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Was It Right to Try Nathaniel Brazill as an Adult?

Aired May 15, 2001 - 19:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Swear the truth, so help you God?

NATHANIEL BRAZILL, CHARGED WITH MURDER: I do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight in Florida, 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill awaits a jury verdict that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. Is the sentence too stiff? Was it right to try him as an adult?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: in Detroit, criminal defense attorney Geoffrey Fieger; and in New York, former prosecutor Nancy Grace, a Court TV anchor.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. He can't drive a car. He can't serve in the Army. He can't even buy a beer, but 14- year-old Nathaniel Brazill can be tried as an adult, and is, for first-degree murder for shooting and killing his teacher last year; he says, unintentionally. Tonight, his fate lies in the hearts and minds of a Palm Beach County, Florida jury. If convicted, he could face from 15 years to life in prison.

But Brazill's trial, seen on national television, on top of the recent trial, also in Florida, of young Lionel Tate, again raises the question of whether it's a good idea to be putting kids on trial in grown-up courts and sending them to grown-up prisons.

Under the law, should young people be treated the same as adults? Or does every young person deserve a second chance? Sitting in on the right tonight, the smarter and better-looking member of the Buchanan family, sister Bay Buchanan.

Bay, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

BAY BUCHANAN, GUEST HOST: Thanks very much, Bill, my pleasure to be here.

Let's start with Geoffrey. We'll ask you, Geoffrey Fieger: this is young man, he's a seventh-grader, who told his friend that afternoon that he wanted to do two things that day, he wanted to get himself -- kill his counselor, No. 1; and No. 2, he wanted to get all over the news.

He went home, collected a gun that he himself had loaded with five bullets, returned to school where he murdered his English teacher point blank range. The question that was asked, or was in the mind of the prosecutor -- he had two choices, Geoffrey: treat him as a child, and that young man would have gotten maximum, six to nine months, was the maximum that he could have gotten. He would have been back in the eighth grade a year later, or treat him as an adult.

Did he not do the right thing by treating this young man as an adult, and prosecuting him as such?

GEOFFREY FIEGER, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Absolutely not. And I don't believe that you could keep him in the juvenile system until he was 21, but he would get therapy, he would get intensive therapy, and the recidivism and the savings, both to the taxpayers in terms of keeping him in jail for the rest of his life and the possibility that if he ever got out, he would do serious damage because he would be a super criminal is greatly diminished.

Nobody in the right -- you have to understand, the prosecution of this child is solely political. It's based on a crime he committed, and not his ability to understand the charges against him, to participate in his own defense. As Bill said in the introduction, we don't let him drive a car because we don't trust him. We wouldn't let him own a gun. We don't let him contract, we don't let him go into the military.

And I'll tell you this: if he had had sex with another 13-year- old girl, neither of them could consent, we wouldn't charge him with criminal sexual conduct, because we would understand that they were children.

BUCHANAN: Geoffrey, we are talking about a fellow who did -- not what he could or couldn't do -- but what he did was take a gun -- premeditated. He stole the gun, he got it, he loaded it, and he took it to school, and he murdered his English teacher after telling him that's exactly...

FIEGER: Bay, Bay, think about it.

BUCHANAN: No, no, Geoffrey, what makes you think that a 13-year- old doesn't know exactly what he was doing that day?

FIEGER: Because his brain is only two-thirds the size of an adult, and in every other instance you would understand this automatically.

I am telling you, if it was a 40-year-old man having sex with a 13-year-old, you'd have no problem putting him away for the rest of his life on criminal sexual conduct. But if it's 13-year-old having sex with a 13-year-old, you say these are children. And that's an enormous crime! In this country, we lock up hundreds of thousands of people for a long, long time, but it's because of this crime.

There is -- there's a desire in this country now for retribution. This is primarily political. It is based on basically a criticism of the liberal social safety net, if you will. And the Republican conservative reactionaries saying, let's put them all in jail, let's build prisons, let's house them there. And the result will be a breeding of super criminals.

PRESS: Nancy Grace, let me pick up there with you, if I can. Welcome to CROSSFIRE, by the way.

