KITCHENER, Ont. - An Ontario woman who started a family with another inmate while serving a life sentence for killing an eight-year-old boy will get a second chance at building a life outside prison.
Amina Chaudhary, 51, gasped and shook with relief Wednesday when members of the Parole Board of Canada handed down their decision to release her to a halfway house in Hamilton.
Unlike her previous taste of freedom — cut short two years ago amid allegations of financial "discrepancies" — Chaudhary's latest attempt at reintegration will mean life apart from her husband, a convicted murderer also on day parole, and their three children.
The prospect didn't seem to faze Chaudhary, who told the two-member panel in Kitchener, Ont., she wanted to "start fresh" while keeping contact with her already scattered family in Toronto, Kingston and North Bay, Ont.
"I'm going to be concentrating on myself ... for the first time," she said, noting she plans to train as a paralegal and upgrade her computer skills in the hopes of landing part-time work.
Found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1982 slaying of her ex-lover's eight-year-old nephew, Chaudhary has spent the decades since challenging her conviction and the resulting deportation order.
Officials branded her a low risk to reoffend for years, citing her exemplary conduct behind bars and the discipline that helped her earn several degrees during her incarceration.
But a 2011 psychological assessment upgraded the risk to moderate, citing a "longstanding tendency to externalize blame" and "difficulties with accepting full responsibility" for her actions, according to parole board documents from recent years.
Those files suggested the board had grown increasingly suspicious of her activities, describing her as manipulative and "comfortable in being deceptive" to achieve her goals, traits it linked to "ingrained criminal values."
At the time, the board praised her for completing several rehabilitation programs and undergoing counselling, but said it wasn't convinced she had "internalized the material."
At Wednesday's hearing, the panel said she seemed to have made progress and stressed the need for transparency about her relationships and finances once she is released in the community.
Under the conditions of her parole, she must also continue to seek psychological counselling.
Chaudhary's behaviour and state of mind over the past few years were scrutinized Wednesday, with board members pressing her to explain her involvement in a number of business and real estate deals later flagged by authorities.
One of the panel's members, Brian Mullan, suggested she was manipulated by her husband, alleging the man sought to take advantage of her good credit rating to secure better mortgages for two homes he already owned.
Citing cultural traditions that discourage women from asking questions, Chaudhary said she went along with her husband's plans in many aspects of their life together because she was "so overwhelmed" after decades of incarceration.
"I agreed, so I have to take responsibility," Chaudhary replied, arguing she is better prepared to handle the pressures of life outside prison.
"I made some decisions while I was on release that ... brought me back to prison," she said.
Her return to custody gave her time to understand where she went wrong so that she can avoid repeating her mistakes, she said.
"I have to be open and honest," she said.
It's not the first time Chaudhary's relationship with her husband Anees Chaudhary — whom she met in jail and married in 1989 — has raised red flags with board members.
Some expressed their concerns in writing, adding the challenge of caring for the couple's special needs children may have clouded Chaudhary's judgment when she was previously on day parole.
The decision to pull her back into custody in 2010 stemmed in part from the board's belief she was plotting to flee with her children while leaving the family home to her husband in exchange for her freedom, documents show.
In a recent twist, the case spawned a campaign for the preservation of evidence after photo exhibits that Chaudhary's supporters believe might help prove her innocence seemed to vanish.
"The best recourse she had for vindication has pretty much been taken away," said Alan Young, a lawyer and professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School.
The school's chapter of the Innocence Project took Chaudhary as its first case and has since referenced her situation in an application that would force law enforcement to keep exhibits in murder cases unless the inmate gives permission to destroy them.
Prosecutors maintained a thirst for revenge led Chaudhary to slay eight-year-old Rajesh Gupta, who was left in her care while his uncle, her ex-lover, travelled to India for an arranged marriage to another woman.
Gupta was strangled in February 1982 with the drawstring cord of his ski jacket hood, packed in a cardboard box and dumped in a remote section of east Toronto where the former couple used to meet.
Thirty years later, Chaudhary steadfastly proclaimed her innocence to the parole board when questioned about the killing.
But though she hinted to knowing who killed Gupta, she declined to point fingers in light of her legal challenge.
"I know for a fact it's not me," she said Wednesday.
At the time, Chaudhary — herself in an arranged marriage — was still recovering from an arm wound, she said.
"I was 86 pounds at the time ... I only had one working arm, I was stabbed very badly and I was pregnant" with her lover's child, she said.
Parole board documents say she continued with the affair despite the protestations of her family that "culminated in an assault involving your brother and a knife."
Supporters raised doubts about Chaudhary's ability to kill a struggling boy in her weakened state.
At her trial, however, now-disgraced pathologist Charles Smith testified that autopsy photos showed damage to Gupta's skull indicating the boy had been knocked out before he was murdered.
Attempts to find the photos and have them re-examined came to a dead end, stalling efforts to have Chaudhary's case reopened.
Yet neither she nor her supporters have given up, Young said, noting the Innocence Project has heard from another witness and plans to file an affidavit in the coming months.
"The case is far from closed," Young said. "It's just one of those claims of wrongful conviction where we're simply not getting all the pieces of the puzzle to come together."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version mistakenly listed Chaudhary's age as 50.