Was Aarushi Talwar murder verdict a miscarriage of justice?

Aarushi Talwar Image copyright other
Image caption Aarushi Talwar was killed in May 2008

"We are living an unreal life for the past seven years," says Rajesh Talwar. "It is like living in a haze."

Talwar and his wife, Nupur, are currently lodged in a prison set amid verdant farmland outside India's capital, Delhi. In November 2013, a court found the dentist couple guilty of killing their 13-year-old daughter Aarushi and their Nepalese servant, Hemraj Banjade, in the family apartment in nearby Uttar Pradesh, one of India's worst-governed states.

Fuelled by sensational media leaks and the fact that the accused belonged to India's thriving, upwardly mobile middle-class, the 2008 double murder quickly became the country's most-talked-about crime. The verdict was based on circumstantial evidence as key forensic evidence had been lost during two flawed investigations. The Talwars were sentenced to life in prison.

From the beginning, there were doubts about the way the investigations were conducted, first by the local police and then by federal detectives belonging to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) - it was "haphazard, absurd and defamatory" and worsened by the "administrative dystopia" of Uttar Pradesh, wrote British writer Patrick French, who was a patient of Rajesh Talwar.

Puzzling

Now an explosive new book by journalist Avirook Sen claims that the conviction of the couple may have been a gross miscarriage of justice. Sen conducted some 100 interviews with investigators, lawyers, witnesses, family and the schoolgirl's friends, attended the trial and had his material vetted by lawyers. His book - Aarushi - is a gripping account of the crime, an allegedly slipshod investigation and a puzzling trial.

At the heart of the book is a botched inquiry where some crucial evidence pointing to the possible involvement of an outsider in the double murders was recorded by the early investigators - but strangely ignored by the court.

The police, says Sen, then served up a tantalising narrative conflating sex, honour and class to implicate the couple: the parents, incensed by a relationship between their daughter and the man servant, killed them for honour, which is common in parts of India.

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Image caption The Talwars accused the police of mishandling the case
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Image caption The Talwar family in happier times

Except, Sen's book claims, there was no evidence to prove any of this.

Seventeen months in jail have diminished the Talwar couple, but prison life has become the new normal. "We are veterans here," Nupur Talwar muses.

Her husband has been provided with a dentist's chair and modern dental equipment - "better than the equipment you get outside," he says - and there's a queue of inmates getting their molars removed and fillings done. His wife, who lives in a ward with women convicted in dowry murders, joins him for a few hours every day.

Both read and meditate to pass time. Rajesh Talwar says he has finished reading most of Amitav Ghosh, and he's now in the middle of his new book, River of Smoke. "He is such a fine writer. I would like to meet him one day," he says.

That could only happen in the foreseeable future if a higher court upholds their appeal and suspends the sentence.

There's a small, potentially life-destroying problem though: the high court in Allahabad - the first stop for appeal - is still hearing appeals from the early 1980s. "When we were brought to the prison, I thought somebody would come soon and tell us, we have made a mistake and you can go. But nobody ever came," says Rajesh Talwar.

Lewd narrative

What hurts most, he says, is the way their dead daughter was vilified by the police and sections of the media. The police leaked Aarushi's text messages, social media posts, an email to her father in which she apologises for something he didn't approve of. Even as the investigation began, a senior police official told reporters that Aarushi was "characterless".

A lewd narrative of a promiscuous "latchkey" child of fast-living parents who had an illicit relationship with a house-help was spun around these tropes, something which Sen describes as "getting a story in place first, and then facts could be made to follow". Rajesh Talwar says: "I live to only seek justice for Aarushi. All the allegations against her should end before I die. That's what I live for."

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Image caption There were protests demanding a fair investigation
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Image caption Rajesh Talwar was attacked with a meat cleaver as he made an appearance in court in January 2011

Sen says the investigation itself was shockingly shambolic. The teenager's new camera was sent to a lab which did not have the facility to retrieve deleted pictures. An investigator said there was "no procedure of collecting" vaginal swabs for examination in Uttar Pradesh, where more than 200 million people live.

A constable who lifts fingerprints and takes pictures at the crime scene appears to have lost his memory when cross-examined by the defence lawyers in the court four years later. He also tells the court he used a "black powder" to lift the prints. The fingerprints, anyway, are "useless to the labs" and his photos are a "complete mess". Sealed covers containing forensic evidence are tampered with.

Key prosecution witnesses, writes Sen, tell one story to the investigators, and a "substantially different one in court". A policeman tells the court that he has no sense of smell and that he had found Hemraj's body in the terrace of the Talwar residence in "mint condition" - this was a swollen, body decomposing for 36 hours in the wilting 47C (116F) heat before it was discovered. The couple's house-maid, a key prosecution witness, openly tells the judge that she had been coached.

'Freaks'

The crime scene is recreated using commercial red paint, water and a bed sheet. Crucial evidence - a pillow cover with the servant's DNA was found in a different house - is bungled. Investigators rely heavily on scientific tests - lie-detector, brain-mapping and narco-analysis - that are not admissible as evidence in court.

In a 201-page verdict written in florid prose, the judge found the Talwars guilty, saying that the crime was "fiendish and flagitious", and that "there have been freaks in the history of mankind when the father and mother became the killer of their own progeny". He gave 26 reasons to explain why he concluded that the couple had committed filicide.

Sen's book is a devastating indictment of India's broken criminal justice system, and its voyeuristic, ratings-addled TV news media, which destroys reputations with impunity. It is also about the collision of new India - exemplified by the successful and ambitious Talwar couple - with the old represented in this book by allegedly prejudiced investigators, suspicious of the new modernity.

"This is a case where everything had gone awry right from the beginning," Vijay Shanker, a former head of the CBI who retired two years after the agency took over the investigation, himself tells Sen.

"What are we talking about? We are talking about the dignity of the dead. We are talking about the criminal justice system. We are not talking about a PD James novel."

Case timeline

  • 16 May 2008: Schoolgirl Aarushi Talwar's body found at home with throat slit and a fatal head wound
  • 17 May 2008: Body of domestic help Hemraj found on the roof of the house
  • 23 May 2008: Father Rajesh Talwar arrested
  • 29 May 2008: Case handed over to federal detective agency CBI
  • 11 July 2008: Rajesh Talwar bailed
  • 29 December 2010: CBI wants to close the case due to a "lack of evidence"
  • 25 January 2011: Rajesh Talwar attacked by a man with meat cleaver
  • April 2011: CBI says "only parents could have killed Aarushi"
  • 8 June 2012: Trial begins
  • 26 November 2013: Rajesh and Nupur Talwar found guilty of murdering Aarushi and Hemraj and sentenced to life

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