In every other aspect of life, we treat kids differently. All right? We won't let them go to the same movies that grown-ups go to. As I indicated earlier and Geoff just mentioned, they can't serve in the Army, they can't buy a beer. You know, they can't drive a car. They can't go to work in a factory. There seems to be an underlying belief that kids are vulnerable, deserve special treatment. Why do we throw that out the window when it comes to breaking the law?

NANCY GRACE, FORMER PROSECUTOR: Well, actually, when it comes to, as you say, breaking the law, children are treated as adults only with certain specific, designated felonies, felonies that are deemed so heinous as to deserve more than writing an essay in juvenile court, or getting a slap on the wrist or a few weeks in juvie jail: crimes like rape, sodomy, murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, those crimes that our society thinks deserve adult treatment.

And I find it very disturbing that Mr. Fieger would argue that this is all politics. Why don't you ask the family of 35-year-old Barry Grunow, now dead, leaving behind a widow, a baby girl and a little boy to face life without a father? This is not political. Other young men age 14 are tried as adults, I have tried them myself. The issue is the crime.

PRESS: Well, I don't think anybody here is in any way defending what this young man did. I think the question is, how should he be treated under our system of justice.

GRACE: Well, you brought up an interesting point.

PRESS: You mentioned about...

GRACE: You brought up an interesting point about driving, not being able to drink. And you know what? You're right to a certain extent, Bill. Our society tries under the law to keep juveniles from hurting themselves by drinking, by driving, by entering a bad contract that could only hurt themselves, by entering the military.

But when a young man takes a gun, steals a gun, conceals a gun, and then fires it at his teacher point blank, shooting him in the face, society cannot protect him from criminal acts like murder.

PRESS: Well, I'll tell you, I'm a father...

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Geoff, let me just jump in here. I'm a father and I'll tell you, it pained me to -- as hard as that crime was, to see that kid on the stand. I would like you to listen to what his father had to say about something that I think applies to -- should apply to every kid. Here's Nathaniel Brazill Sr.

No, I'm sorry, it's -- actually I am going to read it to you, it's something he said on CBS news the other morning, quote: "This could be their child. Would they want their child to spend of the rest of their life in prison? It's just not fair. Every child deserves a second chance."

I mean, do you really think that a 13-year-old ought to be ruined for life, no matter what he did?

GRACE: Ruined for life? At least, he will -- there is a chance he will get out of jail. Barry Grunow will never get out of his casket and walk among us.

Now, you bring up another interesting point regarding life in prison. And in almost every jurisdiction in this country, there are provisions for juveniles to be tried as adults with very serious crimes like murder and rape. However, not every jurisdiction would give them life behind bars without the possibility of parole. That's a whole different animal.

BUCHANAN: Geoffrey, I want you to take a look at this young man, Nate, while he was testifying in his own trial. Let's take a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRAZILL: I was holding the gun in my hand. My finger was on the trigger. I was holding it with both hands, holding it kind of tightly and that's when the gun went off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who pulled the trigger?

BRAZILL: I did.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BUCHANAN: Now, you tell me, Geoffrey, that you do not believe that that young man who was very smart by all accounts, did not understand what he was doing? He said: "I pulled the trigger." You don't think he knew he was murdering his teacher when he pulled that trigger?

FIEGER: I absolutely do, Bay, and you're not going to have a disagreement with me on that. But if I am representing him, my position is -- because I did represent Nathaniel Abraham who was in the same position as him, and who was 11 when they charged him with first-degree murder as a child.

And he could not assist in his own defense. He does not understand the nature, the quality of the charges against him. He may understand it on a very primitive level right from wrong, but he doesn't understand it as an adult. So, I would have had to -- I did have the equivalent of a retarded person being represented by me.

BUCHANAN: Geoffrey, this is no retarded young man. I have a 13- year-old...

(CROSSTALK)

FIEGER: He's a bright -- wait.

BUCHANAN: He's very bright. And 13-year-olds are very smart young people. They know what...

(CROSSTALK)

FIEGER: ... they may be. They're smart...

