At first blush, the death last week of Frisco 10-year-old Arnav Dhawan seemed like another one of those too-gruesome-to-contemplate, too-compelling-to-turn-away stories of child abuse that flash across the local headlines with disturbing regularity.
According to police, the boy's mother, 38-year-old Pallavi Dhawan, confessed to murdering her son while her husband was away on a business trip. The boy's body was found on Wednesday evening in a dry bathtub with a cloth wrapped around him up to his neck, surrounded by plastic bags.
"Officers asked if she had killed the child, and Mrs. Dhawan nodded her head yes," Frisco PD Sergeant Brad Merritt said at a press conference on Thursday.
But other details suggest the murder case might not be the slam-dunk it seems. Not long after Frisco PD's press conference, Dhawan's attorney, David Finn, said she hadn't in fact confessed. The nod police interpreted to mean "yes" actually meant "no," the gesture being more nuanced in Indian culture than in America.
A similar cultural explanation explains why Arnav's body was kept in the bathtub for multiple days: She was preserving the body with ice until her husband returned home.
"It's a big deal to say goodbye because in Hindu/Indian culture, if [a] father does not say goodbye in person then the soul does not rest in peace," Finn told WFAA. "It's called 'giving of last rites.' [Pallavi Dhawan] said if [her] husband did not say goodbye to [Arnav], his soul would 'be here forever.'"
There are other factors that cast doubt on Dhawan's guilt. The boy had myriad medical problems, including microcephaly and a brain cyst, which could have contributed to his death and jibes with the failure of the initial autopsy to find any definitive cause. A toxicology report is pending.
And Sumeet Dhawan seems to have never doubted his wife's innocence, offering a vociferous defense to police, the media and prosecutors.
Once the toxicology results are in, Dhawan's case will go to a grand jury, which will weigh whether a dead body and a possibly misinterpreted head-nod are enough for a murder charge.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.