How Aarushi murder trial evokes the gruesome Jeffrey MacDonald case

It is time to worry when impressions gained from looking through a glass darkly start to determine the official course of justice.

 |   Long-form |   05-08-2015
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By their very nature, savage crimes of passion lie beyond the pale of regular human experience - each such case tends to be singular, containing many little details that are morbidly peculiar to it and found nowhere else. But some crimes do strongly evoke earlier, unrelated crimes. While reading Avirook Sen's book about the Aarushi Talwar murder case (which takes the position - as did Gaurav Jain's long Tehelka story and Patrick French's piece published in Open - that there has been a major miscarriage of justice), I thought about the little similarities between the Aarushi case and the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial of the 1970s.

I first encountered the MacDonald case as a child, deeply disturbed by a viewing of Fatal Vision, the 1984 TV movie about the murders. Then, last year, I found myself reading about the case at some length. The immediate catalyst was a Washington Post article by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gene Weingarten, which reacquainted me with the basic facts: the February 1970 murders of Green Beret officer Jeff MacDonald's wife and two little daughters in their home, and the eventual trial and conviction of MacDonald, who claims to this day that a group of intruders were responsible.

In both the MacDonald and Talwar cases, a parent (or parents) was convicted of brutally killing a child (or children). In both situations, the Occam's Razor principle came into play: if a murder has been committed in a house, and there are no signs of outsiders having broken in or being on the premises, the surviving member of the household quickly becomes the main suspect. But another similarity - one that can be seen as a counter to the above point - is that in both cases the crime scene was badly compromised at the outset.

In the MacDonald case, over a dozen military policemen - confused, spooked, untrained - traipsed through the house in the early hours of the morning, bringing in mud and debris from outside (it had been raining). Farcically, MacDonald's wallet was stolen before he was taken to hospital, and his pajama bottoms - which could have provided evidence - accidentally disposed of; it was also alleged that some fingerprints had been erased. Even now, 45 years after the tragedy, those who believe in MacDonald's innocence use that travesty to buttress their case.

Similarly, the Aarushi case was marked by a level of bungling that we in India tend to associate with police and investigative procedures. People walking randomly in and out of the house, touching things that shouldn't have been touched; the bizarre failure to discover another dead body lying just a few yards away on the terrace until 24 hours later (and meanwhile, the pronouncing of that "absconding" servant as the main suspect); a ham-fisted approach to sleuthing that included making much of the fact that Aarushi had been reading a book with a "suspicious" title (Chetan Bhagat's The 3 Mistakes of my Life).

No two cases are exactly alike though. Unlike the Talwars, Jeff MacDonald was incriminated by a pileup of damning physical evidence -including the trail of blood in the house - that strongly contradicted his version of events. Another factor was that while his wife and daughters had been violently bludgeoned and stabbed - "over-killed" almost, as a term used at the time had it - the physically fit army doctor, having supposedly been in a life-and-death struggle with four assailants, got away with relatively superficial wounds, the most serious being an incision that could have been self-inflicted by someone with medical knowledge.

My own feelings about the truth behind these cases aren't really relevant to this post, but just for the record: based on everything I have read about the evidence - or "evidence" in quote-marks - and how the investigations were conducted, my view is that Jeffrey MacDonald is almost certainly guilty while the Talwars are quite possibly victims of a botched, prejudiced investigation and the initial impressions spread by salacious policemen and a sex-scandal-hungry media.

Which raises another point: looking again at both cases, close together, is to be reminded of how easily everyone plays detective when a case comes into the public domain, and how seductive and misleading "gut instincts" and notions about human behaviour can be.

For instance, though Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted on the basis of solid evidence, one thing that discomfits me is that a lot of the public feeling about MacDonald came from subjective perceptions about how a grieving husband and father must behave - and how long he should nurture his grief - as if human reactions in such a grotesquely unusual situation can ever follow a neat template. Even today, online commenters on videos of MacDonald's TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1970 (where he played to the gallery, smiled at the audience, focused more on the injustices done to him by the Army than on his personal loss) pronounce things like "he's so creepy - looking at this I have no doubt he's guilty" and "that's not how anyone whose children have been murdered would talk".

But how can they be so sure? How pompous do you have to be to think you know for certain how a particular person - possibly a person very different from you - would behave, simply by imagining your own reaction to a frankly unimaginable situation, and then convincing yourself that your imagination and empathy are both infallible?

In the social media age, where opinions are cheap and plentiful, we are all judges and have forums on which to express our views - and media is happy to showcase the most extreme of those views. As Sen and others have pointed out, in the early weeks of the Talwar case, many people smugly watched Nupur Talwar on TV and decided she didn't fit their pre-set image of a devastated mother. (Here's Shobhaa De, one of many public figures who should have been more circumspect: "The conduct displayed by Mr and Mrs Talwar appears a bit too calculated, even cold blooded … For a mother of a dead girl to project such steely determination during what must have been the most harrowing time of her life, seems a bit unnatural… Their faces are stony, their eyes, strangely devoid of any emotion.") Enough such opinions can easily drown out other assessments, and fix a narrative in the public mind.

*****

The history of detective work and psychological profiling has, as with any other science, had many missteps and detours. There was a time when physiognomy - the study of a person's facial features to draw conclusions about character - was considered a reliable aid to detecting criminals. Back when photography was in its infancy, it was thought for a time that photographing a murder victim's eyeballs would reveal the final image seen by the dead person (which would hopefully be the killer's face). We have moved beyond those ideas (and many of them seem like such gaffes to our 21st century eyes, we marvel at how intelligent people of an earlier time could have taken them seriously), but our very human tendency to judge by first impressions - or to filter everything through the prisms of our own reactions, fears, paranoias and certitudes - won't fade anytime soon.

Anyone who has studied true crime knows many such examples of trial by armchair detection. Lawyers, judges, casual observers, jury members, all have their own prisms. So do writers, who might be expected to study a case over a period of time and with a degree of detachment and caution; some high-profile books have arisen from the "intuitive" method. The novelist Patricia Cornwell, for instance, went to Scotland Yard, took a look at a dark and disturbing painting by Walter Sickert, and just knew that the painter was not only a violent misogynist but Jack the Ripper to boot. She went on to write a book centred on dubious hypotheses and flawed research, announcing that she had unmasked the world's most famous undiscovered murderer, pompously sub-titled it "Case Closed" … and rightly became a laughing stock for anyone who is acquainted with the facts of the Ripper case. But among gullible general readers, and fans of Cornwell's fiction, much of this must have seemed legit.

One of the most brilliant comics I have read, "Dance of the Gull-Catchers", is the 24-page coda to the immense Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell graphic novel From Hell.

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Having taken the reader through 500 pages where he rigorously works out a premise based on a widely debunked theory about Jack the Ripper (a theory that he himself doesn't believe in), Moore now turns meta and casts a caustic, and very funny, gaze on the long, convoluted history of "Ripperology"- a pursuit that usually reveals more about the people obsessed with the case than it does about the murderer himself.

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"Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic."

That crime should be a distorting mirror for people reading about it or watching it on a news channel is wholly understandable; that's human nature. But when impressions gained from looking through a glass darkly start to determine the official course of justice, it's time to worry.

Writer

Jai Arjun Singh Jai Arjun Singh @jaiarjun

Writer and critic. Blogs at Jabberwock (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.in ). Author of Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983. Edited The Popcorn Essayists.

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