Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (2024)

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (1)

Iowa law does not permit juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That's very fortunate for Willard Miller, who pleaded guilty to the murder of his Spanish teacher, the judge who sentenced him told him Thursday.

Judge Shawn Showers ordered Miller, now 17, to serve life in prison with a minimum term before parole of 35 years for the 2021 death of Nohema Graber, 66. The Fairfield High School teacher was beaten to death, her body left hidden under a tarp and railroad tie in a city park.

The order came after a daylong hearing reviewing key evidence from the case, including playing for the first time in court video excerpts of interviews by state investigators of Miller and co-defendant Jeremy Goodale, who were both 16 at the time of the killing.

The mandatory minimum was five years longer than the 30 years prosecutors had proposed. Miller's attorneys had asked he be sentenced to life with no mandatory minimum to serve.

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (2)

Goodale, Miller's classmate, who also pleaded guilty in the murder and was prepared to testify against Miller, is set for sentencing next month, although the court has set a hearing on whether to postpone it until a later date. Under his plea deal, prosecutors will call for a 25-year mandatory minimum.

Prosecutors said Miller was upsetabout his grade in Graber's classand had been seen arguing with her about it. Goodale told them he met up with Miller at a park where Graber was known to walk, and that both struck her with a baseball bat before hiding her body. Miller maintained he acted as a lookout, and that it was Goodale who carried out the killing.

Showers in his sentencing order discussed the legal status of juveniles for sentencing. The Iowa Supreme Court has held teens cannot be sentenced to mandatory life sentences for crimes before the age of 18, while the U.S. Supreme Court has limited life without parole for juvenile offenders to the rare cases of those whose crimes reflect what it termed "permanent incorrigibility."

Showers made clear that, despite Miller's youth, the circ*mstances of Graber's killing and his conduct before and since did not warrant lenience.

"I think you're very fortunate, Mr. Miller, that the state of Iowa does not allow the option of life without the possibility of parole," Showers said. "That would have been a serious consideration for me if I had that option."

New details of Nohema Graber's killing revealed

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (3)

Key details of the murder have been known for months: that Miller, upset about his grade, recruited Goodale to help him plan Graber's killing, and that the two surprised her Nov. 2, 2021, as she went on her regular evening walk in Fairfield's Chautauqua Park. Miller — according to Goodale — was the first to strike Graber on the head with the metal baseball bat. They struck her again to ensure her death and concealed her body, then tried to hide her van.

The two swiftly became the focus of the murder investigation after Goodale sent Snapchat messages to another school friend incriminating himself and Miller. The friend quickly showed the evidence to police, who sought search warrants for the boys' homes and mobile devices.

According to testimony Thursday, Goodale wasn't the only one who was indiscreet about the crime. Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Trent Vileta said that even before Goodale's messages, Miller had been identified as a suspect after allegedly telling a classmate the day after Graber's disappearance that he'd "caught someone with a baseball bat."

Yet another student reported secondhand that, prior to Graber's death, Miller had told a classmate that Graber might disappear.

Thursday's hearing also featured newly public video excerpts from interviews both teens gave to law enforcement officials — Miller when he was arrested, and Goodale months later as part of his plea deal. When asked how he'd weighed the possible consequences for helping Miller, Goodale told investigators he hadn't.

"I’ll be honest, consequences didn’t even cross my mind," he said.

Family grieves not once, but twice

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (4)

For Graber's large international family, her death was only the beginning of their turmoil, which they described in victim impact statements to the court.

A native of Mexico who worked as a flight attendant and later as a pilot there, Graber moved to Iowa with her then-husband Paul Graber in the 1990s, earned a degree from Iowa Wesleyan University and then taught Spanish for more than a decade, first in Ottumwa and later in Fairfield.

The court heard statements from 10 of her relatives from both Mexico and the U.S. but not from her former husband, who died June 29 of advanced cancer that was diagnosed in March. His funeral was held a day before Miller's sentencing.

Graber's relatives made clear they held Miller responsible for both deaths.

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (5)

"Paul was deeply and understandably depressed by the untimely murder of Nohema, and his life ended last week at the ravages of a metastatic cancer that would have been caught and treated far sooner had Nohema been there," said his brother Tom. "I am certain from knowing Nohema for 35 years she would have made Paul see a doctor much sooner."

Nohema Graber's death has upended the family in other ways, depriving them of a primary breadwinner and source of care for a relative with extensive disabilities, according to the multiple statements.

Siocorro Castillo, Graber's sister who lives in Mexico, said in a written statement that when she came to Iowa for her sister's memorial, she was struck at how deeply Graber was missed in the Fairfield community.

"I think your country has also lost a wonderful human being, a woman who transmitted peace, love and respect," wrote Castillo.

Apologies from Willard Miller, condemnation from judge

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (6)

When the time came for Miller to speak, he stood to offer apologies not just to Graber's family, but to his own and Goodale's. He also apologized to the investigators he tried to mislead early in the investigation when he told them, according to prosecutors, that "a roving gang of masked kids" had forced him to help conceal Graber's body and drive her van away from the scene.

"(I) wholeheartedly accept responsibility for the role I played in the murder," he said, although he did not specify what that was. His attorneys argued Thursday, as they had previously, that evidence supports Miller's claim that Goodale did the actual killing while he acted as a lookout.

Although Miller's defense argued there was no legal basis to impose a mandatory minimum prison term, Showers made clear he disagreed.

He went through more than 20 legal factors he was required to consider, noting the few that mitigated Miller's actions. Even so, he said, the ledger was stacked against the defendant.

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (7)

"The entire Fairfield community has been shaken by the senseless, premeditated murder of one of its beloved teachers. ... You along with Mr. Goodale are accountable for that detrimental impact on the community," Showers told Miller, adding that "any individual who would plan and participate in murder based on an unsatisfactory grade is an individual that will require immense rehabilitation."

Responding to Miller's statement, Showers said he believes Miller is still downplaying his role in the murder.

"While the defendant is remorseful for his current situation, there has been little remorse shown by Mr. Miller for the Graber family," he said.

Miller's sentence will likely keep the teen in custody past his 50th birthday.

"I will not gloss over the fact that you and Mr. Goodale cut Nohema Graber's precious life short," Showers said. "That would not be justice, regardless of your age, Mr. Miller. ... Ultimately, while acknowledging your youth and developing brain, I find your intent and actions were sinister and evil."

In addition to his prison term, Miller under Iowa law will be on the hook with Goodale for $150,000 in restitution to Graber's family, and for other possible restitution as well.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted atwrmorris2@registermedia.com, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at@DMRMorris.

Fairfield teen sentenced to life with mandatory 35-year minimum in teacher's murder (2024)

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