DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The first of two Iowa teenagers who pleaded guilty to beating their high school Spanish teacher to death with a baseball bat was sentenced Thursday to life with a possibility of parole after 35 years in prison.
A judge sentenced Willard Miller after a sentencing hearing that lasted more than seven hours.
Miller and another teen, Jeremy Goodale, had pleaded guilty in April to the 2021 attack on Nohema Graber. The 66-year-old teacher was fatally beaten while taking her regular afternoon walk in a park in Fairfield.
In sentencing Miller, District Court Judge Shawn Showers acknowledged Miller's young age but also noted he had "cut Nohema Graber’s precious life short," devastating her family and the community.
"I find that your intent and actions were sinister and evil. Those acts resulted in the intentional loss of human life in a brutal fashion," Showers said. "There is no excuse."
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors had recommended Miller receive a term of between 30 years and life in prison, with the possibility of parole. Goodale is to be sentenced later.
Before being sentenced, Miller said in court Thursday that he accepted responsibility for the killing and apologized to the Graber family.
"I would like to apologize for my actions, first and foremost to the family," he said. "I am sincerely sorry for the distress I have caused you and the devastation I have caused your family."
Miller also apologized to the Fairfield community, his own family, Goodale's family and the police.
"I'm realizing just the magnitude of my actions, and I know it's wrong and I knew it was wrong and yet I still carried through," he said. "I still did what I did, and I accept responsibility for that."
Ten of Graber's relatives either read or submitted victim impact statements that described the woman as kind, caring and devoted to her family, students and church. Several also blamed Miller and Goodale for the recent death of Graber's husband, who suffered from cancer but delayed treatment amid his depression over the murder.
"I hope you open your soul to the lord and maybe ask for forgiveness there first because you're on a spiral straight to hell," Graber's brother-in-law, Jim Graber said while staring at Miller.
Miller and Goodale killed Graber on Nov. 2, 2021, in a park where the teacher routinely walked after school. Prosecutors said the teens, who were 16 at the time, were angry at Graber because of a bad grade she had given Miller.
Under Goodale's agreement to plead guilty, prosecutors had recommended a sentence of between 25 years and life with the possibility of parole. Goodale's sentencing is scheduled for August, but his lawyers have sought a delay in the hearing.
Thursday's sentencing hearing at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Fairfield initially focused on investigators who described how officers found Graber's body. They also talked about social media postings that led them to question and then arrest Miller and Goodale. Prosecutors also played recordings of police interviews with both teens and displayed photographs of the crime scene, including graphic images of Graber's body.
Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent Trent Vileta recalled police finding Graber's body under a tarp in Chautauqua Park. A wheelbarrow and railroad tie had been placed over the tarp, making it hard to see the body, with only a shoe and a hand visible.
After pulling back part of the tarp, Vileta said the only significant injury to Graber appeared to be a severe head wound.
In the interview, Miller initially said he knew nothing about Graber's disappearance but later said he saw other people carrying her body in the park.
Goodale testified earlier that he and Miller had planned the killing for about two weeks and that both of them struck the victim and then hid her body. Goodale said Miller had initiated the plan. Miller admitted helping but denied hitting Graber.
The two were charged as adults, but because of their age they were not subject to a mandatory sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder. Miller is now 17 and Goodale is 18.
Fairfield, a city of 9,400 people, is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Des Moines.