Stories from the bench
If you saw Boyd Bunnell walking down the street and you didn't know who he was you'd figure he was just another fella.
But the life of this man, from being a college student at Carbon College and part of a family that owned a local garage, to his harrowing wartime experiences in a B-17 over southern Europe during World War II and then on to become a lawyer and then a district judge, is a tale of not only amazement, but amusement.
Bunnell who is now in his 90s can still tell a good tale about the various parts of his life. Many have wanted to hear his World War II experiences, and in August of 2005 I did an article about his war experience.
But beyond that, there is much more to this man, particularly when it comes to serving as a district judge in the southeastern part of Utah.
In a recent conversation he said that a lot of it is a blur because so much went on over the years. But in his mind certain cases do stick out particularly the murder cases he presided over and the strange cases that can bring a smile to almost anyones face.
He prefers, he said, to talk about the little tales with oddities and humor.
In that vein, Bunnell has written a number of manuscripts for his family, to tell them about his life. During that recent conversation he handed me a few of those, and left them with me for review.
"Use them however you like," he said as he left my office.
The following passages are from some of the documents he left. I have given some narration to them only to separate them and keep them in order. But the writing is his, and his memory of what transpired in and about his court during the many years he served.
"On one of our regular law and motion days in the court in Carbon County, I was reviewing the criminal calendar. We always deposed of the criminal calendar first, so the defendants were not hanging around the courtroom any longer than necessary. I noticed on that day's calendar was an arraignment in the case of State of Utah vs. a familiar name I knew..
Could it be possible? You see, when I was in grade school in the seventh or eighth grade, at Helper I got into a fight over something I don't recall, with a person by that name. He fought dirty and picked up a rock and hit me in the mouth with it. It took a pretty good chip out of one of my permanent front teeth. This made it necessary for me to have a gold cap on display on one of my upper front teeth for the rest of my life.
My mother, bless her compassionate heart, actually cried when she saw what happened to one of my very prominent teeth.
In the court proceedings, Mr. Familiar was charged with grand larceny, as I recall. When he walked into the courtroom, I was certain it was him, even though it was more than 50 years since I had last seen him. He still had that scroungy, defiant look about him.
He was convicted of the crime and just to be certain, I asked the probation boys in their pre sentence report that they gave me before sentencing was pronounced, to find out where he had went to grade school. Sure enough, he went to Helper Elementary School.
He had a bad criminal record and I sent him to the state prison for the maximum amount of time allowed under law for his type of crime.
I'm sure Mr. Familiar didn't remember me, and although it wasn't very Christian of me, I felt a certain amount of comfort and vindication as he was taken out of the court room and the Sheriff prepared him to be taken to the Point of the Mountain, and checked into the state prison."
As illustrated by this first story, working in an area with a very limited population, Bunnell obviously ran into people in his court that he knew. Here is a story about some people he didn't know, but others in the community may have thought he knew too well.
"I once had two young men come before me for sentencing on a rather aggravated malicious mischief charge. They went into a church and thoroughly demolished its interior.
One of the Defendants had a rather lengthy record so I sent him to the Point of the Mountain and the other boy was a first offender and had strong family support and seemed to be redeemable so I placed him on probation. A few months after the sentencing, I received a letter from the mother of the boy who was placed on probation and she was clearly upset. She said in the letter that the defendant that went to prison and his family were telling it around town that the reason her son did not get sent to prison was because she had performed sexual favors for the Judge in his chambers. She wanted me to join her in a lawsuit against them to protect her otherwise unblemished reputation.
I wrote back and told her to try to forget this type of gossip and to consider the source. I further told her that if she filed suit all the people in town who had not heard about the accusations would now know about it and about half of them would believe it, not because it was true, but because people love scandal.
I also told her that I was quite flattered by the comment and that when I told my wife about it she thought it was hilariously funny which certainly didn't help my male ego."
