ORLANDO – Jeff Kunerth was talking with his wife one night when she brought up a subject that he’d never given much thought to before.
“One day my wife brought up the topic,” Kunerth said. “She said, ‘I wonder how many kids are on death row.’ “
Kunerth figured the answer was none – isn’t it true, he assumed, that only adults are given a death sentence.
Curiosity prompted him to check out the Web site for the Florida Department of Corrections, and he discovered that three juveniles, all sentenced at the age of 17, were sitting on death row, which surprised him. One of those three cases began to intrigue Kunerth, who started doing more research into it.
It was the case of James Patrick Bonifay, a man now 38 years old, who at the age of 17 was given the death penalty for shooting and killing a worker at an auto parts store on the Panhandle. The result of Kunerth’s interest in the case became “Trout,” a non-fiction book that he wrote, based in part on lengthy interviews with Bonifay himself, who is now incarcerated at the Wakulla Correctional Institute in Crawfordville. He is, however, no longer on death row. The full name of the book is “Trout: A True Story of Murder, Teens, and the Death Penalty.” Trout is the name of the auto parts story where the fatal shooting happened.
It’s a story, Kunerth said, that tells us something about the way teens develop their own unique concepts of what constitutes criminal behavior – and how their lack of judgement can have devastating results for themselves, their family, and their victims.
“Kids are different,” Kunerth said. “As parents we know that. A lot of times we’re attracted to a bad kid. Bad kids can grow up to be bad adults – it happens all the time. But there is also the possibility for change. There is a potential for change as an adolescent that you don’t have as an adult.”
Kunerth talked about his book on Saturday at the Orlando branch of the Orange County Public Library System. He was introduced by Kris Woodson, the library’s programs director, who said she was pleased to welcome him as part of the library’s ongoing efforts to introduce local authors to the community.
“It’s my pleasure to work with local authors and feature them here at the library,” Woodson said. “I got an email the other day from a gentleman who said, ‘Hey, I’m a new local author, do you think I could speak at the library,’ and I said ‘Of course!’ ”
Kunerth is an award-winning journalist and coauthor of the book “Florida’s Paved Bike Trails.” He teaches writing and reporting classes at the University of Central Florida, and lives with his wife, Gretchen, in Altamonte Springs.
Kunerth said at the time his wife brought up the subject of juveniles on death row, he was searching for a topic to write about for a second non-fiction book.
“The main thing I wanted was a story I could tell that had a beginning, a middle and an end,” Kunerth said.
He felt he’d found that in Bonifay, a teenager who had been hired by his uncle to kill the store clerk who had fired him from his job. Bonifay recruited two teenage friends to help him do it.
“Patrick by then was poor, from a dysfunctional family, with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and had problems in school all his life,” Kunerth said.
Ironically, on the Friday night that the teens first set out to rob the store and kill the clerk, Bonifay got cold feet and backed out.
“There is a point where this could have ended right there,” Kunerth said.
But it didn’t. They decided to go back, and this time there was a shooting, and an employee at the auto parts store was shot to death. But it wasn’t the clerk that Bonifay’s uncle had wanted killed, since that man had taken the night off. He had asked a co-worker to fill in for him that evening. It was that innocent co-worker who ended up dead.
The three teens were arrested three days later, and Bonifay’s trial, which lasted just two days, resulted in a death sentence imposed on Sept. 20, 1991. He was also given a life sentence for robbery with a gun or deadly weapon.
Before starting work on the book, Kunerth decided to interview the three inmates involved in this killing, including Bonifay. He wrote to the inmate, who readily agreed to the interviews.
Kunerth recalled that the first time he drove to the prison, a corrections officer escorted him into the room where he would be meeting Bonifay, brought the inmate into the room – and then left.
“I’m thinking, ‘Hey, what are you doing, this guy killed someone,’ “ Kunerth said. “But it turns out he’s not a threat to me, and Patrick talks a lot.”
What he discovered after hours of interviewing the man, Kunerth said, is that in the days leading up to the shooting, Bonifay was a troubled adolescent locked in a fantasy world that helped him escape the grim reality of his daily existence. He also learned that after two decades behind bars, he was interviewing a man nearing 40 who still hasn’t developed or progressed much, emotionally or cognitively.
“What you find out is when Patrick was growing up, he had a lot of fantasies,” Kunerth said. “He was going to marry his girl, he was going to join the Marines, he was going to be a war hero. Patrick told me a lot of things I don’t believe. He changed his story several times on what happened that night at Trout.”
Bonifay is no longer on death row. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case titled Roper vs. Simmons, ruled that it’s unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18. The 5-4 decision overruled the Court’s prior ruling, which had upheld death sentences on offenders at or above the age of 16.
That ruling removed Bonifay from death row, and he now faces a life sentence.
The ruling was based in part on the work of researchers who were able to demonstrate that the brains of adolescents operate much differently than those of adults.
Kunerth said his own research into “Trout” pointed to that as well, particularly in the fact that Bonifay, despite being middle aged, still had the outlook and mentality of a teen.
“Patrick’s fantasies about how things can change magically if one little thing happens, is a very teenage way of thinking,” Kunerth said. “It’s possible to see in prison that a person has changed. But I don’t think Patrick has changed. I think he’s the same person.”
That revelation also changed the outlook of Kunerth’s book.
Initially, “I thought this was about a tragedy of loss, the loss of freedom and the loss of life,” he said.
Instead, he added, the book looks in part at adolescent development, and how that can impact juvenile crime.
“What is it that makes kids different from adults,” he asked. “Particularly at a time when in this culture, we’re fed up with juvenile justice.”
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