BUCHANAN: Are you suggesting that any 13-year-old can just go out now and shoot a teacher, and you're saying that he should be given counseling for a couple of years?

FIEGER: No, not counseling for a couple of years. I am saying, on a societal level, first of all, we've made a choice very, very recently to brutalize children. We've always decided intensive counseling and rehabilitation is the way to go with children, because housing them in an adult prison and then some day letting them out, costs us millions if not billions of dollars...

BUCHANAN: Geoff, that's just not true.

FIEGER: ... it costs society. That's absolutely....

BUCHANAN: That is just not true, Geoff.

FIEGER: It's not only not -- it is true. Sociologically...

(CROSSTALK)

GRACE: ... treat juveniles as adults for decades. This is not some new thing. Juveniles have been treated as adults for years!

FIEGER: Not at the younger age. Not at 13 or 11.

GRACE: I don't know what you mean by younger age.

FIEGER: I'm talking about 13 or 11. I'm talking about prosecutors having the sole decision to make a decision.

GRACE: Well, over -- OK.

FIEGER: No.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Guys, it works better if there's only one of you at a time. We got plenty of time. Go ahead, Geoff, you were making a point.

FIEGER: We're not talking -- the laws now that are being passed in Florida also, allow the prosecutor the sole discretion to decide whether or not to charge as an adult. And almost invariably they charge against African-Americans, they charge against poor, and they do it politically because this is really a political act and it isn't an act saying, how could we best deal with this child?

PRESS: Go ahead, Nancy.

GRACE: I don't know why Geoff Fieger keeps saying it's political, it's political. Almost every time you have a juvenile gunning somebody down -- premeditated. This particular young man, Nathaniel Brazill, stole the gun, hid the gun, bragged he would be on TV that night. Went home, got the gun, tried to find another gun, concealed it, came back to the school, told his friends, "Hey, you better go home. I am going to cause trouble. I am going to "F" this school up," went in and shot his teacher. That is premeditation.

FIEGER: We have the Kayla Rowland case. A 7-year-old did that to Kayla Rowland. Should we put him in prison too?

PRESS: Nancy, if I can, OK, we know what the crime was. We know who did it. The question is, this kid is 13. All right, you won't believe a bleeding heart liberal like me, I'd like you to listen to a conservative. It happens to be the Governor of Florida who's making a point I just don't think you are hearing. Maybe Jeb Bush can get through. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: I think that there ought to be a different sentence, different level of punishment for 12 to 14-year- olds than 24 to 28-year-olds.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: That's the basic point.

GRACE: I don't see the problem. The U.S. Supreme Court has said the same thing, that 16 and under are will not be subjected to the death penalty. That means that a juvenile.

FIEGER: Why not?

GRACE: That means a juvenile in this case if he's treated differently than an adult could get life, but not life without parole.

FIEGER: Oh, wait a second. You are going to charge him as an adult, you're going to treat him as an adult, you're going to sentence him as an adult, but we won't fry him in the electric chair, Nancy. What's that about?

GRACE: The reality is, the reality is that sitting in "juvie" jail, writing a 300 word essay after you gun down your teacher is not is not sufficient.

FIEGER: The fact of the matter is, the recidivism is much lower in the juvenile system than it is in the adult prison system.

PRESS: The reality is also which both of you broadcasters understand, it's time for a break, so hold your horses while we take one and we want to just reassure everybody at home that the debate is not going to stop when this show is over, because both of our guests have agreed to be online this evening. They'll take your questions and you can throw those questions to them by logging on to cnn.com/crossfire.

When we come back: Well, the trial of this young man is one thing. But is it necessary to also put him on trial on television? More CROSSFIRE coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BUCHANAN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Bay Buchanan, sitting in on the right. Last year, 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill shot and killed his English teacher at point-blank range. He says it was an accident. The state of Florida is prosecuting him as an adult. Are they doing the right thing by this child and should Brazill's trial be covered gavel-to-gavel on national television?