Bunnell was a district attorney before he was a judge. He was also often consulted for advice on certain kinds of legal situations. In one case he was asked about what two men should be charged with in San Juan County.
"One of the more interesting aspects of being involved with prosecutions in the Seventh District is that we have a sizeable portion of the population in San Juan county that is Native American, Navajos and a small group of Utes. Because of the extreme cultural difference between the Anglos and the Native Americans, the problem in trying to reconcile the two cultures is at times very challenging.
On one of my regular trips to Monticello as District Attorney to take care of pending felony cases, I found the Sheriff and the County Attorney with a crime problem that they asked me to assist them with. This occurred during the fall deer hunting season.
At that time it was required that hunters display their hunting license in a little plastic holder on the outside of their clothes, so that it could be seen by the game wardens. It was quite common for hunters to pin the holder on the bill of their red cap. Two of our Navajo brothers had stopped into a Monticello watering hole a (for a) little libation after a hard day's hunt. They had some of that Rocky Mountain, Spring water from Colorado, and they got into an argument over who was the best shot with his rifle. One of them bet the other a dollar that he couldn't hit his license that he had pinned to his hat at fifty yards. The other fellow took up the challenge.
So they went out on Monticello's Main Street and the challenger got his rifle out of the truck. They stepped off fifty paces where the challenges stood with his hat still on his head. The challenger aimed and fired and hit the license dead center. The challenger dropped like a ton of bricks, but soon regained consciousness and because of the obvious thickness of the skull the bullet didn't penetrate but it just went over the top of his head and left a burn mark about the size of your finger. Both men were placed in jail and since this was a consensual situation (they wondered) what should the charge be?
After some discussion we exhibited our inclination toward a little frontier justice and charged them both with gambling. They pled guilty and Judge Fred Keller fined them each $25.00 and ordered that they be confined to the reservation for the balance of the deer season."
People involved in the law also see some very interesting things in the courtroom. In the following instance of criminal activity it was one of the most unique defenses that Bunnell had ever seen in all his years on the bench.
"During my time as a prosecutor and a judge, I have run into some very inventive and novel defenses all the way from 'it wasn't me, but someone who looked just like me' when the defendant was a three foot midget with two left arms, or more frequently, that 'God directed me to do it so prosecute the real culprit, God.'
One rather unique defense was used in a case that came before me for trial where two gentlemen were charged with larceny of a cow, cattle rustling, which carries the death penalty in Emery county.
It seems the local brand inspector was driving into Huntington on a back road and he sees two men trying to load a dead range cow into the back of their pickup truck. Since they were having some difficulty he stopped to help and with the efforts of all three of, them they were able to load the cow, which was dead.
The brand inspector was thanked for his help and as he drove away it occurred to him that things didn't appear to be just right. The brand inspector was little slow on the uptake but he finally concluded that there were some suspicious circumstances. The cow had blood coming out of its nose and one of the gentlemen had blood all over the front of his clothes, and there were no other cattle in the area, and he had never seen these guys before. Based upon his suspicions he got in touch with a Deputy Sheriff and they went back and stopped the pickup truck. When they examined the cow they noticed that it had several bullet holes in its head, that there was a .22 rifle on the seat of the gentlemen's truck.
They were charged with rustling and the case came on for a jury trial. The defense that they advanced to the jury at the time of the trial was rather unique. They said they were out target shooting with their .22 rifle when a biker came up the road, got out his gun, and fired several shots at this cow. He then took off with a roar, and they went over to check on the cow's condition and found that it was lying there clearly in distress. So, while one of them held its head the other started to give the cow mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As he blew in the blood squirted out of the holes in its head and thus he got blood all over his clothes. When they found that they couldn't help the poor cow, they put it in the truck and were headed for the Sheriffs office to report the incident when they were stopped.
The jury went out while the Cattlemen's Association were building the hanging scaffold in the main street of Castle Dale. They were out about five minutes and came in and announced their verdict of guilty. It went down in history as the shortest deliberation in the annals of Emery County jurisprudence."