A staff writer for the Orlando Sentinel, Kunerth uses this obscure case to demonstrate the disturbing ease with which juveniles are transformed into adults in Florida’s justice system—not just Bonifay but his codefendants, one of whom may not have known that murder was on the menu that night. The police neatly sidestep parental-notification requirements while extracting confessions from two of the teens; the third, already 18, also cooperates and is stunned to learn that he’s being arrested rather than released to his parents. The district attorney plays the naïve crew against each other, persuading one of the group to testify against Bonifay and Bonifay to testify against his uncle, in hope of some leniency—but the state’s felony murder statute makes each defendant liable for the homicide. The defense is perfunctory, the verdicts swift. Bonifay and his uncle get the death penalty, while the other teens end up with life sentences, with the possibility of parole in 25 years.
Bonifay was on death row for only a few weeks, Kunerth observes, before another juvenile joined him there. Florida is one of several states that has no minimum age limit for prosecuting children as adults, and the state has executed inmates as young as 16. But in the late 1990s, emerging brain research, which confirmed longstanding notions about adolescents’ impulse-control issues and thrill-seeking behavior, began to offer a scientific basis for challenging such executions. “Psychopathic behavior in an adult is set in stone,” Kunerth writes, “but the same behavior in a teenager is a common but transitory stage of development that can’t be used to predict who that person will become.” In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could no longer be imposed on defendants under the age of 18, citing juveniles’ immaturity, still-developing personalities, and susceptibility to peer pressure.
The decision moved Bonifay from death row to a life sentence. Readers of Kunerth’s brisk, unsentimental treatment of him may wonder if that’s much of a reprieve. Studies show that juveniles tend to have a particularly difficult adjustment to prison life, and the description of Bonifay and his codefendants aging through their long sentences is harrowing. Bonifay, we learn, converted to Islam, recanted his testimony against his uncle, and appears to live largely in a fantasy world of his own devising:
In many ways, Patrick the middle-aged man was still Patrick the teenage boy. Prison doesn’t allow a juvenile to move through the stages and responsibilities of life that produce a mature adult…. Patrick regarded himself as a new man with a new name and a new religion, but in many respects he remained unchanged, a man in age only preserved in prison as a child.
In his loneliest hours, Patrick longed for the certainty of death row.
Whatever new personae they may assume, the convicted teens in Trout remain frozen in time, stuck in a system that’s equally indifferent to expressions of bravado or remorse. The Supreme Court is now considering whether life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles, raising the prospect that Bonifay may someday be eligible for release. Nancy Mullane’s Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption examines the hurdles confronting similarly situated men when the thaw comes. Can convicted murderers lead peaceful and productive lives? Mullane thinks so; she finds hope, at least, in the discovery that most killers, despite their bad press, turn out to be human after all.
In 2007, Mullane, a San Francisco-based reporter and producer for This American Life and other public-radio programs, began an assignment on California’s overcrowded prison system. She quickly became fascinated with the individuals behind the numbers—and with the state’s convoluted and deeply politicized parole process, an obstacle course of hearings and setbacks and reversals that has contributed to the logjam. Over the next four years, she followed the efforts of five San Quentin inmates, all convicted of murder, to obtain release and make a life for themselves on the outside, a project that resulted in her book and a two-hour radio documentary.