India's JonBenet Ramsey Case?

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A photo of a Aarushi Talwar put up for a prayer meeting in Noida, India. Aarushi was murdered at her residence last week in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

Two weeks ago, in the supposedly secure confines of an affluent New Delhi suburb, a double murder occurred. Fourteen-year-old Aarushi Talwar and one of her family's servants were killed — their throats slit "with clinical precision," according to the police — in Noida, which lies just east of the Indian capital. With crime soaring in the area, the story might well have vanished quickly. But then the police began telling this story: Rajesh Talwar, a well-known dentist, killed his teenage daughter and their Nepalese helper, Hemraj, they claimed, to prevent them from blowing the lid off his affair with fellow dentist Anita Durrani. According to the police, he was also incensed because Aarushi was "in an objectionable but not compromising position" with the 46-year-old Hemraj. The media lapped it up and went to town with lurid speculation, turning the case into a national sensation.

On closer examination, however, there were many problems with the police's case. For one thing, the police had recovered almost no physical evidence — not even a murder weapon — to back up their claims. Indeed, the police appear to have bungled the investigation from the start. Shortly after discovering Aarushi's body, the police declared that Hemraj, who was missing and presumed to have fled, was the killer. (Murders and robberies by domestic workers are increasingly common in and around New Delhi; this month alone, ill-paid, ill-treated or thieving servants have been accused in five murder cases in the capital.) However, when a friend of the Talwar family, a former cop, came to offer condolences the following morning, he suggested making a more thorough search of the house. It was only then that the alleged murderer's decomposing body was found on the terrace. Not only had the cops missed the second corpse on their initial investigation; they had failed to seal the crime scene or secure pieces of evidence like the blood-soaked mattress on which Aarushi's body was found.

The Noida police quickly transferred two officers off the case. The department had already received much criticism for its inept handling of the so-called Nithari case in December 2006, in which the remains of 18 children and women were recovered from a drainage ditch, apparently the victims of rape, murder and cannibalism that had gone undetected for months, if not years.

After the discovery of Hemraj's body, the police quickly announced their theory of the double love affairs. Dr Talwar had killed Aarushi and Hemraj, the cops said, because Aarushi had objected to her father's affair, while he had objected to hers. The Talwar and Durrani families denied the allegations strenuously. A harried Dr. Talwar shouted "They're framing me!" into TV cameras while being led away by the police. He is technically in custody for questioning. Police sources say he has confessed to the crime, but Talwar insists he has done nothing of the sort. His bedraggled wife, Nupur, spoke to reporters to claim her husband was innocent: "I will fight it out in the court for Rajesh. I will try my best to get justice for the family."

In addition to the missing murder weapons, Aarushi and Hemraj's cellphones have also not been found. Observers also wonder, if Dr. Talwar was indeed the murderer as the police allege, why the presumably blood-stained clothes he wore while allegedly slitting their throats have not been found. Women- and child-rights activists have also complained about what they say are the distasteful remarks by the regionís Inspector General of Police, Gurdarshan Singh, who said that "Dr Rajesh Talwar killed Aarushi when she objected to his extramarital affair, though he was as characterless as his daughter." The country's minister of women's welfare, Renuka Chowdhury, has castigated the police for casting aspersions on Aarushi's character while the investigation has yet to be completed.

But the lack of evidence and the denials have hardly diminished the Indian media's obsession with the police's sensational theory. Cameras have been following the Talwars and the Durranis everywhere. The English-language daily Hindustan Times ran a profile of Dr. Talwar called "How Dr Jekyll Turned Mr Hyde." Appeals by the Talwar and Durrani families to respect their privacy have made no difference. Personal family video has been aired on television. It is the kind of frenzy Western audiences have gotten used to since the still-unsolved JonBenet Ramsey case in the U.S. more than a decade ago, but in India, this home-grown tragedy is generating an enormous domestic market for tabloid journalism. Critics fear that the overzealous media coverage, combined with the police's missteps, may have already prejudiced the course of justice.

The Noida murders also reveal deeper flaws in Indian policing and the country's media. Critics have renewed calls for the press to conform to proposed legislation that would regulate journalistic standards, a bill the media has fought. Some experts hope that public outrage over the conduct of the investigation will build and ensure that the case gets transferred to India's Central Bureau of Investigation, which is expected to do a better job than the police. In the long run, India's police will need to clean up its act. However it is resolved, the Noida investigation could well be a first step toward change.