June 23, 2012

Juvenile justice in America: a Florida case

by Larry Miller

I remember once starting to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and asking myself, “Why am I reading this?  It’s as depressing as sitting through a screening of Rosemary’s Baby."  Not a fun thing to do.

But fun sometimes has to take a back seat to the necessity of examining the human condition and what it is that causes humans to sometimes become so misguided.

“Misguided” may be a bit euphemistic when describing juveniles who commit heinous crimes.  What are those things that make some youngsters stray from “normal” teen years and end up spending life in prison?  The answers are not simple.  And the U.S. legal system struggles for a path to true juvenile justice.   

Good friend Bill Kunerth recently shared excerpts of a book written by his son, Jeff, who is a writer for the Orlando (FL) Sentinel.  I was intrigued by what I started to read -- but had those flashbacks to In Cold Blood.

Then, a few weeks ago, I received a copy of the book from Jeff.  It’s entitled Trout, and it’s a true story of “murder, teens, and the death penalty.”  

I started the book late one evening, read the first chapter, and was lured into the story by Jeff’s riveting style.  It reads like a novel.  It’s anything but.

I’ll not provide details about Trout, other than to share that it’s a revealing story about high school-age boys in Pensacola who become wrapped up in an horrific event that ends tragically for almost all the families involved. 

“…I thought I was writing about a case of mistaken identity murder-for-hire by three Pensacola teens in 1991,” said Kunerth, who acknowledges that the book evolves into scrutinizing juvenile justice within the U.S. adult court system.

Jeff Kunerth - Orlando Sentinel
The writing style is called “creative nonfiction,” and it’s well suited for journalist Kunerth, who has sourced the story extensively.  He assembles just the right tools to tell the story of a gruesome murder of a clerk at Trout Auto Parts in Pensacola, Florida.

I don’t fancy myself a literary critic, but Jeff Kunerth’s style reminded me of Barbara Tuchman's work.

Like Tuchman, Kunerth may not consider himself an historian, but his detailed recounting of this event, accompanied by nagging questions about the implications for juvenile justice, are every bit as compelling as Tuchman’s “Guns of August” dissection of the events leading up to World War One.  And like it or not, juvenile violence is as much a part of our history as war -- and its impact is just as devastating.

The topics for both books were meticulously researched, thoughtfully written, and both authors spared no ink in assembling and listing their sources.  At just 195 pages, Trout is a fast read.  Twenty-two of those pages are source notes.

Like any good book, it leaves you wanting to know more.  And more is to be found online at www.jeffkunerth.com where visitors can ask questions, make comments, and get additional information, including links to the PBS Frontline documentary, When Kids Get Life.

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