The murder of Daniel Malakov took only a few seconds to unfold. Malakov, a thirty-four-year-old orthodontist, was shot three times at close range on October 28, 2007, as he stood with his four-year-old daughter Michelle near the entrance to a playground in Forest Hills, Queens. He was there to meet his estranged wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, a physician, to hand over Michelle—of whom Malakov had been given custody three weeks earlier—for an all-day visit with her mother. The gunman fled. Malakov died in hospital after an unsuccessful attempt by his wife to administer CPR on the pavement in the wake of the shooting. Michelle, after some initial bureaucratic confusion, was entrusted to members of Malakov’s family.
In November the gunman was identified as Mikhail Mallayev, a fifty-year-old resident of Chamblee, Georgia, and a relative of Borukhova’s by marriage; in February Borukhova was arrested and charged with hiring Mallayev to kill her husband. The case attracted considerable attention, not least because Malakov, Borukhova, and Mallayev all belonged to the tightly knit and, to the public, little-known Bukharan Jewish community, originating in Uzbekistan and now clustered in Forest Hills.
Borukhova and Mallayev stood trial together in a proceeding that lasted six weeks; both were found guilty and were given sentences of life without parole. The most damning evidence of their conspiracy consisted of cell phone records of ninety-one calls exchanged between the two in the three weeks preceding the murder, along with bank records showing deposits of nearly $40,000 made by Mallayev (although not directly traceable to Borukhova) on separate occasions before and after the shooting.
Of this case, widely regarded as open-and-shut, Janet Malcolm, who attended the trial, has given an account rich in perplexities. She does not directly challenge the guilty verdicts handed down; but she does raise enough incidental questions of bias and suggest enough alternate ways of reading some of the evidence as to place the entire proceeding under the shadow of doubt. Iphigenia in Forest Hills is a garden of forking paths where at every turn new and contradictory narrative byways open up. It is a brief book but immense if measured by the implications that can be teased out of its sentences—not to mention the spaces between the sentences. By the time we are done the certainties of legal evidence and judicial decisions have given way to a fundamental and unappeasable ambiguity.
Those are articulated at the outset in a remark by the presiding judge at the trial (Robert Hanophy, of whom more later) appended by Malcolm as epigraph: “Somebody’s life was taken, somebody’s arrested, they’re indicted, they’re tried and they’re convicted. That’s all this is.” In opposition to this cut-and-dried dismissal of any residual impulse to probe deeper, she juxtaposes the words of a prospective, ultimately unselected juror: “Everything is ambiguous in life except in court”—an observation of a sort …