Federal court is a better venue than state

Moonda, other cases easier to prove there

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Federal prosecutors have left no doubt that they believe Damian Bradford gunned down a Mercer County doctor along the Ohio Turnpike last year.

What they will not explain, though, is why they didn't charge Mr. Bradford with homicide.

Instead, he was indicted for interstate stalking, a federal offense that carries a penalty just as severe but may be easier to prove.

If that, indeed, is the government's strategy, it is not a new one. Just one day before the Bradford arrest was announced, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh said two men involved in a Beaver County murder-for-hire would be charged in the federal system.

It is one way prosecutors can sidestep obstacles to trying cases in state court, where criminal trials typically occur.

"You want to charge the statute that most appropriately fits the full range of the defendant's conduct," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, whose office is not involved in the Bradford case. "If you can prove someone intended to murder, then you charge them with murder."

But that is not always easy to do, said John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. That's why federal charges, like the interstate stalking charge against Mr. Bradford, exist.

"Homicide often can be difficult to prove," Mr. Burkoff said. "Some other crimes, even though they don't sound as serious, may be easier to prove."

Dr. Gulam Moonda was killed about 6:30 p.m. May 13, along the Ohio Turnpike near the Cleveland suburb of North Royalton. He and his wife and mother-in-law were driving from Pennsylvania to Bowling Green, when Donna Moonda pulled their Jaguar over to switch drivers.

Mr. Bradford is accused of robbing Dr. Moonda and shooting him in the face.

Prosecutors have said that the car in which Mr. Bradford was traveling entered the Ohio Turnpike just after the Moondas' and used the exit three miles past the crime scene to turn around and head back to Pennsylvania.

Charging Mr. Bradford with a federal offense -- instead of with homicide in state court -- could indicate a lack of evidence to prove a murder charge. But there might be enough to prove that he crossed state lines with the intent to "kill, injure, harass or intimidate" Dr. Moonda.

"From an efficiency point of view, it may well be easier for the federal authorities to prove that, than to charge murder," Mr. Burkoff said.

Gregory A. White, the U.S. attorney in Cleveland who is trying the Moonda case, would not explain why Mr. Bradford was charged as he was, except to say: "Because it fits, quite frankly. The penalty is tantamount to murder."

Typically, homicides, like other violent crimes, are prosecuted by the state. The reasons for that are many. Among them, the United States was founded on the premise that states should have the sovereignty to deal with crimes within their own borders.

"Criminal law for the most part is not federal business," said professor Paul H. Robinson, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Where federal jurisdiction is necessary, he said, is in cases that involve organized crime, drug trafficking and public corruption.

But the U.S. government steps in on homicide cases occasionally, too, where there is some federal interest at stake. That can include some aspect of interstate commerce, violations of controlled substances laws or firearms charges.

In the death of Dr. Moonda, the federal link is that the suspect allegedly crossed state lines to commit the crime.

The federal nexus in the Beaver County case is two-fold -- firearms and drug trafficking were involved.

Frank Helisek Jr. was gunned down Jan. 19, 2004, in the doorway of his New Brighton home. According to federal prosecutors, he was shot by Claron Hanner at the request of another man, Jelani Solomon. Mr. Helisek's son, Shawn, had been scheduled to testify against Mr. Solomon the next day in a drug case. Investigators believe Mr. Solomon contracted the killing to send a message to other witnesses.

Initially, Mr. Hanner was charged with homicide in state court in Beaver County. But prosecutors there were unable to arrest Mr. Solomon in the case, so they asked federal prosecutors to step in.

The U.S. attorney indicted both men for using a firearm during the commission of drug trafficking that results in death.

It's not unusual, Ms. Buchanan said, for local authorities to request the help of federal investigators.

They might take over a case to help relieve a smaller county of the burden of a complicated prosecution. There also could be a lack of resources or a lack of experience on the local end that might make a federal charge more appealing.

The decision also can be based on the rules of evidence -- evidence suppressed by a state court is often allowed in federal court.

That's exactly what happened in a 1996 triple homicide in Wilkinsburg. Elijah Bobby Williams and his son, David M. Torres, were charged locally with homicide for gunning down three men as they sat in a parked car in Wilkinsburg.

State prosecutor Daniel E. Fitzsimmons said investigators had enough on the ambush to seek the death penalty.

But the evidence collected at the son's apartment, which included crack cocaine, firearms and records of drug sales, was ruled inadmissible in Pennsylvania because of problems with the search warrant.

There was also evidence, though, that the defendants were running a multimillion dollar crack cocaine operation from the Bronx, N.Y., to Pittsburgh.

"The feds asked us if we would permit them to indict these folks," Mr. Fitzsimmons said. "We could have gone ahead with the case here. But they could use all the evidence, and they could tell the whole story, which I'm sure made it easier for them to get them convicted."

The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York tried the case last year and won life sentences against both men.

Often, the decision of where to file charges is a tactical one, Mr. Burkoff said. It may come down to what the potential penalties are in each jurisdiction or what counts might prompt a plea.

In the Beaver County case, the charges against the defendants carry a possible death sentence.

Under federal law, there is no one, centralized homicide charge as exists in state court. Instead, crimes that encompass homicide -- like Mr. Bradford's stalking charge -- are scattered throughout the U.S. Code.

There are dozens of counts like that: Arson that results in death, kidnapping that results in death and sexual abuse that results in death are a few examples.

Many of those statutes, which tend to overlap, were written by politicians responding to public pressure, Mr. Burkoff said.

The federal interstate stalking statute Mr. Bradford faces, for example, was passed in 1996 and expanded in 2000 as part of the Violence Against Women Act.

"Although the impetus for the law was to prevent violence against women, it is not limited to domestic violence cases," Ms. Buchanan said. "There's a reason Congress enacts legislation, but that doesn't mean that's the only purpose for which the law can be used."

But Mr. Burkoff says there's no real need for federal homicide statutes, because the crime is adequately covered by individual states.

"The only reason they're there at all is politics," he said. "Something happened, and someone got to keep his seat in Congress by getting a splash in the headlines."


Gabrielle Banks contributed. Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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