Janet Malcolm: Still Pondering the Malakov Murder Case

Ask any serious writer, and he/she will bemoan the current state of publishing in this country.  Ever smaller numbers of ever larger publishing houses make ever safer decisions about what to put into print.  Another cookbook?  Sure.  A novel of serious literary aspirations?  Not so much.

And of course those writers do have a point.  It’s the point I’d like to make about the fact that Janet Malcolm has managed to parlay the intellectual vacuum that was her New Yorkerarticle on the murder of Daniel Malakov into a 155-page book.  Thankfully fewer trees gave their lives for this effort to create controversy where there is none than one might have feared, but from where I stand, any is too many.

Malcolm must have blackmail material on someone at the New Yorker.  That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why the magazine gives her more column-inches than anyone I know of; her piece on the Malakov murder ran to 21 pages.  It took her a year to research.  So you might think, that with that much time and space, we’d be treated to something that shakes the foundations of the prosecution’s case.

But you’d be wrong.

To remind you, if you don’t remember or are new to the Malakov murder case, here’s a sketch of the facts.  Daniel Malakov and his wife Mazoltuv Borukhova were Bukharan Jews living in Queens.  They were prosperous and well-educated.  He was an orthodontist and she a cardiologist.

They had a little girl named Michelle whose relationship with her father, Borukhova tried, almost from the very beginning, to restrict.  She soon began accusing him of sexual abuse, but all investigations into her allegations turned up no wrongdoing on Malakov’s part.

Thwarted there, she filed for divorce and predictably got primary custody during the proceedings.  But her frank attempts to alienate the little girl from her father finally moved the family court to transfer primary custody to Daniel.

Within weeks, he was dead. 

Immediately after the change of custody, there ensued some 90 long distance telephone calls between Borukhova and a relative of hers, Mikhail Mallayev, who lived in Georgia (United States).  Those covered a period of two weeks.

At some point, Mallayev deposited almost $20,000 in his bank account.  Two days before Malakov was murdered, Mallayev traveled to New York and stayed with a friend.  On the morning of his murder, Daniel took Michelle to a park about 8 A.M. to meet Borukhova so the child could have some time with her mother.

When Malakov got out of the car, a man identified by eye witnesses as Mallayev approached him and fired three shots from a pistol into his chest.  The pistol was equipped with a homemade silencer manufactured out of a clorox bottle.  The shooter fled the scene, throwing aside the weapon.

Police dusted the pistol for fingerprints and found one on the silencer.  A search of local fingerprint data banks disclosed a match – Mikhail Mallayev.  Back in Georgia, Mallayev was arrested and returned to New York for trial.

Borukhova was indicted as well for the murder of her husband.  

At trial, Borukhova took the witness stand in her own defense and was caught in  lie after lie.  For example, she claimed the 90 telephone calls between her and Mallayev were about his health, which, being a physician, Borukhova was interested in.

But there was a catch.  She claimed that she had performed an EKG on Mallayev not long before and that the calls (90 of them) were about that.  Unfortunately, the dating mechanism on her EKG unit said the test had been run well beforehand.  Her answer?  The dating mechanism was wrong.  But a comparison of every other EKG she’d performed around the time of the murder revealed the dating mechanism to be working just fine.

A tidbit that Malcolm neglected to mention in her New Yorkerpiece was the testimony of Diane Sorvino.  Sorvino had once been a New York State senator and had developed an expertise in issues relating to child welfare agencies, child custody and the like. 

So she didn’t think much about it when a couple of women from the neighborhood showed up at her office one day to inquire what would likely happen if a custodial father were suddenly to disappear or not be able to be a parent to the child.  Sorvino’s answer was that, all things being equal, custody would probably revert to the mother.

Who were those women?  They were Mazoltuv Borukhova’s sisters, that’s who.  And their visit to Sorvino came a short time after the family court transferred custody to Daniel and a short time before he was killed.  When Sorvino found out about the murder, she went to prosecutors with her information.

