A moment of madness?
A teacher lay dead... Had his student shot to kill?
Nate demanded to see his girlfriend
It was 26 May 2000, and the last day of term.
The long, hot summer holidays stretched before the pupils of Lake Worth Community Middle School, Florida.
But, as Nathaniel Brazill larked around with his schoolmates, a water-balloon fight got out of hand.
Nathaniel, 13, known as Nate, was sent home in disgrace. Suspended.
The young teen was seething about the way that his school year had ended.
Good-looking and popular, he’d recently got together with his school sweetheart
– his first love.
Nate had been looking
forward to spending their last day together before the three-month summer break. Now, he wouldn’t get the chance to say goodbye. To make matters worse, Nate’s grades had recently taken a dip.
His favourite teacher Barry Grunow, 35, who’d previously nominated Nate for a prestigious Student of the Year award, was about to give him an F in English.
Nate’s home life wasn’t much better, either.
Over the years, his alcoholic single mum Polly had brought home a succession of violent and abusive boyfriends.
The police had been called five times, after Polly had been beaten up by one of her lovers.
Now Nate was so furious at being prevented from saying a proper goodbye to his girlfriend, he just couldn’t let it lie.
Making his way home in a growing rage, he grabbed his grandad’s gun and put it in his pocket.
Then he stormed back to the school before the final bell of the year.
Appearing at the doorway of Barry Grunow’s classroom, in the middle of an English lesson, Nate told the teacher that his girlfriend was inside and demanded to see her. He wanted to say goodbye. But Mr Grunow laughed, and refused.
The teacher walked over to the doorway.
But, as he tried to shut the door, Nate Brazill whipped the handgun out of his pocket.
After that, everything happened very quickly.
Brazill cocked the gun. Then the boy pointed it straight at Mr Grunow.
A loud, popping sound rang out through the corridors around the school.
The kids and teachers in other classrooms heard it. The class screamed as Mr Grunow fell to the floor in a pool of blood.
He’d been shot in the head, right between the eyes.
The police raced to the scene of the shooting.
Brazill had fled but was arrested close to the school.
He immediately admitted that he’d shot his teacher and was taken into custody for questioning.
Later, in the interrogation room, the police officers told Nate Brazill the devastating news.
Mr Grunow – a married father-of-two – was dead.
The skinny teenager was filmed shaking and weeping as the realisation of what he’d done hit him.
‘What was I thinking? What was I thinking?’ Brazill cried as he was charged with murder.
Despite his young age, the authorities decided that he should face justice as an adult.
In May 2001, Nathaniel Brazill went on trial.
He admitted shooting his teacher.
The killing had been captured on the school’s CCTV, so there was no doubt who’d pulled the trigger.
But the defendant, by then 14, pleaded not guilty to murder, insisting it was manslaughter instead – a tragic mistake, rather than an intentional act.
The court heard how Brazill had gone home, furious, after being suspended.
At home, he’d found a 25-calibre handgun owned by his grandad.
Putting it in his pocket, he’d headed back to school for a showdown.
Brazill testified in court himself, and claimed the shooting wasn’t premeditated.
The former A-grade student wept as he claimed it was completely out of character.
He insisted that he’d never intended to harm his favourite teacher, let alone kill him.
He told the court he’d only aimed the gun at Mr Grunow
BARRY GRUNOW: Popular teacher, dad-of-two
so that the teacher would take him seriously and let him see his girlfriend.
Brazill also claimed he didn’t pull the trigger intentionally – that he’d thought the safety catch was on.
‘He did not expect the gun to go off,’ his defence lawyer Robert Udell told the court.
But the prosecution insisted that the shooting had been pre-planned.
They painted Brazill as a calculated, cold-blooded murderer who’d set out to brutally end Barry Grunow’s life that day.
‘This is not the act of a child,’ prosecution lawyer Marc Shiner told the jury.
‘This is the act of a person determined to get what he wants at all cost.’ During cross-examination, Shiner handed Brazill the handgun, asking him to show the jury how he’d shot Mr Grunow.
Raising the gun, Brazill said, ‘I had the gun up with both hands like this.’ ‘Who pulled the trigger, Nate?’ Shiner asked. ‘I did,’ Brazill answered. ‘I pulled the trigger, but I didn’t intend to do it.’ The prosecution attempted to show premeditation, asking Brazill if he recalled telling a classmate that he was going to shoot the member of staff who’d suspended him. Brazill had earlier denied making the statement but, in court, admitted he’d said it – but not meant it.
Another schoolmate testified that Brazill had told friends before the shooting that he ‘was going to be all over the news’.
The prosecution wanted Nathaniel Brazill to be convicted of first-degree murder – the most serious of homicide offences in the US.
The offence carries a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole.
This was justified, the prosecution argued, because the shooting was wilful and premeditated, and they said that Brazill had planned it.
The jury also had an alternative, lesser charge to consider – second-degree murder, which meant that, while the killing was intentional, it had been a ‘heat-of-the-moment’ act, rather than pre-planned.
In contrast, Brazill’s defence team insisted that the conviction should be for manslaughter.
They said that, while the teen’s negligence had led to his teacher’s death, he’d never meant to kill him.
And so the jury faced an agonising decision.
Was Barry Grunow’s death an awful, tragic accident? A hot-deaded moment, fuelled by anger? Or calculated, cold-blooded murder?
Had this child truly meant to kill..?
Accident – or coldblooded murder? What do you think? Turn for the verdict…
Nate’s mum Polly had a chaotic life. She died in 2008 CRIME SCENE: Slain in school
Nathaniel Brazill: angry teenager