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September 9, 2010

"At 90, what does 17 years in prison mean?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this article from The Buffalo News about a (stiff?) sentence given to an elderly murderer.   The piece also discusses the prison realities for very old criminals, and here are excerpts:

A feeble-looking John H. Bunz had to be held up by two court officers after the 90-year-old stumbled getting from his wheelchair into his seat at the defense table Wednesday in a downtown courtroom.

It's hard to comprehend, but this is the same man who bludgeoned his 89-year-old wife to death with a hammer in a bloody attack during March in their Amherst apartment. Bunz showed little emotion as he apologized for his crime shortly before receiving what some deemed a "death sentence" -- 17 1/2 years in prison -- in State Supreme Court....

Bunz pleaded guilty in July to first-degree manslaughter in the killing of Virginia H. Bunz, his wife of nearly 68 years, in the couple's apartment in the Amberleigh Retirement Community.  In interviews Wednesday, authorities offered new details about the attack, which occurred early on March 21. 

Sometime after getting up that morning, Virginia and John Bunz got into a quarrel over "her health care issues," said Amherst Police Detective Lt. Richard S. Walter....  John Bunz hit his wife about 30 times with the hammer, police and prosecutors said, first in the hands as she tried to defend herself and then repeatedly in the head. "It was an extremely violent crime scene," Walter said.

Virginia Bunz died from blunt-force trauma from the beating, but John Bunz still grabbed a pillow afterward and held it over her face "to make sure the job was done," Walter said.  He then grabbed a kitchen knife and cut himself above his eyes, on his neck and on his wrists in an apparent suicide attempt.

Their daughter found the couple at about 10 a.m. Bunz admitted his role in the slaying to Detective Sgt. John J. Piracci and Detective James D. Jackson at Erie County Medical Center, where he was taken for treatment. "I would say he was remorseful but matter-of-fact," Walter said....

The district attorney said that he recognizes that this is likely a "death sentence" for Bunz but that he deserved lengthy incarceration because of the savageness of the crime.  "This was not a mercy killing.  This was not a gentle killing.  This was not, as far as we know, part of any [murder-suicide] pact," Sedita said.  "This was an extraordinarily violent act."

What happens to a 90-year-old who is sentenced to prison?  Based solely on his crime and the length of his sentence, Bunz would be classified as a maximum-security inmate, said Linda M. Foglia, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correctional Services. And elderly inmates aren't unilaterally segregated from the general prison population....

If it is apparent that Bunz has special needs, such as a wheelchair, she said, the state has several prison facilities that can accommodate him.  And the state takes into account a prisoner's physical abilities when assigning housing and work responsibilities, she said. "We'll pay attention to the environment that a 90-year-old needs," Foglia said.

When Bunz begins his sentence, he will be the second-oldest inmate in a New York State prison, after Theodore A. Sypnier, according to department records. Sypnier, a 101-year-old convicted pedophile from this area, was sent back to prison on a parole violation and is serving two years at Groveland Correctional Facility in Livingston County.

A Niagara Falls man, Otes G. Rodriguez, is third on the current list at 86 years old. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for pouring gasoline on a woman and trying to light her on fire by using a flare gun.  Rodriguez was 80 at the time of the 2004 attack and previously served prison sentences for the 1959 murder of his wife and the 1973 murder of his girlfriend.

September 9, 2010 at 10:30 AM | Permalink


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At 90, what does a 17-year sentence mean? Clearly, it means life. And the defendant here richly deserves it.

Posted by: lawyer | Sep 9, 2010 11:37:12 AM

If a 40 year-old had done the same thing, he would have received a far stiffer sentence.

No matter what your age, you can't beat an elderly woman to death with a hammer and then snarl that you aren't being shown enough "compassion."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 9, 2010 1:43:13 PM

As a full participant, I can testify that much of what passes for our system of justice these days is really nothing more nor less than a voracious, canaballistic machine devouring saints and sinners alike with no thought for the long term social consequences. Having said that, the 90 year old dude who smashed the skull of his wife, for no apparent reason, is precisely the kind of person the justice system should concern itself with. I do not care how old he is.....17 years seems light to me.

Posted by: Grotius | Sep 9, 2010 8:17:16 PM

Grotius --

"...machine devouring saints and sinners alike with no thought for the long term social consequences."

Having been in your shoes for a number of years, I didn't see a whole lot of "saints" coming through the system. At best, there were a few defendants who seemed like decent people, but all of them were into something they knew they ought to have stayed away from.

I also saw precious few AUSA's who acted in the mold of a "machine." My colleagues, pretty much without exception, thought about what they were doing and understood the power, and potential for abuse, that prosecutors have. Many of them took lower-than-market salaries out of a sense of idealism and public service.

Finally, it is above the pay grade of an AUSA to do his work with an eye on "long term social consequences." That is fine for an AUSA when OUTSIDE of work, but in doing the cases, you're confined to the law as Congress gives it, it being the legislature's job to assess social consequences.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 10, 2010 8:05:45 AM

Grotius is correct on both scores. The system is voracious, cannibalistic and horribly short-sighted. And the old man does belong in prison.

Bill is Bill, the honorary lifetime inspirational leader of the League of Congenital Scolds and Stern Disciplinarians.

Posted by: John K | Sep 10, 2010 9:50:12 AM

I find nothing wrong with this sentence. If Bunz can commit murder at 90, he is obviously still dangerous despite his age and needs lifelong incapacitation.

Posted by: azazel | Sep 10, 2010 9:59:21 AM

The Thin Skull Doctrine in Tort Restatement. That was a made up fiction, reflecting the bias of the reporter. The latter was not just reporting, but inventing law. The fragility of a victim of negligence should not detract from the verdict amount nor from the lawyer fee.

If it exists in torts, why does it not apply to criminal defendants? Why? Because the lawyer always has it his way, consistency and fairness be damned. The slightest stress on the defendant will serve as an excuse, and the vile criminal lovers on the bench go for it, because of their pro-lawyer, pro-CCE bias, the crime victim be damned.

The tort victim makes the lawyer money, so a paper cut should be worth $millions, not to mention the resulting loss of consort. The crime victim makes the lawyer nothing, so their horrendous damage gets little mention in the pro-criminal courts. Why? Everyone in the court has his job thanks to the crimes of the defendant. No one wants anything to hurt or even disturb the defendant, or crime would stop, and they would lose their cush government sinecures.

This defendant should be immediately executed. The actual sentence punishes the tax payer with a huge health bill. The judge should order a limit on heroic and expensive health measures to prevent the crazy extremes to which prison health authorities will go to avoid being sued by advocates for criminals.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 15, 2010 6:42:08 AM

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