That's what we're talking about with our guests tonight: in Detroit, criminal defense attorney Geoffrey Fieger, and in New York, former prosecutor Nancy Grace, who is now a Court TV anchor -- Bill.

PRESS: And Nancy Grace is that Court TV job I'm going to ask you about now because anybody accused of crime today has a double burden not only on trial but going on trial some of then on national television, like this young man and I've got to admit as a father I found it awkward to watch him on the stand, scared out of his gourd being grilled by the prosecutors.

I'd like you to listen to what one of the more famous defense attorneys in the country, Roy Black, said about this trial on television. He said this on CNN the other night. Here's Roy Black.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROY BLACK, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Here we're doing it on television. We're taking a 13-year-old kid, now 14, trying him, not only in public, but on television and having him testify and cross-examined by a seasoned prosecutor. I mean, I'm embarrassed at our system of justice that's doing this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Aren't you embarrassed you're putting that on Court TV?

GRACE: Absolutely not. I think you should check the constitution that guarantees open and public proceedings for every trial. For instance...

PRESS: Doesn't guarantee -- hey, Nancy, it doesn't guarantee him on television. You can't get away with that. That's not in the Constitution and it never will be.

GRACE: Well, maybe if you were living back in 1776 when independence was first declared, TV would not be a necessity, but unfortunately, in this world, we've grown a lot. And now an open courtroom is open to the entire country, especially a case of this significance. This issue, juveniles on trial as adults, has been hotly contested, very hotly contested especially since Mr. Fieger's case that he handled, the case of Nathaniel Abraham.

Now, let me ask you this, would you prefer a closed and secret proceeding that would subject this case to a lot more charges, for instance political motivation? Aren't you concerned about what's going on in courtrooms? Why shouldn't it be open?

PRESS: Actually on CROSSFIRE, we ask the questions, we don't answer them, but since it's a good question I'll answer it. I don't see anything wrong, under our system of justice, in having a fair trial by jury that is not televised.

GRACE: Well, guess what. The Florida legislature disagrees.

FIEGER: Bill, the fault doesn't lie with Court TV. The access is open to them, so they're going to jump in there. The fault lies with the state of Florida doing this to this child, because regardless of the outcome now, he can never, ever have a normal life. What they've done to this child -- I'm not going to blame Court TV for having the opportunity.

GRACE: It's not the state's fault he can't have a normal life, it's his fault for committing murder.

FIEGER: Nonsense.

BUCHANAN: Exactly. Geoffrey, he did murder his English teacher. Let's not forget this, let's not forget the concern of his -- the family of the English either.

FIEGER: We're not forgetting it at all.

BUCHANAN: Let me ask you something. Florida, I think, there's millions of Americans, I think, are equally concerned about sending a 13-year-old, 14-year-old into the adult prison system. And so Florida has just passed a law they would have juvenile facility for children who are convicted of adult crimes.

FIEGER: Right, we have it in Michigan.

BUCHANAN: Would it not make perfect sense to send the child, make him do time, adult time for an adult crime, in a facility that is -- he's somewhat protected until he is an adult?

FIEGER: Nonsense. You spend millions and millions. We did it here in Michigan. We built a kiddie...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: ... talk about justice here?

FIEGER: There's not justice here. We're talking about -- we built a kiddy prison with turrets and barbed wire and guard towers, exclusively for children. And then they graduate and go to the big house, and they get reared by adult felons...

GRACE: Geoff, whose fault is that? It's their fault for committing murders. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Buchanan, I agree with you 200 percent. In fact, in most jurisdictions -- in most jurisdictions, when a juvenile is treated as an adult and sentences, they stay in a juvenile jail until they go on to adult prison.

FIEGER: Could I ask all of you how we got to this...

(CROSSTALK)

FIEGER: How did we get to this point, where we never did this before to children, and now we feel the necessity to do it? Why now? Why now?

GRACE: Well, No. 1 is that's not true.

FIEGER: That is true.

GRACE: These have been be place for decades.

FIEGER: We never tried 11-year-olds for first-degree murder, like they did Nate Abraham, and they would in Florida, ever.

