The first of two Iowa teenagers who pleaded guilty to fatally beating their Spanish teacher with a baseball bat in 2021 was sentenced Thursday to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 35 years.
Willard Miller was 16 when Fairfield High School teacher Nohema Graber, 66, was found dead Nov. 3, 2021.
Miller, sitting in orange jail scrubs next to his attorneys, showed no emotion Thursday after District Judge Shawn Showers sentenced him to a minimum of decades in prison after having called his actions "sinister and evil."
Earlier in the day, Miller expressed remorse, apologizing to Graber's family, his own family and the community.
"I'm sincerely sorry for the distress that I've caused you," he told Graber's family. "What I did was wrong, and I accept responsibility for my carelessness, for my ignorance."
Graber's body was discovered in Chautauqua Park in Fairfield not long after she was reported missing. Investigators had searched the park because she was known to walk there, according to criminal complaints. They found her “concealed under a tarp, wheelbarrow, and railroad ties,” the complaints said. She had suffered trauma to the head.
Miller and Jermey Goodale, also 16 at the time of the slaying, were charged as adults with first-degree murder.
Prosecutors said they were angry at Graber because Miller was failing her class. Miller was sentenced first after he pleaded guilty in April as part of an agreement in which prosecutors recommended 30 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Goodale’s sentencing is scheduled for August, but his lawyers have sought a delay in the hearing. Under his agreement to plead guilty in April, prosecutors recommended a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.
Goodale testified they had planned the killing for about two weeks and that both of them struck Graber and then hid her body. Goodale said Miller initiated the plan. Miller admitted helping but denied hitting Graber.
Defense attorney Christine Branstad argued in court Thursday that Miller should not have a mandatory sentence. His client cooperated with investigators, and there was no physical evidence of his swinging the bat that killed Graber, Branstad said.
"He goes through in great detail how he started out as dark jokes and a plan that just went forward. He admits providing the bat. He admits being a lookout. He admits participation," she said. "There is some disagreement about whether or not he had the bat and struck the first blow. ... I think the evidence supports what Mr. Miller has said. There was no blood on him. There was blood on Mr. Goodale."
The two teens were charged as adults, but because of their ages, they were not subject to mandatory sentences of life without parole for first-degree murder. Miller is now 17, and Goodale is 18.
Graber's loved ones and students described her as a loving and dedicated teacher whom everyone adored.
"Her joy was contagious," her former student Claire Epperson said in 2021. "She was the purest soul I could imagine and genuinely cared more about her students with her whole heart."
She added, "I want anyone who didn’t know her to know that she was quite literally an angel on Earth."
Relatives of Graber who gave victim impact statements remembered her as a devoted teacher, an avid churchgoer and a tireless champion for the poor and Hispanic communities.
They also honored Graber, a native of Mexico, as the primary breadwinner in her home, because her ex-husband, Paul Graber, was disabled for more than 20 years with extensive nerve damage to his feet and legs, said his brother, Tom Graber.
Paul Graber, who remained close with Nohema Graber until her death, died last week at 68 from metastatic cancer. His death was called untimely by multiple family members who spoke before Miller’s sentencing. They said that had she been alive, she would have helped him get the medical attention he needed.
“Not only was Nohema robbed of 30-some of the best years of her life, her murder deprived Paul Graber of the love of his life and certainly hastened Paul’s own premature death,” Tom Graber said. “Instead, without Nohema, no treatment was sought until it was too late."