National Post

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Saturday, October 09, 1999

Not for this killer the con's hardships
Woman on pass from prison while seeking early release
Christie Blatchford
National Post

Goodness knows, nothing's too good for our girl.

Not for Amina Chaudhary the indignity of custody, the sobering click of handcuffs closing 'round the wrists as she leaves the prisoner's box or the daily ride in a common paddy wagon, with its crass Toronto Police decals. Not for her confinement in the holding cells in the bowels of Toronto's main courthouse downtown during recesses and lunch, and speaking of lunch, not for her the simple sandwiches served in those cells.

Chaudhary, who is now trying to get out of jail early, is beyond reach of the humbling slings and arrows that comprise the lot of the ordinary con -- and even the poor sap who is merely accused of a crime but has been denied bail -- attending a court proceeding

Well, all she did, four months shy of 17 long years ago, was strangle an eight-year-boy to death.

The woman who has scored a number of firsts in her 15 years-and-change in the Canadian prison system -- first federal offender allowed to go to a special "parenting unit" at a provincial British Columbia institution so that she might bond with the first of her four children born behind bars; anecdotally at least, the offender with more passes (34 hours' worth) out of jail per month than anyone else -- may have notched another.

Chaudhary is now attending her judicial review hearing -- this is provided for by the controversial "faint-hope" clause in the Criminal Code that allows convicted killers the chance to apply to reduce the hypothetically mandatory 25-year parole ineligibility periods that are attached to convictions for first-degree murder-- on what's called an "escorted temporary absence" pass, or ETA.

The news was revealed yesterday before the Ontario Court jury now hearing her application, and appeared to startle at least one of the jurors.

The smokers among them may have had a suspicion this was the case, for earlier this week, during a break, Chaudhary and her two casually attired female "escorts" walked past some of them who were enjoying a cigarette outside the courthouse during a break. Others may have spotted the trio on their way out of the building for lunch.

Even the presiding judge, Mr. Justice Patrick LeSage, seemed momentarily taken aback by the revelation, though it wasn't clear if His Honor was reacting to the method by which Chaudhary is in Toronto or by the fact she isn't in custody.

After the issue was raised yesterday by prosecutor Tony Loparco, Chaudhary's lawyer, Elizabeth Thomas, rose to clarify her client's status. Chaudhary, Ms. Thomas said, "is on an ETA pass from the warden of the institution for the specific purpose of attending court that is specifically provided for in the Criminal Code."

"That surprises me," Justice LeSage said, adding he thought an earlier warrant for her attendance that he issued last May, when the hearing was originally slated to start, would have been in effect. But when the hearing didn't proceed, the judge's warrant apparently expired.

The ETA pass means Chaudhary isn't subjected to any of the normal restrictions imposed upon those in custody.

With her escorts -- it wasn't made clear yesterday who they are, but generally, the jury has been told, inmates out on such passes may be accompanied either by civilians or prison staff -- at her side, she is driven to and from court in an ordinary white car, is free to move about in the building and eat at a restaurant, and enters the prisoner's box from the body of the court only moments before the jury comes in.

Yesterday, for instance, as one of Chaudhary's escorts picked up the car and the other tried to slip her out a rear exit of the building to avoid media photographers, the dead boy's father, Steve Gupta, his face drawn, stood outside the courthouse, watching the evasive manoeuvres.

The jury hasn't heard where Chaudhary stays in the evenings while the hearing is on, but since she now lives at a minimum-security "house" off the grounds of the notorious Prison for Women in Kingston, a good two-hour drive from Toronto, it seems unlikely she is returning there each night.

It isn't known if she is held at a local detention centre or stays at a hotel with her escorts -- and, if so, if federal taxpayers are responsible for that tab, as they have so often in the past paid for her various perquisites and treats -- or if she has been able to squeeze in a visit or chat with her husband, another convicted murderer who is now on full parole, working as a limousine driver and living in the city.

Documents introduced in court and the witnesses who have testified thus far have given different accounts of when and where the deadly pair first met, but meet they did.

Eventually, the Chaudharys married, and on conjugal visits conceived three children within five years, all still under the age of six and all living with a woman friend near Sudbury. Despite the fact that she sees these three only about three weeks a year, and though her husband doesn't look after them though he has served his sentence for his second-degree murder and is free, the couple is repeatedly praised as loving parents in prison documents.

Chaudhary was also pregnant -- it isn't clear whether by Mr. Chaudhary or by the lover whose nephew she killed -- when she first entered the prison system. That child, a daughter, she now sees only four times a year, and a son, apparently by her earlier marriage, she no longer sees at all.

Mr. Gupta's son, Rajesh, was on his way to school one wintery morning on Feb. 3, 1982, when he fell prey to Chaudhary, then just 20, and now a slight 38-year-old woman who wears her long hair in a girlish braid.

A pathologist at her original trial testified the little boy had been struck on the head with a blunt-force object -- if he was lucky, it would have rendered him unconscious -- and then slowly strangled to death with an unidentified ligature.

His small body was found later that day, lying face down in the snow on a dead-end street where once the illicit lovers had met. The boy's shoes and winter boots were discovered in a nearby green garbage bag.

The trial prosecutor successfully argued that Chaudhary, who was married but had been having a sexual affair with another man named Vijay Gupta, Mr. Gupta's brother, had killed Rajesh because she was furious that her lover had snuck off to their native India and married someone else without telling her.

Chaudhary's kid-glove treatment in court this week may have left observers reeling, but it appears to have been pretty much her lot since she first entered the system.

Her application here has the strong support of a prison psychiatrist and other officials, one of whom, parole officer Mike Kerr, testified this week.

Mr. Kerr prepared the "parole eligibility report" for this hearing, a lengthy document revealed by the prosecutor yesterday to be riddled with factual errors and omissions that arguably combined to portray Chaudhary as a bright and co-operative inmate who used her time behind bars to improve herself and has emerged as a prime candidate for freedom.

Within the large report are smaller notes and reports that detail Chaudhary's stay in the federal system. From the first in 1984, which immediately assessed her as among the smartest, most law-abiding and "pro-social" category of prisoners (using an assessment tool that was already known to be ineffective with women offenders), to one of the last, in 1997, she was always given the benefit of the doubt.

That 1997 report is a psychiatric assessment by Dr. Robert Brown. In it, chillingly, Dr. Brown even got Rajesh's age wrong, describing him as 14.

Rajesh was eight when he was killed, not that it appears to matter.

Copyright Southam Inc.