Miami Suspect Tried Under Italy Law
MIAMI (AP) _ A restaurateur accused of murdering a Florida tax collector for freezing his bank account is on trial in Miami under Italian law in front of eight Italian judges _ the result of a tangled diplomatic and legal dispute.
Pietro Venezia is charged with shooting Donald Bonham four times on Christmas Eve 1993 as Bonham carried groceries into his North Miami home.
Venezia, an Italian citizen, fled to Italy after the slaying and was captured there in 1994. But Italian authorities, in an extraordinary turn of events, refused to return him to the United States for fear he would be executed. Italy does not have the death penalty.
Italy instead chose to put Venezia on trial in Italy. But when a key witness, Bonham’s widow, looked too ill to travel overseas to testify, the Italians packed up the trial and brought it to Miami temporarily, with testimony beginning here on Tuesday. The trial will eventually resume in Italy.
At the federal courtroom where the U.S. portion of trial is taking place, the eight Italian judges who will decide Venezia’s fate are seated in the jury box. Venezia remains in jail back in Italy.
At the judge’s bench is Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Bondi, who is acting as a moderator _ calling the court to order, making announcements, suggesting when it is time to take a recess.
Venezia is charged with homicide, which could bring up to life in prison in Italy, a country where paroles and pardons are granted more freely than in the United States. He has said the shooting was an accident.
On Tuesday, the judges listened as Anne Bonham, the victim’s widow, testified through an Italian translator. All judges are allowed to ask questions of witnesses, a power that U.S. judges also have but exercise far less frequently.
In keeping with Italian law, the judges will decide not only whether Venezia is guilty but whether the victim’s family should get civil monetary damages.
Bonham, 61, was returning from the store when he was shot. Mrs. Bonham, 65, testified that she ran to the front door but was unable to open it because her husband’s body was jammed against it, dying amid the oranges that had spilled from his grocery bag and lay scattered about the front of the home.
When she finally saw him after police arrived, he bent his elbow three times, palm open, to signal ``I love you,″ Mrs. Bonham testified. The couple had used the sign as students at a Quaker college where they were required to attend silent meetings.
Bonham was a Florida Revenue Department employee who was handling the case of Venezia’s restaurant, Ristorante Buccione. The restaurant in Miami’s trendy Coconut Grove neighborhood was popular with judges, lawyers and other public officials.
The restaurant lost money and fell behind in its taxes after a judicial corruption scandal involving some of its regular customers led people to avoid the eatery in the early 1990s.
To ensure payment of $48,000 in back taxes, Venezia’s bank account was frozen. Police said that’s what got Bonham killed.
Venezia disappeared two days after the slaying. He was captured at his father’s house in Laterza, Italy, about 250 miles from Rome.
In 1996, Italy’s highest court ruled that the U.S.-Italy extradition treaty did not offer Venezia enough protection from the death penalty, even though American prosecutors had promised not to seek execution.