Judge Confronts Brazill, Parents On Rejected Plea Deal
BYLINE: Kathryn Quigley Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
PUBLICATION: The Palm Beach Post
SECTION: Local News
Circuit Judge Richard Wennet leaned toward the microphone and swiftly changed the direction of Thursday's pretrial hearing for 14- year-old murder defendant Nathaniel Brazill.
"I want to explore the plea rejection with the defendant and his family," Wennet said sharply after preliminary jury selection ended.
Last week, Brazill and his family rejected an offer that called for 25 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea to second- degree murder.
"You understand that, while you're just 14 years old, this decision you've made, you may have to live with for the rest of your life?" Wennet asked Brazill.
"Yes, sir," Brazill said quietly.
Brazill is charged with the first-degree murder of teacher Barry Grunow at Lake Worth Middle School May 26. If convicted of the charge, Brazill would go to prison for life.
Also Thursday, Wennet and lawyers for both sides chose 18 more people who said they could judge Brazill fairly. Those prospective jurors and 44 chosen the day before will return Monday for more intense questioning as the lawyers whittle the pool to 12 jurors, plus two alternates. Opening arguments may begin Tuesday.
When the last of the jury pool was sent home, Wennet asked Brazill's parents, Polly Powell and Nathaniel Brazill Sr., to move to the front of the courtroom. He asked for the undivided attention of Brazill, his lawyers and prosecutors. Grunow's relatives also stayed in the room.
Several times and in several ways, Wennet asked the teen and his parents whether they understood the ramifications of going to trial: a possible life sentence.
Each time the answer was the same.
"Yes, sir," Brazill said.
After the hearing, Brazill's parents, who are divorced, said they have faith the jurors would find in their son's favor. Twenty-five years in prison was just too much for a 14-year-old, Powell said.
"I wasn't going to accept that at all," she said.
In a recent Fort Lauderdale case that also gained national attention, the mother of 14-year-old Lionel Tate turned down an offer of three years in juvenile detention and 10 years' probation. Instead, he was sentenced to life in prison after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder for beating his 6-year-old playmate to death.
Assistant State Attorney Marc Shiner won't comment on the Brazill case before it's over.
Prosecutors probably will argue at trial that Brazill was angry after being suspended from school earlier in the day. According to investigators, he went home, got a gun, brought it to school and shot Grunow hours after telling another student he was going to be "all over the news."
Brazill's lawyer, Robert Udell, even told would-be jurors Thursday that Brazill shot Grunow.
"I can tell you right now, we concede he did it, but he still might not necessarily be guilty of murder," Udell said.
Udell said Brazill wants to tell jurors during the trial that the gun went off accidentally and he didn't mean to hurt Grunow.
"Nate has a lot of faith in the criminal justice system," Udell said after the hearing. "He believes the truth will come out."
Besides first-degree murder, the jury could be asked to decide whether Brazill is guilty of lesser charges - second-degree murder or manslaughter - or not guilty at all. Brazill also is charged with aggravated assault with a firearm for pointing the gun at another teacher.
Wennet scheduled preliminary jury selection because of intense pre- trial publicity. He called 180 people into court over two days and dismissed 118 who said they could not judge Brazill fairly or devote two weeks to the case.
Today, the lawyers will discuss a prosecutors' request for a psychiatrist to examine Brazill.
Illustrations/Photos: PHOTO (C);
LANNIS WATERS/Staff Photographer. Defense attorney Robert Udell (left) told prospective jurors that Nathaniel Brazill (right) has faith in the jury system.