Stumbling Through a Murder Trial

Janet Malcolm displays intelligence and ignorance in “Iphigenia in Forest Hills.” Again I’m posting a link to the abstract because the full text has been removed. To give her credit, the story was convoluted, involving the murder of Daniel Malakov, a Queens orthodontist. The accused were his physician wife and the hitman she hired for $20,000 to do the job.

My problems began when I read the title of the article. The first thing that came to mind was “Iphigenia in Brooklyn,” by P.D.Q. Bach, (1807-1742)? “the twenty-first of J.S. Bach’s twenty children.” Yes, those dates of death and birth are in the correct order. Geography is everything. Watch and listen if’n you want to laugh till you can’t breathe. Malcolm’s version of the daughter sacrificed to expiate the sins of the father was nowhere near as funny or as expert.

The hook for this interminable article, which puts it in the realm of New Yorker fare, is that all parties involved are immigrants from Central Asia and are part of a Bukharan Jewish community located in and near Forest Hills. They speak their own language. The women wear long skirts and cover their hair. The men wear suits and yamulkes at all times. Malcolm explored the cultural aspects of the case but with a “look-y here” attitude. She also tried, unsuccessfully, to explain the stubborn and generally incomprehensible behavior of the wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova.

Aside from the oddities of culture and a borderline psycho defendant, the case included charges of sexual abuse of the couple’s child (made by her against the victim) and allegations of spousal abuse (ditto), both common fodder in homicide trials. It was the grant of custody to Malakov that provided the motive for Borukhova to pay for his murder, according to the DA. The custody battle took over Malcolm’s story, though the shift in perspective is not properly set up and leaves us hanging because it isn’t over yet.

While much of the article made my eyes glaze over, Malcolm created some interesting images, among them “bride’s side” and “groom’s side” for the families of the victim and the defendant. Unfortunately the gunman, Mikhail Mallayev, remained a cipher, though Malcolm devoted much ink to his attorney, the DA, Borukhova’s attorney, her fellow reporters, and  the interpreter. This approach left many questions. Mallayev was living in Chamblee, Georgia, not exactly around the corner, so how did Borukhova find him? He had been arrested more than ten years before the murder for “turnstyle jumping” on the New York subway. Was that his only other crime?  His motive was pretty clearly greed, as the judge said, but Malcolm rather neglected to clear up the hint of a possible affair between the two defendants. And he had a court-appointed attorney, which has always meant that he didn’t have enough money to hire his own attorney, so I guess the message is he wasn’t a successful hitman, either.

Other aspects of the piece grated as well. Malcolm spent so much time with her cronies and the interpreter that she never talked to the court officers who could have explained how “news of the defendants’ arrival was somehow communicated.” She went into painful detail about peremptory challenges, which the average New Yorker reader has probably read many times before, and then talked down to her readers. “If we understand that a trial is a contest between competing narratives, we can see the importance of the first appearance of the narrators. The impression they make on a jury is indelible.” We don’t need this build-up to understand that the DA was brilliant, that the Mallayev’s attorney lacked experience and that Borukhova’s attorney screwed up.

These observations led me to believe that Malcolm had spent almost no time in a courtroom before she covered this trial. Ignorance of court procedure was a poor basis on which to assign this story.

Oh, and the outcome? Both defendants found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.

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