The Fate of Michelle Malakova: ‘Oppositional Behavior’

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Susana Bates
Gavriel Malakov with his niece, Michelle Malakova, Queens, March 2009. She was assigned to live with his family some months after her mother was arrested for murder.

At the opening ceremony of the new Queens Family Courthouse in February 2003, New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye said,

For too long, families with cases in Queens Family Court have been subjected to anything but dignified surroundings, but now, with the opening of this new justice complex, they will be in a place that will inspire confidence and respect again.

The governmental press release that quotes Kaye goes on to praise the building’s “beautiful five-story atrium” and to conjecture that “waiting areas with exterior views and maximum exposure to natural light should make the long waiting periods less stressful to families.” A non-architectural solution to the problem of chronic lateness was evidently never contemplated. Long waiting periods are a fundamental, almost sacred part of the legal system, indispensable to the administration of justice.

Accordingly, the architectural firms of Pei Cobb Freed and Gruzen Samton took it as one of their highest priorities—perhaps the highest priority of all—to make the corridors where people wait interminably as pleasant as possible. In The New York Times of July 6, 2003, Ian Bader of Pei Cobb Freed recalled the agonizing that went on at the firm over the facing pairs of wooden benches that line the corridors. “The first dimensional decision was, what is a comfortable distance face-to-face?” Bader said. Eight feet was finally arrived at: “close enough to accommodate large amounts of seating but not so close that it would make strangers feel uncomfortable facing one another.” “It’s not that architecture can solve the problems of the people who come to the building,” Bader added modestly—too modestly, perhaps.

When I attended the criminal trial at Queens Supreme Court of Mazoltuv Borukhova and Mikhail Mallayev for the murder of Borukhova’s estranged husband Daniel Malakov, all my attempts to speak to Borukhova’s sisters and mother were rebuffed; they refused to have anything to do with me. But in Queens Family Court, when I took a seat on the bench opposite Natella, Sofya, and Istat Borukhova, they did not rebuff me. Under the spell of Pei Cobb Freed’s dimensional magic, they began to accept my overtures, and to see me as someone to whom they could tell their side of the terrible story, though always with caution and reserve.

One day I arrived in the waiting corridor to find Natella, a mother of six, with a little rosy-cheeked boy of two on her lap. She was playing a game with him: she would uncurl and kiss his fingers one by one, then curl them up again, as he crowed with delight. The Malakov family’s grim belief that the Borukhova sisters and mother were accomplices in the murder (the Malakovs did not hesitate to share this theory with journalists) was hard to credit in the light of …

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Letters

The Case of Michelle February 7, 2013