Washington, Jan. 1: Nikhil Dhar, the Calcutta boy who was denied bail on Wednesday for allegedly attacking his professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, is unlikely to get a fair trial if the case against him is heard in Cambridge, where the incident took place on December 22.
Small town newspapers and radio stations in and around Lowell are replete with stories about the incident, making it highly unlikely that the local judicial system could select a fair, unbiased jury for the trial of the Indian student.
By all accounts, Mary Elizabeth Hooker, the victim, an assistant professor of clinical lab sciences, is a good teacher, a good citizen and good human being.
But Lowell is a town with a population of just about 104,000. Cambridge, nearby, has an even smaller population of 101,355, according to the last US census.
Both towns are crime-free by usual American standards.
Naturally, the attack on the 54 year-old academic has shocked communities in and around Cambridge.
By now, most Massachusetts residents in the Boston-Cambridge-Lowell area, who follow local news, are familiar with gory details of a four-inch wound on Hooker’s neck, one of three such wounds, descriptions of how she was dragged 10 feet by Dhar as the two struggled for control of the knife used for stabbing and how she was found covered in blood by the police.
Local news has focussed on how Hooker’s only concern after being released from hospital was to return to the classroom for the three courses and a student-research project she is scheduled to oversee at the university from January 24.
“I take my job teaching seriously and the university is very dedicated to its students, so I want to be there for them in the spring semester,” Hooker told the local media.
“Hooker has a reputation on campus of caring deeply for her students and going out of her way to assist them both inside and outside the classroom if they struggle with class material,” one Lowell newspaper wrote of the victim.
There have also been narratives of how she spent Christmas with her family while recuperating from the ordeal, of how considerate she was when Dhar approached Hooker at her home to discuss his falling grades.
Under America’s notorious jury system, which is a litany of shortcomings especially when minorities and people of colour are in the dock, trials by the media before and during an arraignment can prejudice a jury, which often conceals such prejudices in the name of what it considers as justice.
During Dhar’s court appearance on Wednesday, and elsewhere, his attorney, Stephen Hrones, told a different story, which corroborated the student’s statements to the police.
According to the accused’s version of events, when he arrived at Hooker’s residence, she came to the door with a knife thinking that a burglar might be trying to gain access to her house. The two then fought over the knife.
Hrones pointed out that his client does not have any history of violence, a view that is widely shared by Dhar’s fellow students at Lowell.
The defence attorney requested Cambridge District Court Judge Michele Hogan to let Dhar be confined to his uncle’s home with an electronic monitoring bracelet, but it was turned down at Wednesday’s hearing.
A Grand Jury in Middlesex County is now expected to indict him in January while he remains in jail without bail.
Unfortunately for Dhar, what has gained wide currency is his statement to Hooker at the beginning of their altercation that “they are going to send me back to my country”.
In the present atmosphere of xenophobia in the US, it is a statement that may crucially work against him.