Part I: For New Yorker’s Malcolm, Trees Just Don’t Make a Forest

For reasons I can only guess at, it took The New Yorker magazine’s Janet Malcolm almost 14 months to pen her article on the Mazoltuv Borukhova murder case. It’s not because she added much to what we already knew. Essentially all she did beyond reporting what happened in the trial, which she attended daily, was to interview the family of the victim, Daniel Malakov. Her results were fairly predictable. What do we expect a murder victim’s family to say? Daniel was a decent man, a loving husband and father.

So what’s Malcolm been doing all these months? What is it that’s sustained her interest in a murder case that was decided back in March of 2009? As I said, I can only guess, but her article (link by subscription only) looks less like a piece of journalism and more like a personal attempt to come to terms with the implications of the case – implications that Malcolm isn’t comfortable with, implications that disturb her worldview. Ultimately, she’s not successful. In the final analysis, Malcolm’s understanding of things seems to have remained unchanged by the brutal facts of Mazoltuv Borukhova’s murder-for-hire of her husband, Daniel Malakov. Malcolm’s is a triumph of myth over reality.

The raison d’ĂȘtre of the article is Malcolm’s description of how she “struggled with the enigma of the case: she (Borukhova) couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.”

And yet to look at the case dispassionately is to see no enigma at all. The facts are simple. Mazoltuv “Marina” Borukhova hired a relative by marriage, Mikhail Mallayev to murder her husband, Daniel Malakov. He did so on Sunday, October 28, 2007. Daniel was supposed to drop off Michelle, his daughter with Marina, at a park for his wife to have some visitation time with the four-year-old. Instead, he was met by Mallayev who fired three shots into his chest at point blank range with the little girl looking on. Police found the homemade silencer Mallayev used and abandoned at the scene. His fingerprints were on it. Eye witnesses identified him. He had traveled the day before from his home in Georgia (U.S.) to Queens where the murder occurred, and returned the following day.

In the three weeks prior to the murder, Mallayev and Borukhova had 91 telephone conversations. Mallayev deposited $20,000 into his bank account 10 days after the deed was done. As chief prosecutor Brad Leventhal asked in his opening statement to the jury,

Why? Why would this defendant lie in wait for an unsuspecting and innocent victim? A man, I will prove to you, he didn’t even personally know?

To ask the question is to answer it. Mallayev had no animus against Daniel Malakov, but Borukhova did. Just three weeks before the murder, a Queens family court judge had transferred custody of Michelle from Marina to Daniel. He had done so because of her transparent parental alienation of Michelle against Daniel. Not long before the killing, Marina had told Daniel’s brother that, because of the transfer of custody, “his days are numbered; everything is decided about them.” Borukhova’s two sisters visited former New York State Senator Diane Savino, who had once worked for the Administration for Children’s Services. They had an interesting question: “what would happen to a child if its custodial father died?” Savino told them the mother would likely regain custody.

Add to all that the fact that Borukhova routinely lied both under oath and not. She lied in family court about property she owned; she lied repeatedly in her murder trial; she lied to a wide array of therapists, including one she and Daniel had consulted and more than one appointed by the family court. In family court she offered perjured affidavits as evidence.

Now, all of that is simple enough. As I said before, dispassionate observers of the above and other evidence would be hard pressed to conclude anything but that Mazoltuv Borukhova hired Mikhail Mallayev to murder Daniel Malakov because he’d interfered with her exclusive control of their daughter. I make that statement advisedly; dispassionate observers in fact did exactly that. The jury selected at the trial of Mallayev and Borukhova took only six hours to digest the evidence of a five-week trial and convict both defendants.

But Janet Malcolm is anything but a dispassionate observer. Throughout her narrative, it’s clear that she has a stake in the outcome, or perceives that she does. Intelligent, thoughtful, articulate Janet Malcolm looks at Mazoltuv Borukhova and despite the overwhelming evidence of her guilt, finds that,

everything one knew about life and about people cried out against the notion that this gentle, cultivated woman was the mastermind of a criminal plot.

And yet her use of the impersonal “one” is entirely misplaced. As I said before, the jury knew exactly what had happened and had no trouble reaching the obvious conclusion. At least four separate judges, a social worker, a psychologist, a children’s guardian and several employees of Visitation Alternatives found Borukhova to be variously a danger to her child, at best untrustworthy and occasionally an outright liar.

So invested is Malcolm in the outcome of the case, that she makes her bias evident. She claims that one police investigator “was lying” in sworn testimony. Perhaps aware that that statement could get her and her magazine sued, she admits that her conclusion that he was lying was based entirely on her belief that Borukhova was telling the truth, and therefore may be wrong. But she never seems to come to grips with Borukhova’s lengthy history of lying both in and out of court.

Most remarkably, Malcolm actually steps out of her role as journalist in which she observes and reports information about the case, and inserts herself into the trial process. During the trial, she interviewed Michelle’s law guardian, attorney David Schnall. Schnall was one of the many people in the saga who didn’t like Mazoltuv Borukhova and made no secret of the fact. He had been instrumental in the transfer of custody from her to Daniel.

And when Malcolm inteviews him, he turns out to be frankly screwy. Her notes, which she quotes verbatim, reveal Schnall saying things like “Joseph McCarthy was right,” and “there is no energy crisis; there is plenty of oil,” and “banks do not lend money; they have no money.” In short, Schnall holds some pretty questionable opinions and believes some pretty unbelievable things.

But did Malcolm write an article about the screwball who testified for the prosecution, the way any other journalist would do? No, in the middle of trial, she faxed her notes to the defense attorney for Borukhova who immediately transformed them into a motion to recall Schnall as a witness, apparently to inquire into his sanity. Needless to say, the judge denied the motion, but it is Malcolm’s attempt to redirect the course of the trial that’s astonishing. For a journalist to intervene on behalf of one of the litigants in a trial she’s covering is rare indeed, and Malcolm herself admits she’d never done it before.

And yet, if it ever occurs to her to wonder why she chose this case in which to violate clear journalistic ethics for the only time in her life, she never lets on. The answer seems clear. As I said before, Janet Malcolm perceives that she’s got a stake in the outcome. But, like the trial itself, what’s clear to most is to Malcolm cloaked in mystery.

To be continued.

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