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Published: Tuesday, 7/24/2007

Justice in turnpike murder

WHEN death comes to Donna Moonda, it will not arrive in a lethal injection on an appointed date. Instead, it will sneak up on her, possibly many years hence - naturally, slowly, inexorably when her aging body, having languished in a prison cell, is sufficiently loaded down with regrets, loneliness, and perhaps despair.

A federal jury decided that this is how Moonda should pay for recruiting her lover to shoot her husband dead. Whatever one thinks of the death penalty, it is hard to second-guess this jury's decision. The crime could have been punished as a capital offense, but this - life in prison without chance of parole - is justice, too.

Here was a noxious brew of sensational ingredients - infidelity, greed, betrayal, and murder - that bubbled over with sordid fascination. At the center of the plot was Moonda, 48. It was she who pulled over the family Jaguar on the Ohio Turnpike two years ago to make the fatal rendezvous with her lover, Damian Bradford, 26, in the hope of enriching them both.

She watched as the small-time drug dealer, whom she had met in a drug rehabilitation center, came over and shot her 69-year-old physician husband, Dr. Gulam Moonda, in the face. Afterward, she cried false tears of shock and dismay and then lied about what had occurred.

For her calculating and callous behavior, Moonda's self-sealed fate lays no claim to public sympathy. Her guilt as instigator and participant was not in doubt by the time her trial in federal court in Akron concluded last week with her sentencing.

Her defense team did the best it could in trying to humanize her and some of this testimony was more persuasive than others. In the cause of advancing mitigating circumstances that might save her from execution, a psychologist offered a counterintuitive theory on her criminal behavior - her happy childhood had caused her to develop "dependent personality disorder." If she had experienced an unhappy childhood, presumably her actions could have been explained in terms of that.

But you didn't have to be a psychologist or even in the courtroom to see the one factor that argued for sparing Moonda's life - the unsettling disparity between potentially putting Moonda to death and the punishment meted out to the man who actually pulled the trigger, Bradford. In order to save his own skin, he made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Moonda. Bradford will serve 17 1/2 years, which means he will get out of prison while still relatively young.

Jurors interviewed later were clearly troubled by this - and their instincts were correct. Everybody knows that sometimes prosecutors must make imperfect deals to win cases, but putting Moonda to death would have put an extra strain on the scales of justice. As it is, thanks to a wise jury, justice has been done.

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