WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A jury on Wednesday convicted a 14-year-old of walking into his school with a pistol and murdering his English teacher by shooting him between the eyes, a verdict that could send the boy to prison for the rest of his life.
The nine-woman, three-man Palm Beach County jury, however, balked at the finding of first-degree murder sought by prosecutors, which would have meant mandatory life imprisonment with no chance of parole. Instead, jurors agreed on murder in the second degree, which allows the judge to set the sentence.
"Not too bad," was the reaction of the youthful defendant, Nathaniel Brazill, according to his lawyers, after the verdict was read. Then the boy cried, they said.
The case was the latest in Florida where a younger teen was ordered to stand trial as an adult, facing the prospect of a lifetime prison term. Brazill was 13 when he shot his teacher. On Wednesday, at a bill signing ceremony at a Tampa elementary school, Gov. Jeb Bush said Brazill should never have been tried as a grown-up.
"There is a different standard for children," Bush, a Republican, said. "There should be a sensitivity to the fact that a 14-year-old is not a little adult."
Last May 26, on the final day of the school year, Brazill a seventh-grader at the time, shot Barry Grunow, 35, once in the head as the respected and beloved teacher stood in the doorway of his classroom at Lake Worth Middle School. Grunow had refused to let Brazill see two girls in his class to say goodbye for the summer.
The youngster, who had been sent home from school earlier in the day for throwing water balloons, returned with a .25 semiautomatic he had stolen days before from his grandfather. Defense attorneys conceded he aimed the pistol at Grunow, but claimed that he fired it by mistake. Brazill testified that he got mad when the teacher didn't take his request to talk to the girls seriously.
The slaying was captured on a school surveillance camera's videotape, which shows Brazill pointing the gun at Grunow for 11 seconds before the teacher falls to the floor.
The second-degree verdict meant jurors concluded the killing was not premeditated. In an interview after the trial, Toni Sellier, 51, said she and other jurors tried to take Brazill's youth into account as they wrestled with their decision.
Over 14 hours of deliberations, she said, the panel was split between verdicts of first- and second-degree murder, and never accepted the defense's contention that the killing was an accident appropriately punished by a finding of manslaughter, Sellier said.
By noon Wednesday, she said, all jurors had come to agree that Brazill was "caught up in the moment."
"He came back to school with a pistol, and Mr. Grunow happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Sellier said.
Lead defense attorney Robert Udell said Palm Beach Circuit Judge Richard I. Wennet, who set sentencing for June 29, is free to impose anything from "zero to life." His client, Udell said, may not comprehend that.
The trial, which attracted enormous media attention in Florida and the rest of the country, was troubling because it was yet another incident of gun violence in schools, and also because the defendant was a well-liked student with good grades and no previous history of trouble with the law.
After the verdict was announced, even prosecutor Marc Shiner indicated there were two victims in the case: Grunow, who was married with two children, and the popular jokester who had just been convicted of murdering him.
The case also was the second in recent months focusing national attention on how Florida deals with children accused of serious crimes, and sparked public debate over whether the law should be changed to take their age more into account. In March, a 14-year-old Fort Lauderdale boy who said he was imitating his wrestling heroes on television when he killed a young playmate was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Brazill, who was returned to his cell in the county jail pending sentencing, also was found guilty of aggravated assault with a firearm for pointing the gun at another teacher as he fled from the school.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.