The jury took a matter of six hours to process all the information in two murder cases (Mallayev and Borukhova were tried together) and found both guilty.

To the less sophisticated among us, all that adds up to a pretty straightforward narrative.  A gatekeeping mother decides she needs to keep her daughter’s father away from his child at any costs.  She fails with her false allegations of abuse and fails again to retain custody once its granted her.  In short order, she turns to murder, paying her relative to do the job.

Anyone who wants to propose a different explanation for how Malakov came to be gunned down in a public park with his daughter watching has a lot of questions to answer.

First and foremost, if Borukhova didn’t get Mallayev to kill Malakov, who did and why?  Why would Mallayev travel from Georgia to New York one day, murder Daniel Malakov, a man he barely knew, and return to Georgia the next?  Indeed, why would Mallayev want to murder Daniel at all?  Why would Borukhova and Mallayev call each other 90 times in such a short time?  Why would Borukhova lie on the witness stand?  And how would Mallayev, or indeed anyone else but Borukhova, know that Malakov was to be at that particular park at that particular time?

The defense had no answers to those questions, and Mallayev and Borukhova were convicted because they didn’t.

In short, to everyone including the jury and all the journalists who covered the trial, it’s a pretty clear case of conspiracy to murder. 

To Janet Malcolm, it’s a conundrum.

But strangely enough, she never makes the case that there is any narrative that remotely explains known facts other than Borukhova’s hiring Mallayev to murder her husband.  Indeed, she never gets close.

In a year of investigation and research, here’s what Malcolm came up with to attempt to cast doubt on the verdict:

  • The judge in the murder case gave Borukhova’s attorney only overnight to prepare his final argument to the jury;
  • The law guardian in the custody case may be a nutcase given to believing bizarre notions of conspiracies against the republic;
  • Borukhova claimed that Daniel was a kind of Jekyll and Hyde figure, one way in public, another altogether at home.

Well, needless to say, even if all of that were true, it simply has nothing to do with whether Borukhova hired Mallayev to kill Malakov. 

Now, it’s certainly not good form on the judge’s part to limit the attorney’s preparation time.  But as everyone who’s ever tried a lawsuit knows, if you haven’t made your case before closing argument, you’ve lost.  The overwhelming fact is that Borukhova had nothing with which to dent the prosecution’s case.  Six months to prepare wouldn’t have changed a thing.

And whether or not the law guardian for Michelle is a conspiracy nut or not – and Malcolm is the only person to claim he is – that does nothing to excuse her murder-for-hire of her husband.

The last claim is actually the most bizarre, though.  In support of Borukhova’s claim that Daniel had a split personality, Malcolm produces exactly one piece of evidence, if we can call it that.  Her bombshell is that, a search of his closet revealed that Malakov wore casual clothing to his dental office, but had some more expensive suits at home.  This, according to Malcolm lends some sort of credence to his wife’s claim that no one besides her knew the real Daniel Malakov.

I know you think I’m making that one up, but I’m not. 

By now, Janet Malcolm has inflicted thousands of words on innocent readers in her attempt to create questions about the murder of Daniel Malakov.  She’s failed utterly.

No trial based on circumstantial evidence is entirely without ambiguity.  But the Borukhova/Mallayev trial is about as clear as they come.  Malcolm’s desperate attempt to make it look otherwise reads more like the disturbed mutterings of a person who, on some elemental level, fears that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

That she’s found so many minds open to her quixotic tilt at a sound prosecution case probably is more political than psychological.  Those, like this article, reflexively seek to defend the notion of mothers as incapable of doing what Borukhova plainly did (, 3/27/11).

Indeed, the centerpiece of Malcolm’s New Yorker article is her anguished cry “she must have done it; she can’t have done it!”  That there is no evidence for either proposition but the first escapes Malcolm and her amen chorus entirely.

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