August 18, 2001
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Friends rally for murder accused

Aseem Chhabra in New York

Never mind how strongly the police and prosecutors contest Jonaki Ray's claim that her husband's death was an accident, her friends and well-wishers have decided to fight for the vindication of her name.

In fact, they have started a massive email campaign to raise money for her attorneys, who expect at least a retainer of $55,000.

Meanwhile, 28-year-old Jonaki is confined to a jail in Clinton County, Michigan, charged with the murder of her husband Dinesh Balagangadhar, who was a month short of his 30th birthday when he was found stabbed to death on July 1.

Ray's supporters include IIT Kanpur alumni and professors; she is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Her husband was a graduate of IIT Madras.

Among her backers is journalist, playwright and winner of the 1998 Onassis International Cultural Prize Manjula Padmanabhan who has called upon people interested in "helping out with advice [in defense of Ray] or money or friendly contacts."

Padmanabhan's note in her weekly column Marginalia in The Week prompted an angry response from the dead man's brother, Mahesh Balagangadhar of Arlington, Virginia.

"My entire family is deeply disturbed and hurt, that a renowned magazine like yours would support the cause of a person [arrested] of a now seemingly cold-blooded murder of my brother," Mahesh wrote in his long note to Manjula. "It appears that you were not able to gather enough facts about the incident, to ascertain the true nature of what happened."

Manjula did get back to Mahesh and apologised for the fact that she had not reviewed the facts of the case.

But the facts of what happened in the Dewitt Township home of Ray and Dinesh on Sunday afternoon, July 1, are unclear.

According to police, Ray stabbed her husband once in the heart with a kitchen knife after an argument. The two were alone in the house. Clinton County prosecutor Chuck Sherman said Ray's statements about the "accident" were inconsistent. "It just doesn't fit the facts," he said.

After the autopsy the police chief of Dewitt Township was reported as saying that because of the force and the type of injury from a four-inch blade, the incident "did not appear to be an accident".

During a search of the house, police recovered a note written by Ray, which indicated that the couple were planning to break up. Ray reportedly told the police that she had written the note a month before her husband's death. She added that since then she and her husband had been happier together.

Ray's attorney Barry Brunette of the Reynolds Law Firm would not comment on his client's position regarding Dinesh's death.

"I cannot talk about her side of the story, since things of that nature can seriously jeopardise the case and any chance that she has," Brunette said. He added that Ray had been charged with the crime of an open murder, "a very serious offence". If convicted, Ray could get up to life imprisonment or a jail term of 25 years, Brunette said, adding that a preliminary hearing for the trial is set for September 12, 2001.

Ray and Dinesh Balagangadhar were married in June 2000. The two met at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign as students. After their graduation they moved to Lansing where Dinesh took the position of an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan State University. Ray got a position at the Library of Michigan.

In an interview with, Mahesh acknowledged that he did not know his sister-in-law well enough. "I used to talk to them twice a week and never had any indication that they had problems in their marriage," he said. "I never asked my brother whether they had a happy married life. Well, I had no reason to ask. They had a love marriage.

"The only explanation could be that she did it in an act of rage," he added. "I personally did not know her very well and I did not know that she was a short-tempered person."

In his note to Manjula Padmanabhan, Mahesh raised one more possible motive for his brother's murder. A week before Dinesh's death, he had designated Ray the sole beneficiary to his life insurance policy of $250,000.

"The investigating officers strongly believe this is very credible and damning evidence, and that this is a very strong and possible motive for murdering my brother," Mahesh wrote.

But supporters of Ray see her as "a frail little girl" who grew up to be a "young lady... very docile in nature".

Professor R Biswas of IIT Kanpur said he had known Ray as a child on the institution's campus. Biswas is a colleague of Professor B C Raymahashay, father of Jonaki Ray and a professor of civil engineering at IIT Kanpur.

"After her marriage to Dinesh, she and Dinesh had visited us at Chennai [Madras] a few months ago and we had an excellent time together," Biswas wrote in his email. "The news of Jonaki getting arrested... is therefore a bolt from the blue... and we find it impossible to believe that her personality has changed in such a short span of time to that of an impulsive killer."

And another supporter of Ray -- Shan Mitra in Ontario, Canada, wrote: "This is clearly a very peculiar and confounding situation, and one cannot clearly know Jonaki's culpability until the trial is over."

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