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See Brazill Trial From Both Sides


Stebbins Jefferson

What did you make of Nathaniel Brazill on the witness stand? The flat monotone voice? The steely stare at the prosecutor? The emotionless "yes" and "no" answers?

Did you see a naive boy wearing a mask of stoic adolescent cool, singularly intent on not showing any weakness on television? Or perhaps you saw a crafty, uncaring, remorseless predator? Depending on what you think you saw, you believe either that last May a 13-year-old, in a capricious act of unconscionable violence, took the life of a teacher he called "my friend," or you believe the now 14-year-old is a vengeful, calculating killer whose mature, immoral brain planned and carried out murder. Irrefutably, Nathaniel Brazill committed the crime of shooting his English teacher, Barry Grunow, a caring husband and father. Boy or man, the shooter deserves to be punished. The only question is for how long. After four days off to reflect - hopefully without outside influence - on the evidence, the jury will return Monday to hear closing arguments before beginning deliberations. Supposedly, the verdict will affirm justice for all - for the Grunows, for Brazill, for society.

Doing justice is all this trial should be about. My foremost concern, however, is that it is about much more. Politics definitely is in the mix. Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer affirmed that when he ordered a poll to see whether the public agrees that a child who kills should be tried as an adult. Since this assessment was sought after Mr. Krischer had decided to charge then-13-year-old Nate as an adult and probably after the grand jury had returned a first-degree-murder indictment, the self-serving poll already was compromised by this case, which has galvanized international debate over how the legal system should deal with children.

In the choices they made, Nate's parents also were influenced by the political understanding that the goals and policies that govern our society typically do not value a black boy's future as a significant loss if he is put in prison for life. Hence, no plea-bargain offer prior to trial could convince them that the criminal justice system was prepared to offer a sentence that factored in appropriate concern for their son.

While I believe it to have been counterproductive in this case, that kind of thinking also probably convinced the parents to reject a public defender and choose another lawyer. The private defense attorney, however, succeeded only in demeaning the connotation of "practicing" law. His major tactic was to put an older, physically stronger boy on the stand to blot from memory the image of the slight boy shown on the school security and police department videos.

Given the precedent-setting nature of this case, I find it impossible to believe that a public defender would not have presented evidence that a boy who just turned 13 is neurologically incapable of making adult decisions. That point needed to be established not solely in Nate's interest but in the interest of all the other youngsters we have allowed to become mesmerized by societal violence and mistakenly convinced that they, too, have a right to use deadly force.

Admittedly, such thoughts beg the question of what is just and fair for everyone in a democracy. For historical reasons, all of us should wonder whether this case has been compromised by traditional politics that values the worth of one group over that of another.

As we await a verdict, I urge all of us not to adopt the myopic view that support for the Grunow family amounts to disregard for the youthful offender or vice versa. That kind of polarization would blind us to our common responsibility for school violence and the moral upbringing of children. To our detriment, society is raising too many kids incapable of distinguishing between taunts by schoolmates and orders given by adults in authority. We have failed to condition such youths to consider any standards other than those they devise for themselves. Together, we must change that.

Last May 26, two tragic deaths occurred at Lake Worth Middle School. Those who see only one should look again.

Stebbins Jefferson is a columnist for The Palm Beach Post.

Originally published in The Palm Beach Post on Saturday, May 12, 2001.


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