A Wisconsin filmmaker is revisiting a 2008 Pacific Beach beating death, among others across the country, in a documentary he hopes will spark a conversation about whether there should exist any acceptable level of violence in society.
"The message is that people shouldn't hit one another — plain and simple," producer Steve Kokette tells the Reader via e-mail. "I think it's a bit strange that as boys we're taught not to hit girls...does that mean it's okay to hit boys?"
One Punch Homicide looks at instances where the first blow thrown in a fight resulted in the death of its recipient.
On May 24, 2008, Nathaniel Ward was taking a taxi back to his friend Colin Costanzo's apartment with two others when the cab nearly collided with a car driven by Sam Bonsu.
"By the time we got to the end of the street where my apartment was, the gentleman who was driving the car that almost hit us pulled up," Costanzo says in the film. "By the time I got out of the cab he was in my face, yelling that someone was 'throwing hands.' I didn't really get what he was saying, didn't think he was intending to do anyone harm. I told him he just needed to relax and leave."
Costanzo says he turned around to pay the cab driver, then turned and was struck once in the head so hard that he fell back into the cab, nearly losing consciousness. Recovering from his blow, he climbed out of the cab to find Ward laying on the ground unconscious after receiving a punch of his own from Bonsu, who was running back to his car to flee the scene. After initially being treated and released from an area hospital, Ward died a few days later due to head trauma and bleeding from the brain.
In May 2009, Bonsu was acquitted of all charges related to the assaults. His defense attorney successfully argued that Bonsu was defending himself and was scared as a single black man surrounded by four drunk white men.
Ward's parents also spoke on camera about the loss of their son and their disappointment with Bonsu's criminal prosecution.
The remainder of the film, available on Kokette's website, is a collection of stills showing grave markers of other victims killed with a single blow, interspersed with interviews with victims' families and inmates serving time for one-punch killings.
A few things are notable about the jailhouse interviews — first, the men all seem to be serving short sentences, ranging from two to eight years. They also seem to spend quite a bit of time talking about their living conditions while incarcerated and about the often-drunk escapades of one or both parties leading up to the life-ending altercations.
"As I started looking at the interviews of the inmates, I realized there was the chance that it might discourage some from committing crimes," Kokette says. "I don't think most films do a great job of portraying how nasty and boring prison life can be…. I wanted to show prison as being something that really is unpleasant and that you want to avoid it at all costs."
Kokette also says he hopes to raise awareness about how often drinking and fighting lands young men in prison, pointing to the progress made by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving in reducing the number of drunks on the road in the decades since its inception.
"Many people, even when they're drunk, are smart enough to know not to drive drunk. I'd like to think if people became smarter about handling their drinking and driving, that some after seeing One Punch Homicide will be smarter and decide not to throw punches when they're smashed."