On Friday morning, Nate gulped silently as Circuit Judge Richard Wennet finally determined his fate: Instead of life in prison, Nate will serve 28 years, followed by another seven years of house arrest and probation. His jail buddies were right again he could've done a lot worse. Prosecutors and relatives of teacher Barry Grunow had asked the judge to imprison him for the rest of his life. Or, at least, for 40 years.
Talk to school teachers about the sentence, and you can understand why they feel Nate got off lucky. Murder is murder, they say. Had he killed a police officer, another public servant, there is little doubt that he would have received life. With 29 school employees killed violently on the job since 1992, the National Education Association is now offering homicide insurance to the 2.6-million members of the union. Talk to the family of the slain teacher, and you can understand why they do not want to be walking down the street some day and bump into the killer of their loved one.
Still, the question remains whether the seventh-grader deserved more or less. The judge may have ordered him to get his GED and take anger-management courses in prison, but can Nate be properly rehabilitated growing up inside? How much should he suffer for one fatal mistake? He had been an honor student. He had been mild mannered and likeable, the kind of kid whom teachers and principals relied upon to help settle schoolyard disputes. He loved school, and he loved Barry Grunow.
On the last day of school in May 2000, Nate was sent home early because he had been throwing water balloons. He was told to leave school, before he had a chance to say goodbyes to teenager Dinora Rosales, his first serious girlfriend who only six days earlier had given him his first kiss. Fuming, he went home, got a gun belonging to his grandfather and returned to the school, where he stood outside Grunow?s classroom and demanded to see his girlfriend. Grunow did not take him seriously enough, so he cocked the gun. Then he fired one bullet, which struck Grunow in the head. As his favorite teacher lay dying, Nate ran.
In an interview with TIME before the jury convicted him in May, Nate said he did not intend to pull the trigger. It just happened. Afterward, he said, "I just felt like jumping into the lake and drowning myself. I was disappointed. Disappointed in myself."
At his emotional sentencing hearing this week, Nate read a statement as defense lawyers tried to persuade the judge to spare him life in prison. "Words cannot really explain how sorry I am," Nate told the judge, "but they're all I have." His mother, Polly Powell, blamed herself for the tragic turn in her son's life. While he may have been an A-student at school, he was surrounded by domestic abuse and alcoholism at home. She never made good choices in men, she said. The cops had gone to the family's house five times on domestic violence calls. Just months before the shooting, Powell also was diagnosed with breast cancer. "I don't know what happened with my baby," Powell told the judge. "We need to search ourselves as human beings and see how can we just throw away kids like this."
The teacher's widow, Pam Grunow, came to the sentencing hearing, carrying a quilt made by her husband's students. She told the judge, "Maybe tomorrow, another woman's husband, another little boy's daddy and another great teacher won't be sacrificed in an angry, crazy moment."
As for other teenage gunmen who have been incarcerated after school rampages, they received varying degrees of punishment, serving everything from two years to multiple life sentences. The 28 years handed down in Nate's case falls in the middle. He will get credit for the 428 days he has served awaiting the outcome of his trial.
Already, the months of confinement in an adult county jail have hardened Nate. It has forced him to turn inward in a seemingly callused, sullen and uncaring way. Teachers who see him now cannot believe how much he has changed. He also has grown; the puberty that no doubt helped drive many of his actions that fateful day, from his decision to arrive at school with flowers for a sweetheart to his pointing the gun at Grunow, have made Nate larger, broader across the shoulder, his voice deeper. He no longer looks like a child.
Even at 14, Nate still does not see the world like an adult. Adult inmates can often recall every detail of a crime even years afterward. Someday, Nate is likely to be serving a sentence for a crime that has receded like any childhood memory. Most people, by the time they reach their 40s, would have trouble remembering the names of seventh-grade teachers. Thirty years from now, Nate probably won't remember what Barry Grunow's face looked like. But no doubt he will remember the name.
With reporting by Broward Liston/West Palm Beach