Could Donna Moonda join a rare breed on death row?
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Very few women get condemned to death in America.
Mercer County widow Donna Moonda could join these lean ranks this week if a federal jury gives her the maximum penalty for hiring her boyfriend to kill her husband along the Ohio Turnpike.
If that happens and she exhausts her appeals, Mrs. Moonda could be the first woman in 50 years to be executed on a federal conviction and only the second woman since Ethel Rosenberg to go to the death chamber for a federal crime.
Historical records indicate the only other woman executed for a federal offense was Mary Surratt, who was hanged for conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln.
Women who are executed differ from their male counterparts both in the nature of their crimes and in the way they are treated in the criminal justice system. They tend to be older when they commit their crimes than the men who are executed. Their victims are more likely to be family members than strangers. In some cases, prosecutors don't consider the death penalty for a woman when they might seek it for a man committing the same crime. Also, anecdotal evidence suggests women have a better shot at beating a death sentence or avoiding execution if they're good-looking.
Women are less apt to commit violent crimes, but they also end up with disproportionately fewer death sentences, said Elizabeth Rapaport, a law professor at University of New Mexico who studies women and the death penalty.
Women can be tried for capital convictions when there are aggravating factors, for example, multiple victims or the defendant plotted a murder.
Juries and judges can be more forgiving and governors are sometimes more prone to grant women clemency after conviction, said Victor L. Streib, an Ohio Northern University law professor who has studied the outcomes for female prisoners sentenced to death since 1632.
A classic example of this judicial disparity is the case of Susan Smith, a white woman from South Carolina who intentionally rolled her Mazda into a lake in 1994, drowning her two sleeping sons who were buckled into car seats. She initially told police that a black man carjacked the vehicle and abducted the boys. She made pleas on television for help. When her story fell apart, the local district attorney, who was up for re-election, thought it would be a slam dunk conviction, but her trial lawyers presented evidence of abuse and depression and the jury voted for a life sentence. Susan Smith will be eligible for parole in 17 years at the age of 53.
The common attributes among female offenders are tough to nail down. The majority of women on death row are mothers. Most kill victims of their same race. Donna Moonda would be typical in the sense that about half the women who get the death penalty for murdering a husband or boyfriend hired the assassin, which is atypical for male offenders.
"Women are less likely to do the dirty work," Mr. Streib said. He also said it would be unusual for a woman who plotted the murder to get a lighter sentence than the triggerman, but other scholars said it would not be unprecedented.Aileen Wuornos, 46 Executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison in 2002 for killing a male client when she was a prostitute. The public knew she was unrepentant for killing seven men but her severe mental health issues were less publicized.
Click photo for larger image.Mary Surratt, 42 Executed by hanging at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., in 1865 for treason, conspiracy and plotting to kill President Lincoln.
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Ethel Rosenberg, 38 Executed by electrocution at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Westchester County, N.Y., in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage.
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This bodes well for Mrs. Moonda, 48, whose former boyfriend helped prosecutors secure a conviction by testifying that he shot Dr. Gulam Moonda on the side of the road according to her plan. For his cooperation, the 26-year-old drug dealer got a 171/2-year sentence. While the men imprisoned for conspiring with Mary Surratt and Ethel Rosenberg were hanged and electrocuted, Damian Bradford could be a free man by the age of 40.
In the 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling that briefly suspended the death penalty, the Supreme Court noted a consistent racial disparity in the execution of blacks and whites for the same crimes.
Justice Thurgood Marshall also noted gender bias in application of the law: "There is also overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is employed against men and not women. Only 32 women have been executed since 1930, while 3,827 men have met a similar fate. It is difficult to understand why women have received such favored treatment since the purposes allegedly served by capital punishment seemingly are equally applicable to both sexes."
It's all about mercy
The earliest documented capital convictions of women were in colonial New England and Maryland where a couple dozen women in their teens and early 20s were hanged or drowned for witchcraft. A Massachusetts woman was sent to the gallows in 1643 for committing adultery.
Between 1712 and 1741, New York and Louisiana hanged several female slaves for rising up against slaveowners. In some cases female slaves were executed because their masters' children took ill and died in their care.
