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American death, Italian trial

Donald Bonham stopped fishing alone at night because his wife thought it wasn't safe. Then he was shot and killed on his doorstep the morning of Christmas Eve 1993 as he returned home from getting the groceries.

Investigators say Bonham, a tax collector with the Florida Revenue Department, was killed in retaliation for the lien he placed on an Italian restaurant in an effort to collect $48,000 in unpaid taxes.

Restaurateur Pietro Venezia, the suspected shooter, fled to his Italian homeland, leaving Bonham's widow and son to pursue justice under a foreign system that to them sometimes seems incomprehensible.

Venezia, 45, was captured in Laterza, Italy, in 1994 and remains jailed in Taranto, Italy, on a homicide charge.

Despite a U.S.-Italy extradition treaty, Italian authorities refused to send Venezia back to Miami to stand trial for fear he would be executed. Italy's highest court took a swipe at American death penalty laws by ruling in June 1996 that the treaty didn't offer enough guarantees that Venezia's life would be spared.

Italy, where capital punishment is outlawed, instead chose to put Venezia on trial there and U.S. prosecutors traveled overseas to help. The trial was temporarily in Miami last week because Mrs. Bonham, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, a hernia and blood-circulation problems, cannot travel.

During the weeklong proceedings here, eight Italian judges sat in the jury box, conferring and asking questions of the 17 witnesses, including Mrs. Bonham. A majority vote will determine Venezia's innocence or guilt, but the vote of the president judge, Gianbattista Gabrielli, will carry in the event of a tie.

"I'm just trying to keep realizing it's an Italian trial. That's the hardest part," said Bonham's son, Donny. "You want it to be a trial so bad, but it's not."

Two prosecutors and one civil attorney, all Italians, were seated with representatives from the U.S. Justice Department and the State Attorney's Office in a borrowed federal courtroom. Across from the judges sat two Italian defense attorneys.

Assistant State Attorney Mary Cagle, who had helped the Italians prepare the prosecution's case, said the judges are allowed to question witnesses.

"That really adds a different sort of twist to the trial because they examine the same way the prosecution and defense does," she said.

Gabrielli was the only judge who questioned the witnesses, although he occasionally conferred first with his colleagues. Sometimes, he repeated their questions.

Venezia, who chose to remain in Italy during the U.S. portion of his trial, faces a sentence of life in prison if convicted under the laws of Italy, where paroles and pardons are often granted more freely than the United States.

"I don't know to what point we can trust Italian justice. It's so different, and we know so little about it," said Jesus Arrieta, a tax collector who shared an office with Bonham. "I think that he should be on trial here."

The former owner of Ristorante Buccione in Miami's trendy Coconut Grove neighborhood admits killing Bonham but called it an accident. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Venezia's former girlfriend, Miami lawyer Heidi Roth, testified that Venezia told her he had killed someone and had planned to carry out the killing the evening before it actually took place.

"The message (left on his computer) was clear that he had gone that evening to kill him, but there were too many people around . . . and that he would go back," Roth said.

Mrs. Bonham, through a translator standing by the witness box, recounted how she was in the kitchen baking when she heard several pops she later determined were gunshots. She couldn't open the front door, she said, because her husband's body was jammed against it.

She described her anguish at not being able to comfort her companion of 40 years as he lay dying. She demonstrated how he raised his forearm three times, palm open, to sign "I love you."

Civil attorney Stefano Maggio is seeking $250,000 each for Mrs. Bonham and her son and $150,000 for Bonham's sister and her husband. Under Italian law, civil and criminal proceedings are combined and a victim's family is provided restitution.