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Iowa teen sentenced to life with a chance of parole for Spanish teacher’s beating death

A teenage boy entering a courtroom, wearing a bulletproof vest over an orange inmate uniform.
Willard Miller, pictured in March, was sentenced Thursday for his part in the fatal 2021 beating of high school Spanish teacher Nohema Graber in Fairfield, Iowa.
(Kyle Ocker / Ottumwa Courier via Associated Press)
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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.

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“I will not gloss over the fact that you and Mr. Goodale cut Nohema Graber’s precious life short,” Judge Shawn Showers said as he sentenced Miller.

As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors had recommended Miller receive a term ranging from 30 years to life in prison, with the possibility of parole. Goodale is to be sentenced later.

Prosecutors say two Iowa teenagers killed their high school Spanish teacher last year because of frustration over a bad grade.

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Before being sentenced, Miller said in court Thursday that he accepted responsibility for the killing, and apologized to Graber’s 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 and Goodale killed Graber on Nov. 2, 2021, in a park where the teacher routinely walked after school. Prosecutors said the pair, who were 16 at the time, were angry at Graber because she had given Miller a bad grade.

Under Goodale’s plea agreement, prosecutors have recommended he be sentenced to 25 years to life with possible parole. Goodale’s sentencing is scheduled for August, but his lawyers have sought a delay in the hearing.

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At Miller’s sentencing hearing at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Fairfield, investigators described how officers had found Graber’s body, and talked about social media postings that had led them to question and then arrest Miller and Goodale.

Prosecutors played recordings of police interviews with both teens and displayed photographs of the crime scene, including graphic images of Graber’s body.

The Virginia teacher who authorities say was shot by a 6-year-old student is known as a hard-working educator who’s devoted to her students.

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An Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent, Trent Vileta, recounted how police had found Graber’s body under a tarp in Fairfield’s Chautauqua Park. A wheelbarrow and railroad tie had been placed over the tarp, making it hard to see her body, with only a shoe and a hand visible.

When police pulled back part of the tarp, Vileta said, the only significant injury to Graber appeared to be a severe head wound.

In his police interview, Miller initially said he knew nothing about Graber’s disappearance, but later said he had seen 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. He said Miller had initiated the plan. Miller admitted to helping but denied that he’d hit Graber.

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The two were charged as adults, but as minors 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 southeast of Des Moines.

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