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The new book by the journalist and author Janet Malcolm is about a mother who allegedly commissioned her ex-husband’s murder after losing custody of their daughter. It is also about how evidence trials, which are always thorny, are especially so in religious milieus. The defendant and her family are Bukharan Jews, originally from Central Asia, living in Forest Hills in Queens.

In March 2009,  Mazoltuv Borukhova was convicted for conspiring with her cousin, Mikhail Mallayev, to kill her husband, Daniel Malakov, only weeks after the latter was granted custody for their little girl, Michelle, who was four at the time. The murder happened October 28, 2007 at a park where the estranged family was getting together.

Both Borukhova and Malakov had been doctors in Queens—she an internist, he a dentist—and for a while theirs was a happy family life. Things got rocky after the birth of Michelle, as Malakov had violent outbreaks and Borukhova became worried that her husband might sexually abuse her daughter. The couple both worked and often disagreed as to which family—hers or his—would be in charge of Michelle in their absence. Borukhova’s resolve to protect Michelle made her hostile and aggressive, and child support services did not think she was credible with her accusations. Following divorce, Malakov was granted custody, despite only wishing to have extended visitation rights. Only a few weeks later, he was shot dead in front of his daughter.

Janet Malcolm’s book does not resolve the question of truth or guilt. Rather it unveils how difficult this is to establish, not least because of the ‘strangeness’ of the cultural background of the main actors at the crossroads between modernity and tradition. It is possible that Borukhova ordered her husband’s execution out of fear (real or imagined) for her daughter’s well-being. It is equally likely that Malakov fell victim to ‘local’ feuds about money or business.

At the same time, the book shows how Borukhova’s conviction was based on weak and circumstantial evidence and heavily influenced by her being considered unsympathetic by the judge and the jury. Her being an educated and assertive woman, who did not accept to be patronized in cross-examination despite wearing the traditional long dress and head scarf of Orthodox Jews, in conjunction with her refusal of the prison food as not being kosher (enough), earned her more enemies than friends. She simply did not fit the jury’s expectation of a mother, battered wife or, simply, a person in distress. She was different: inconsistent according to ‘our’ standards—a stranger, in other words—and, consequently, she was penalized.

Janet Malcolm further reveals the little girl’s court-appointed law guardian as paranoid with little sensitivity for the family background and needs of his client. Psychologists as well as social workers with multicultural education ought to have had a major say in this case, but were, practically, absent. There are, in other words, good grounds for the ongoing appeal.

In the meantime Michelle is almost eight. She lives with her uncle and his family and was described by another child as “tireless” (p.127)