Teen's Murder Trial Starts in Lake Worth Teacher Shooting

No one disputes that a 13-year-old honor student angry about being suspended fired a single shot that killed a beloved middle school English teacher on the last day of school.

Eleven months later, Nathaniel Brazill's first-degree murder trial gets underway Monday, with Court TV and CNN among the media expected to converge on the Palm Beach County courthouse in the nation's latest school shooting trial.

The defense will tell jurors Brazill, now 14, never intended to shoot Lake Worth Middle School teacher Barry Grunow, a husband, father of two and the seventh-grader's favorite teacher.

But if the jury instead believes prosecutors and Brazill is convicted of first-degree murder, the teen with perfect attendance who had never been in trouble before will spend the rest of his life in prison.

"If you believe Nathaniel then it's an accident," said Brazill's lawyer Robert Udell. "If you don't then it's a problem."

Brazill allegedly told a classmate he planned to shoot the guidance counselor who suspended him. He told the girl "Just watch, I'll be all over the news," police say.

Brazill was sent home by the counselor at about 1 p.m. May 26, 2000 for throwing water balloons. He rode his bicycle back to school about two hours later -- in his pocket, a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol he'd stolen from his grandfather's house.

He told police he went to Grunow's classroom to talk to two girls inside. When Grunow told Brazill to leave, he pulled out the compact Raven pistol and shot him in the face as the teacher stood outside his classroom during the last period class.

A videotape of the shooting captured by a school surveillance camera shows Brazill pointing a gun at Grunow with his arms extended for several seconds before firing.

Brazill also is charged with aggravated assault with a firearm for pointing the gun at math teacher John James as he fled down the outside hallway.

Udell maintains Brazill only brought the gun to campus to make Grunow let him in the classroom to say goodbye to his friends.

With the weapon pointed at the teacher and his finger on the trigger, the gun went off accidentally in an "unintentional trigger pull," Udell said.

"We're going to concede to the jury that Nathaniel pulled the trigger," he said. "The question is whether he meant to, and no, he did not mean to. There was no plan other than to carry the gun. There was no intention of using it for any purpose whatsoever."

In an unusual move, Udell supports showing jurors Brazill's videotaped police confession so jurors can hear the teen say the shooting was an accident. Brazill will testify and repeat to the court what he told police, Udell said.

Brazill and his parents rejected a plea deal offered by the state that called for 25 years in prison.

"I wasn't going to accept it," said his mother, Polly Powell, adding that a conviction could be appealed.

In Broward County last month, a judge sentenced another 14-year-old to life in prison for fatally beating a 6-year-old family friend. Lionel Tate's family rejected a plea bargain of three years in a juvenile prison, a year of house arrest and 10 years of probation.

But Udell said the cases couldn't be compared because the plea bargain offered to Brazill was a "significant term of imprisonment."

Since the shooting, Brazill has been held in the Palm Beach County Jail on a floor with other juveniles charged as adults. It's where he celebrated his 14th birthday.

It's also where he sent a letter to a student allegedly asking her to lie in court about how he showed the gun to several youths a few days before the shooting. He was charged with solicitation to commit perjury.

Last week, he sat quietly between his attorneys during preliminary jury selection, dressed over the two days in crisp slacks, a tie and sweater. His parents sat 15 feet away.

Across the room sat Grunow's mother, sister and two brothers. Absent was his widow, Pam, who is left to raise the couple's 6-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.

The Legislature recently passed a bill named for Grunow to give financial help to families of teachers killed at school.

Grunow taught language arts at Lake Worth Middle, just south of Palm Beach, for seven years. He was a popular teacher and basketball coach who often took kids to play basketball after school. The school has offered regular group counseling to distraught students.

"He was just somebody that they could trust," said Principal Bob Hatcher. "He was one of the teachers that they felt comfortable talking to about anything."

Like many students, Brazill spent part of that fatal day taking pictures of the popular teacher.

"He didn't come back two hours later and decide to kill him," Udell said. "It just didn't happen."