestlers, but he received the mandatory sentence for a first-degree murder conviction.
Like Tate, Brazill was charged as an adult. Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said he will expedite a clemency hearing for Tate, expressed sympathy for Brazill’s victim Wednesday but said the boy should not have been tried as an adult.
”There is a different standard for children,” Bush said. ”There should be a sensitivity to the fact that a 14-year-old is not a little adult.”
Brazill was 13 when he shot Barry Grunow, 35, in the doorway of the teacher’s Lake Worth Middle School classroom last May 26. The shooting happened moments before the start of summer vacation and about two hours after a counselor sent Brazill home for throwing a water balloon.
The boy returned to school with the gun and got angry when Grunow turned down his request to speak to two girls in his class.
A surveillance video of the slaying showed Brazill holding the weapon for more than 10 seconds and pointing it at the teacher for four seconds more.
Brazill, an honor student without a previous criminal record, told the jury that he had not planned to use the weapon and that he thought the gun’s safety was on. He admitted he pulled the trigger, but said his hands were shaking.
To return a first-degree murder verdict, the jury had to find that Brazill planned to shoot Grunow or killed him after illegally entering the school to threaten him with the pistol. By finding him guilty of second-degree murder, the jury determined that the shooting was not premeditated.
Juror Toni Sellier, 51, said the panel of nine women and three men, many of them parents, focused on the length of time that Brazill held the weapon and was less swayed by Brazill’s age and testimony.
”The 11 seconds that he held the gun and the four seconds that he cocked it. That was the whole bone of contention right there,” Sellier said.
Sellier said the jury determined Brazill was already upset about being suspended and snapped when an authority figure told him no. ”Mr. Grunow was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Sellier said.
Another juror, Odette Bliss, said: ”I just think he got caught up in the moment. It’s hard to say what he was thinking.”
Brazill’s family, which rejected an offer from prosecutors before the trial that called for 25 years in prison in exchange for admission to second-degree murder, left the courthouse without comment.
The Rev. Thomas Masters said Brazill’s mother, Polly Powell, is still hopeful. ”She realizes it’s not over yet,” he said.
At the middle school, students and teachers observed a moment of silence after learning of the verdict. Grief counselors planned to visit the school Thursday.
”Today was a big blow to reality,” said principal Bob Hatcher, who called the verdict fair. ”It was a reality check for them. This is what happens when you make a bad decision.”
Brazill testified last week in a calm, monotone, almost entirely without emotion. He called Grunow – married with two children – one of his favorite teachers and wiped tears after the prosecutor asked him what happened to Grunow after the shooting.
One classmate testified that Brazill told her he was going to return to school and kill the counselor who suspended him. ”Watch, I’ll be all over the news,” she said Brazill told her. She said she didn’t take him seriously.
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