In 2000, there were 15,586 murders committed in the United States. Despite this large number, a single violent incident in Florida ignited a national forum on school violence, guns, and the way the U.S. criminal justice system should deal with juvenile offenders.
On May 26, 2000, the last day of the year at Lake Worth Middle School, seventh grader Nathaniel Brazill was sent home for throwing water balloons. He returned later in the day with a .25-caliber handgun and entered his English Arts class demanding to see two female classmates. When teacher Barry Grunow refused his demand, Brazill shot him in the face and watched him die in front of his classroom door.
Today, Brazill is 20 years old and serving a 28-year prison sentence at the Brevard County Correctional Institution in Florida for a second-degree murder conviction in the shooting death of Grunow. At the time of his crime, Brazill was 13 years and 8 months of age. In Florida, juveniles convicted of second-degree murder receive a sentence ranging from 25 years to life in prison–the same punishment meted out to adults.
Although no one disputes the facts about how Grunow was killed, there is much speculation about what might have motivated Brazill to commit this crime and whether these underlying issues should have been taken into consideration in the criminal disposition of his case. Brazill was raised by his mother, Polly Powell, in a single-parent home. Brazill’s biological father, Nathaniel Brazill, Sr., maintained limited contact with Nathaniel. According to court records, Brazill had witnessed his mother being subjected to domestic violence at the hands of her former husbands and boyfriends since he was five years old.
Despite his upbringing, Brazill was an honor student with near-perfect attendance and without any history of violence or discipline. School officials described him as a soft-spoken, bright, and well-liked child. According to the court transcripts of testimony by teachers and classmates, Brazill had often described Grunow as his favorite teacher. In fact, earlier on the day of the shooting, Brazill had asked Grunow to pose in a picture with him. However, according to academic progress reports, the student’s grades had been significantly dropping during the school year.
On April 15, 2000, approximately one month before the shooting, Brazill wrote a letter to Grunow explaining that seventh grade had been a very difficult time in his life. He complained of being picked on by classmates and teachers during the school year and suggested that he might commit suicide. Brazill had also confided in friends that he was infatuated with one of his classmates, Dinora Rosales. Rosales was Brazill’s first girlfriend, who only six days before the shooting had given Brazill his first kiss. Rosales and fellow classmate Suzy Fleureme had been the two females Brazill had attempted to visit in Grunow’s classroom the day of the shooting. According to court testimony, an emotionally upset Brazill had returned to school after being suspended, to say goodbye to Rosales before the beginning of summer break. In fact, on the day of the shooting, Brazill brought a few extra items on the bus with him to school: a card and flowers for Rosales. After the shooting, which was captured on the school’s surveillance camera, Brazill ran down the hall, pausing long enough to wave the gun at another teacher before fleeing the school grounds. Within minutes, Brazill flagged down a police cruiser driven by Officer Mike Mahoney, whom he knew from his neighborhood, fell to his knees in the street, and confessed to the shooting.
After his arrest, Florida prosecutor Barry Krischer decided to try the 13-year-old Brazill as an adult, charging him with first-degree murder, which carried a penalty of life in prison, and under certain circumstances, the death penalty. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, at the time of Brazill’s arrest, there were 15 inmates who were between the ages 13 or 14 at the time of their crimes and had been convicted of first-degree murder. In the early 1990s, spurred by an alarming rise in juvenile crime, Florida amended its laws to make it easier to try youths as adults. In fact, Florida led the nation in prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults. National data on the number of juvenile cases tried in adult criminal court in the United States do not currently exist, but the Department of Justice reports that the state of Florida grants approximately 5,000 requests annually to try juvenile offenders in adult court.
The state of Florida is not alone in its harsh treatment of young criminals. Over the past decade, 47 states have amended their laws to make it easier to put on trial and punish juveniles as adults. In fact, U.S. jails house nearly 75,000 juveniles who are awaiting trial in adult correctional facilities. As many as 200,000 juvenile offenders are prosecuted each year as adults in the United States. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles only be sentenced to life in prison without parole for perpetrating homicide.
Juvenile offenders can end up in the adult criminal system under several mechanisms. Transfer and waiver provisions, which are legislated by state law, allow juvenile offenders to be prosecuted in adult courts if they are accused of committing certain crimes. Judicial waiver–the most common of these provisions– allows juvenile court judges the authority to “waive” juvenile court jurisdiction and transfer the case to adult criminal court. Another method, which state prosecutors in Florida used in Brazill’s case, is called a prosecutorial waiver. Under this law, prosecutors have the authority to file cases against juvenile offenders in either juvenile or adult court based on the seriousness of the criminal offense. Such provisions are also known as “direct file,” “concurrent jurisdiction,” or “prosecutorial discretion.” Today, 29 states automatically exclude certain crimes (ranging from drug offenses to violent crimes) from juvenile court jurisdiction. Thirty-five states have legal provisions best summarized as “once an adult, always an adult,” which mandate that once a juvenile offender has been convicted in adult court, all subsequent offenses, regardless of their severity, will handled through the adult criminal court system.
On May 16, 2001, after 14 hours of deliberations, a West Palm Beach jury convicted Brazill, who was 14 years old at the time, of second-degree murder and aggravated assault. Had he been convicted of the original charge of first-degree murder sought by prosecutors, Brazill would have received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Instead, he received a 28-year prison sentence and will not be released until his 41st birthday in 2028. On July 28, 2008, his mother died of breast cancer. His father, Nathaniel Sr., has broken off all contact with his son
- Campaign for Youth Justice. (2007). Jailing juveniles: The dangers of incarcerating youth in adult jails in America. Retrieved from http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/Downloads/NationalReportsArticles/CFYJ-Jailing_Juveniles_Report_2007-11-15.pdf
- Coalition of Justice Annual Report. (2005). Childhood on trial: The failure of trying and sentencing youth in adult court. Retrieved from http://www.juvjustice.org/media/resources/public/resource_115.pdf
- The Disaster Center. (n.d.). United States Crime Rates 1960 – 2011. Retrieved from http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm
- Moffatt, G. (2002). Violent heart: Understanding aggressive individuals. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Rochie, T. (2001, July 27). Nate Brazill sentenced to grow up in prison. Time.com. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,169246,00.html