In the past three decades, women have accounted for 1 percent of executions. While the percentage of condemned women hasn't risen significantly since the early 20th century, the legal reasoning for handing down life sentences has become more covert.
"In the 1940s and '50s, judges would say on the record, 'I'm giving you life because you're a mother.' Now they just think that, but don't say why they're being more lenient,'" said Mr. Streib, the legal historian at Ohio Northern. He said the discrepancies "have nothing to do with law, it's about mercy and playing on the emotions of the jury."
He suggested that women get life in prison based on the same gut-level reasoning that dictated women and children had first dibs on the lifeboats when the Titanic started sinking.
Making the call
A woman's physical appearance appears to have some impact on legal strategies and outcomes in death penalty cases.
Governors usually have the final call on impending executions, a task that bears heavily on some. While he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush had to decide the fate of Karla Faye Tucker, a process he described in his autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," as the "longest 20 minutes of my tenure as governor" and "one of the hardest things I have ever done."
President Bush's friend, the conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, pleaded for clemency and the then-governor's own daughter appealed for mercy for Karla Faye at the dinner table. In the two years prior, Mr. Bush had approved nearly 60 executions. A clue to the governor's trepidation about killing Karla Faye Tucker lies in this appraisal from the book:
"Hers was a pleasant face, a smiling face, a sympathetic face. At five three and 120 pounds, with wavy brown hair and large expressive eyes, Karla Faye Tucker did not fit the public image of a typical death-row inmate. She seemed contrite and sincere. She had found Jesus and salvation."
The former prostitute had helped slay two people with a pickax while high on drugs.
Despite a high execution rate, Texas had not executed a woman since 1863, but the board of pardons tied his hands, he wrote, and he let the Huntsville prison officials carry out their task.
Mr. Streib said Mr. Bush's trepidation in this instance is a factor defense lawyers are fully aware of: "I know when I consult on these cases we talk about making [female defendants] look demure, vulnerable, not in control and not sexy so the jury might find some sympathy for them." The ideal look, he said, is the "Trisha Nixon type with downcast eyes and white gloves."
There's also some coaching that goes into defending a woman in a capital case. "It's terribly sexist but women are able to play-act and cry on cue. More males have a difficult time showing their emotions or the appearance of remorse," he said.
To combat this type of sentimental appeal, prosecutors make an effort to "dehumanize and defeminize" women on death row, he said.
Before Judy Buenano's death, prosecutors took pains to ensure that the only image the public saw of the 54-year-old was her mug shot, Mr. Streib said. One month after Karla Faye Tucker's hotly debated execution, Florida's infamous "Black Widow" was electrocuted for killing her husband and stealing a car with far less public outcry.
Coverage of the bedraggled looking Aileen Wuornos, played by Charlize Theron in the 2003 film "Monster," focused on how the former prostitute was a rare exception as a female serial killer. In the buildup to her Florida execution in 2002, the public knew she was unrepentant for slaying seven men, but reporters gave less airtime to what defense lawyers argued were severe mental health issues.
There are several readily apparent explanations for why so few women get the death penalty. Women who kill their children are more likely to win an insanity defense, because society cannot fathom how a mother could do that to her child. Andrea Yates appealed her life sentence for drowning her five children and after she won an appeal, a second jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity.
Violence that stems from domestic abuse is assessed differently by society, so legal outcomes for violent women are often different, said Ms. Rapaport, the death penalty scholar at the University of New Mexico.
Former Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste granted clemency to 25 female inmates after reviewing the work of Ohio State University sociologists who interviewed all female inmates at the state penitentiary at Marysville. The study found many women convicted of killing a husband or boyfriend suffered from "battered women's syndrome," but the existing law prevented them from introducing this evidence at trial.
The governor then commuted the death sentences of all four women and four of 97 men on death row in his last days in office, drawing criticism from victims' rights groups.
Most homicide convictions for women are not capital convictions because society doesn't view as seriously the type of domestic homicides women generally commit in the heat of passion as it does cold-blooded killings or slayings that occur in the course of a robbery or rape, Ms. Rapaport said.
"You can terrorize your family, but people still pity you because of your emotional trauma," she said. Terrorizing a stranger is something jurors can picture and fear, but they often can't imagine their families would harm them.
First Published July 15, 2007 11:18 pm