by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The prosecutor grilled him.

“Where did you aim the gun?”

“At his head.”

“Where did you hit him?”

“In his head.”

“That was your mission, to kill him at that moment.”

“No sir.”

“You hit your target, didn’t you?”

“No sir.”

It reads like any murder trial, any prosecutor versus killer. Only this accused killer was 14 years old. And at one point, the veil slipped.

“What did Mr. Grunow do when he fell to the ground?”

Nathaniel Brazill, 14, said nothing.

“Did you hear my question?” the prosecutor repeated. He was winning now, a bit full of himself. This was almost too easy. “What did Mr. Grunow do when he fell to the ground?”

The boy snapped. “What do you think he did?”

And he began to cry.

He wiped his eyes. He sniffed. And a metamorphosis occurred. Suddenly, something easily forgotten was remembered.

A child, even one who kills, is still a child.

Live and on television

Make no mistake. American childhood was forever changed last week. Brazill, a teenager — barely a teenager — was interrogated for murder on nationwide TV.

No, this was not the first time a killer so young was charged as an adult. There was the Nathaniel Abraham shooting case in 1999 and the Lionel Tate wrestling death case a few months ago.

But neither kid took the stand.

Here, in the Brazill case — thanks to Florida law that allows cameras to show pretty much anything in court — youth was on trial all day long.

The results were stunning. People couldn’t stop watching. At first it was: “He looks so young.” Then it was: “He sounds so old.” Then: “He’s not very sorry.” Then: “Look, he’s crying.”

It became more about look than substance, more about drama than facts. And suddenly, the idea that we used to hide children’s identities and protect them from media seemed as archaic as quill pens.

Now, I will not sit here and say that Nathaniel Brazill’s youth is some sort of tradeoff for the life of Barry Grunow. For one thing, Grunow was a teacher, and killing a teacher in my book is right there with killing a cop. If our schools, the most precious hope we have for the future, cannot be considered safe from bloodshed, we might as well pack it in right now.

And there is no arguing that Brazill — who went home from school after being suspended for throwing water balloons, got the gun, came back, pointed it at Grunow and then shot — was aware of his actions, if not fully aware of the consequences.

Our desire to protect

Just the same, there is something we are losing as a society if age 13 — the age Brazill was when he shot Grunow — is the same as 21.

Kids that age can’t work. They can’t drive. They can’t vote. They can’t shave. Yet they can kill, and we now consider them cold-blooded enough to lock them away forever.

I don’t know. It seems to me the grandfather who kept the gun in a cookie tin might be somewhat responsible. The parents who failed to teach right from wrong might be somewhat responsible. The culture that celebrates violence in movies and on TV might be somewhat responsible.

And yes, the kid is responsible, too. But isn’t it funny how on one hand we say he’s a killer, but on the other we say the prosecutor went too far in making him cry? If we really believed Brazill was so cold-blooded, would we care if he cried?

Of course not. It’s because deep inside we still have an innate sense of protecting our young. It’s nature. And we know, even as we boil with anger, that there is something very unnatural about a 14-year-old on trial for first-degree murder.

It means there is something wrong with him.

And maybe something wrong with us.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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