Down The Middle

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Commentary and analysis by CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen:
No sentence is ever completely acceptable to everyone in a criminal case, given how differently all sides feel about the facts. For that reason, judges never win a sentencing. If they satisfy prosecutors and victims by ordering a harsh sentence, they devastate the defendant and his family and the defense bar in general. And if they offer relief to the defendant by ordering a relatively light sentence, the other side of the fence gets outraged, sometimes rightfully so.

But once in a while, once in a very long while in fact, the facts and law and personalities merge to permit a judge to cut the cake right down the middle and sentence someone in such a fashion that neither side has much reason to complain. That's what happened Friday in West Palm Beach, Fla. in the case of Florida v. Nathaniel Brazill. Circuit Judge Richard Wennet sentenced the 14-year-old to 28 years in prison and ordered him to undertake several key probationary and post-sentence responsibilities.

You can imagine how Brazill's family was delighted with the news. If all goes well for him in prison, if he stays out of trouble, he will make it to "house arrest" when he is 41. But prosecutors, too, didn't seem to be too upset with the relative leniency of the sentence. Just after the hearing, they praised Judge Winnet for making the best of a difficult situation. And the Grunow family, the family of the victim, surely aren't complaining too loudly about Brazill's sentence -- 28 years is no day at the beach. When all sides either praise the judge or at least don't criticize the judge, the judge has come as close to true justice as the current system permits. "The system works," is how a key prosecutor put it after the ruling.

And it was an excruciatingly difficult decision to make given the draconian state of Florida's juvenile laws, which permit children as young as Brazill (he was 13 when the crime was committed) to be prosecuted as an adult. Once Brazill was tried and convicted under that over-broad Florida law, the judge had little or no discretion but to give him a significant sentence. And prosecutors and the victim's family were articulate and moving and persuasive during the sentencing hearing as they sought the maximum for Brazill.

But it became clear during and after the trial that Brazill was not obviously some malevolent, irredeemable force. In fact, it became obvious that Brazill was worth trying to save; that there was something in his fine academic past and the fact that he had not been in trouble before that had reasonably engendered sympathy both with his own attorneys and with the judge himself.

Twenty-eight years is a long time. It's twice as long as Brazill has lived on this planet thus far. But when you consider that Judge Wennet could have sentenced Brazill to life in prison without parole, 28 years doesn't sound or seem so ba. In the end, the judge clearly wanted to give Brazill a chance later in life; clearly felt that a life sentence would be too harsh given the nature of the crime and the criminal who perpetrated it. So not only did he give the young man near the minimum sentence, he also required him to do certain things to prepare for life after jail while at the same time protecting the victim's family.

After his prison time, Brazill goes under "house arrest" for two years and then will be on probation for five more years. He has to earn a GED while in prison or shortly thereafter and undergo and complete anger management training. He also has to stay away from the Grunow family, which had worried during the sentencing hearing about seeing Brazill down the road. It's a sentence which punishes the defendant, offers him some hope for the future, and protects the victim's family in a reasonable fashion.

There won't be unanimous consent for the result here. Some will complain that Brazill got off easy because of some bleeding-heart judge. And others will complain that Brazill never should have received such a long sentence because he never should have been tried as an adult in the first place. These arguments and issues will come up again in cases and courts across the nation. But at least in this one case, the system does appear to have made the most of a bad situation.

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