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

The New Yorker reporter looks at a 2009 murder trial in Queens to show how factors like bias and likability can affect the pursuit of justice.

(Yale, $25)

Sometimes in murder trials, it’s not truth but “the most consistent story” that wins, said Rachel Cooke in the London Observer. In her “disquieting” new book, New Yorker reporter Janet Malcolm casts her keen eye on a 2009 murder trial in Queens, N.Y., to illustrate how factors like bias and likability can affect trial outcomes. Convicted of hiring a hit man to kill her estranged husband, Mazoltuv Borukhova, a young doctor who had been battling the victim for custody of their 4-year-old daughter, was almost certainly guilty. Yet despite a trial’s finality, Malcolm is left with a “nagging sense of unease” about the ambiguities that litter the state’s pursuit of justice.

Borukhova isn’t exactly a sympathetic figure, said Laura Miller in Salon.com. She’s clearly the kind of person who “rubs everyone the wrong way,” and the evidence of her guilt is substantial: Cell phone records indicate that she spoke with the killer 91 times in the three weeks before the victim was gunned down in a playground. Yet Malcolm’s sympathies are with the accused as she covers the trial, mainly because the judge seems overwhelmingly biased in favor of the prosecution. To preserve his own plans for a Caribbean vacation, he even forces Borukhova’s lawyer to prepare a closing argument overnight. You don’t have to think Borukhova innocent to realize that she “didn’t get a fair shake.”

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As damning as she is of the court system, Malcolm is perhaps more disdainful of her own profession, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. At the heart of this book lies an indictment against journalists for digging into the messy details of private lives. Though “squeamish” about the way courts faultily decide cases, “she is even more squeamish about how reporters feast upon the resulting carnage.” Perhaps that’s what drives her to break a cardinal rule of reporting: When the court-appointed guardian of Borukhova’s daughter reveals that he holds nutty views, Malcolm reports her findings to a defense lawyer. To root and take sides, Malcolm implies, is human. What it isn’t is a system for producing justice.

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