A boy who killed his teacher when he was 13 was sentenced by a Florida judge yesterday to spend the next 28 years of his life in prison in a case that has focused international attention on the state's harsh treatment of juvenile offenders.
Neither the gravity of the crime, nor the guilt of Nathaniel Brazill, who is now 14, have ever been in question. He was convicted in May of the second-degree murder of Barry Grunow, his favourite teacher, who sent him home from middle school on the last day of the 2000 summer term for throwing water balloons in class.
Brazill collected a handgun from his grandfather's biscuit jar, and shot Mr Grunow pointblank in the face when he refused to let him back into class to say goodbye to friends.
By declining to find him guilty of first-degree murder, the jury spared him life sentence without parole – the most severe punishment of all given that Brazill was too young to face the death penalty.
Nonetheless, Brazill, in chains and wearing a bright orange prison uniform, stood trembling as he heard Judge Richard Wennet, of Palm Beach County Circuit Court, tell him that he would remain in prison until he was 41.
By imposing a 28-year sentence without parole, Judge Wennet chose to go beyond the mandatory minimum term of 25 years. Although he will start his sentence under special juvenile conditions, Brazill is likely to enter the general prison population when he is 18.
After his release, moreover, he will spend a further two years under "community control" – which amounts to a form of house arrest – followed by five more years on probation.
The case has been a collision point for two burning issues of crime and punishment in America: the gratuitous and tragic gun violence that regularly erupts at American schools, and the way in which states such as Florida insist on trying juvenile defendants such as Brazill as adults.
In that sense there are similarities with the Bulger case in Britain, where the release this year of the two boys, who are now aged 18, who killed the toddler James Bulger provoked a national outcry.
In America, however, there has been little outrage – only a discussion of the degree of remorse shown by Brazill for his crime. On Thursday, the 14-year old expressed his sorrow. He said: "Words cannot express how sorry I am, but they're all I have. My teacher was a great man. As I look back on that day, I wish it had not happened and I could bring Mr Grunow back."
But the prosecution portrayed him as a ruthless, cynical killer, whose "demeanour in court sends shivers up my spine," in the words of the state prosecutor, Marc Shiner.
The defence countered by arguing that Brazill's seemingly uncaring attitude had been the bravado of a frightened child, and that a troubled family background, of illness and physical abuse, should have been taken into account in determining the sentence.
Also involved in the case are human rights groups, among them Amnesty International, which have called for a complete overhaul of Florida's system of trying juvenile offenders. Nathaniel Brazill's case is not the first to attract controversy. In January, another boy, Lionel Tate, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole – although he was only 12 at the time – for killing a six-year-old girl by carrying out a professional wrestling move on her.Reuse content