BATTLE shaping up over sentence after murder conviction of teen

Thursday, May 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The second-degree murder conviction of a 14-year-old boy who fatally shot his teacher sets the stage for a closely watched sentencing as lawyers argue over how much leniency the judge can hand down.

Nathaniel Brazill was convicted Wednesday by a jury that concluded the teen-ager shot English teacher Barry Grunow on the final day of school last year in a ``hot-blooded killing.''

Brazill faces 25 years to life in prison with no possibility of parole when sentenced June 29. The jury spared him of first-degree murder and its mandatory life sentence, rejecting the prosecution's argument that the killing was premeditated

The teen had insisted that his hands were shaking and the gun went off accidentally. Brazill furrowed his eyebrows as the verdict was read and told his lawyers: ``Not too bad.'' They said he cried after he was escorted from the courtroom by deputies.

The defense says Circuit Court Judge Richard Wennet can sentence Brazill to less than the 25-year minimum, arguing the guideline was not intended for teens like Brazill. Prosecutors say the judge must follow the punishment required by the conviction.

``We think the judge can do everything from zero to life. We're going to argue that it's an isolated incident,'' defense attorney Robert Udell said.

Brazill, then 13, was suspended from school on the day of the shooting for throwing water balloons, but he later returned with the gun, becoming angry when Grunow turned down his request to speak to two girls in his class. He shot Grunow once between the eyes in the doorway of the teacher's Lake Worth Middle School classroom.

A juror said a key factor in the verdict was the final seconds before Brazill fired the .25-caliber pistol.

``The 11 seconds that he held the gun and the four seconds after he cocked it. That was the whole bone of contention right there,'' said juror Toni Sellier. ``As one juror put it, some of us considered it a cold-blooded killing. Some of us considered it a hot-blooded killing. It wasn't easy.''

The victim's brother said he was disappointed the jury didn't convict Brazill of first-degree murder.

``If you want to say that you're not going to convict him because of his age, that's one thing,'' Kurt Grunow told Miami television station WSVN. ``But don't say it wasn't first-degree murder.''

Polly Powell, Brazill's mother, and other family members offered no comments as they left the courthouse. Rev. Thomas Masters, the family's spiritual adviser, said Powell ``realizes it's not over yet.''

``I don't think this is a victory for anyone,'' said prosecutor Marc Shiner. ``This community has lost a tremendous amount.''

The conviction comes two months after 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 life sentence for a first-degree murder conviction.

Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday expressed sympathy for the Grunow family but said Brazill should not be sentenced as an adult, even though he has been tried as one.

``There is a different standard for children,'' he said. ``There should be a sensitivity (in the sentencing) to the fact that a 14-year-old is not a little adult.''

Lake Worth Middle School Principal Bob Hatcher said the school observed a moment of silence for the slain teacher and Brazill when they learned of the verdict.

``Today was a big blow to reality. It was a reality check for them,'' he said. ``This is what happens when you make a bad decision.''