Posted by: Jeanie F | May 4, 2011

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm

This is the story of a murder trial. Perhaps even more, it’s the story of a series of failures in the justice system that may, or may not, have ultimately resulted in justice served IN SPITE OF, not because of, the system. Or it may be that justice wasn’t served at all. The story is an interesting one; the outcome may be frustrating to the reader, but anyone who has had dealings with our judicial system knows it isn’t without its shortcomings.

Here’s the skeleton of the case:

  • Daniel Malekov and his estranged wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, become embroiled in a bitter divorce. Their four-year old daughter, Michelle, balks at visiting with her father, who has been ordered to have supervised visitations due to an allegation of molestation.
  • In the process of working out these arrangements, Malekov is incomprehensibly – and without requesting it – given full custody of the child. Mother and daughter are both distraught.
  • Shortly thereafter, while delivering the daughter to her mother for visitation, Malekov is murdered in broad daylight and cold blood.
  • Mikhail Mallayev, a cousin of Borukhova, is found guilty of the murder. Borukhova is found guilty of ordering the execution.

Janet Malcolm is not here to give us an unbiased view of the trial, but she is here to try to shed light on what, seen through her eyes, is a strange and one-sided trial in which the members of the court, the press, and nearly all the principles in the case have presumed guilt before a single word of evidence is presented. Malcolm is not so sure, and tells us early on that “[Borukhova] couldn’t have done it, and she must have done it.”

She goes on to show us how the system failed this family. Michelle’s court-appointed law guardian, who never spoke to the child, seems to make the quixotic recommendation that she be moved to her father’s custody based on his personal dislike of Borukhova. Both the judge in the custody hearing and the trial judge, Robert Hanophy, seem to be biased against her as well. Hanophy is also shown to be seriously worried about the trial extending past the date that he is to begin his vacation, making decisions based on expediency rather than jurisprudence. The list of people who harbor ill-will toward Mazoltuv Borukhova is astonishing. The fact that her defense team is less that Clarance Darrow-material is another problem.

There are other factors that are unexplained and somewhat perplexing. Why is there no one brought to testify in Borukhova’s defense or as character witnesses? How to explain the 90 phone calls that took place between her and Mallayev if they were not in some type of collusion? How does she happen to bring out such vitriol among everyone who has dealings with her?

Malcolm doesn’t weigh in on Borukhova’s ultimate guilt or innocence. Her purpose is to argue that Borukova was denied a fair trial based on a system that seemed to pass judgement on her because of her personality, before there was opportunity to assess her guilt. In making this argument, Malcolm is successful, if not unbiased.

Grade: A-

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