BUCHANAN: OK, Geoffrey, I'll tell you why we got here. We got here because young kids are now killing their classmates and their teachers and their friends, all right?

FIEGER: Hey, I've got news for you. I've got news for you. The crime rate of children is going down. The only crime rate that's going up is children with guns, and guess why? Because there's more guns because people like you won't restrict the amount of guns out there.

BUCHANAN: When they commit murder, that is an adult crime.

FIEGER: They should people.

BUCHANAN: You must have some accountability for these young kids.

FIEGER: I understand that.

BUCHANAN: To send a message they can't be doing this.

FIEGER: Why will you give them credit for having malice of forethought, or the ability to form intent, but you won't give them credit -- you wouldn't give them the keys to a car and let them make a decision at a traffic light? You wouldn't do that.

PRESS: Nancy...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: I don't give them a gun. They steal the gun, friend. If they steal a car, you lock them up, too. FIEGER: But you refuse to restrict access to guns.

PRESS: All right. Hey, Nancy Grace, I want to come back to you for something you said earlier about the death penalty and kids. The death penalty, actually, for kids in Florida -- the age is 17. I checked today.

GRACE: That's correct.

PRESS: I checked today, there are just a handful of countries in this world that will execute anybody under 18.

FIEGER: Who are they, Bill?

PRESS: They happen to include Iran, Iraq, the Congo. Nigeria. Bangladesh, and Yemen. I mean, don't you think the...

GRACE: And India, .

(CROSSTALK)

GRACE: Are you suggesting that...

PRESS: Don't you think the United States ought to be -- don't you think the United States ought to be better than that? Aren't we known by the company we keep, and isn't that pretty disgraceful?

GRACE: Well, actually, Bill, I think that this is a country ruled by the people. And the people have decided, like many other countries -- countries that even you would agree were civilized, such as India -- has the death penalty. Now, the day that this country no longer wants the death penalty, I'm sure it will be voted out. But right now, you are in the wilderness.

PRESS: We're talking about for kids, Nancy. For kids, Nancy. Not the death penalty (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

GRACE: In my mind...

PRESS: Executing kids.

GRACE: The Supreme Court has spoken to that, and stated 16 and under is too young to face the death penalty.

PRESS: And there are 12 kids today on death row in this country.

GRACE: What do you mean by kids?

PRESS: So much for the Supreme Court.

GRACE: What do you mean by kids?

PRESS: I mean under 18, Nancy.

GRACE: You mean 17, 18. Yes, that's right.

FIEGER: And why would we restrict the death penalty if we don't restrict the trials. Why?

PRESS: All right. Lots more to talk about, but we are out of time. Geoffrey Fieger in Detroit, thank you for joining us. Nancy Grace, good to have you here.

FIEGER: Thanks, Bill.

PRESS: Nancy Grace from New York...

GRACE: Bye, guys.

PRESS: Good to have you here.

OK, Bay Buchanan and I, both parents, both feel hotly about the issue. We'll both be back for closing comments, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: OK, so we told you it doesn't end here, folks. Geoffrey Fieger and Nancy Grace are in the chat room. You can join them right now right after the show, cnn.com/crossfire, right after closing comments.

Bay, you know what gets me is the hypocrisy of this. We glorify violence on TV. We glorify violence on the movies. We let guns get all over the place, and then when a kid commits a violent act -- surprise, surprise -- we blame them and not us. Shame on us.

BUCHANAN: You want to prosecute all of us? I'm telling you, give a gun -- a kid steals a gun, he takes it, he kills his teacher. There has to be accountability. That kid knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to get all over the news, Bill. And he did.

PRESS: I don't think he had any idea what life in prison means. I don't think he had any idea, "without parole," or what the "death penalty" means. He is not an adult, and you cannot expect him to think as an adult.

BAY: Listen, he thought as 13-year-old, I want to kill my teacher. That is a very mature thought, and he knew how to get all over the news. He did it. That's what he's accountable for.

PRESS: All right, that's it. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. I'll see you later in "THE SPIN ROOM."

BUCHANAN: And from the right, I'm Bay Buchanan. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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