In 1986, two Asian businessmen were shot dead in a Florida hotel suite.
The next year, a man was convicted for the crime and taken to jail, where he remains to this day.
The only problem is that he never committed the crime.
Krishna Maharaj was a British citizen but lived in Florida at the time the murders took place. Witnesses placed Maharaj some 30 miles away from the hotel where Derrick and Duane Moo Young were gunned down, but not one of the witnesses were asked to present their testimony in court. Maharaj was sentenced to death, and spent 15 years on death row before his sentence was changed to life imprisonment, and unable to seek parole until the age of 101. Since the conviction some 31 years ago, various testimony and investigation has pointed to the direction of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar.
I spoke to his lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, a renowned human rights lawyer and founder of the charity Reprieve, about the case and the likelihood of Maharaj being released. I began by asking Stafford-Smith when he first took the case on.
“He’d already been convicted and denied parole in 1993, which is when I took over the case. We were all much younger then!” According to Stafford-Smith, Maharaj “keeps himself to himself” in prison and doesn’t interact with many people. His health has declined in recent years, but Stafford-Smith pointed out to me that at 79-years-old, “he is seventeen years past” the average life expectancy for Florida prisoners, but has suffered from serious illnesses, including almost losing arm to gangrene, and was one of three prisoners to suffer from necrotizing fasciitis – commonly known as a flesh-eating bacteria – which Stafford-Smith tells me was “obviously due to the lack of hygiene in prison. He came very close to death and had a recurrence of that last year.”
The original trial was strewn with suspicious activity, with six witnesses that weren’t called which Stafford-Smith says “the reasons for which weren’t exactly clear”, adding that “there could have been more than six witnesses and they would have put him forty minutes away at the time of the murders.” Stafford-Smith also said that the original defence lawyer claimed to have been threatened, which leads him to the fresh theories that cartels connected to the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar were behind the murders.
Stafford-Smith has undertaken his own investigations into the theories, as well as a former DEA agent testifying, allegedly on behalf of an ex-hitman who confided to him that Escobar had arranged the killings. Stafford-Smith says the evidence supporting this theory “is pretty overwhelming” and that he “went to Colombia a couple of times and talked to various people”, including Baruch Vega, a man who acted as a confidential informant for the police, who had met Derrick Moo Young, the older of the two victims. “He met Derrick Moo Young during a drug deal conversation with Jaime Vallejo Mejia, who was staying in the room across from the suite where the murders took place, who the government said had nothing to do with cartel work. But at the time of the original in 1987 he’d been indited for laundering $40million of cartel money to Switzerland, so that was a lie. And there was an ongoing investigation from four years previously between this man and Derrick Moo Young, so at the time of the trial the government knew of the cartel connection. And there was another government informant who went under the pseudonym John Brown – because he was in danger when he testified – and he was a pilot for Escobar and visited him on his farm at Christmas time 1986, and Escobar told him he was behind the murders under the context of ‘if you do the same to me the same will happen to you’. This informant was used in 15 cases to put people in prison for the prosecution but the one time he testified for the defence, they wouldn’t listen.” Stafford-Smith cites another member of the cartel who testified in Colombia, saying his brother had paid the real killers, as well as “Popeye”, one of Escobar’s chief assassins who also said that Escobar was behind the murders. “It just went on and on, and the government wouldn’t grant him a new trial let alone set him free. And this is partly because of this mad rule in America where whether you’re innocent or not, cited in the case Herrera vs Collins, it isn’t deemed sufficient to let you off death row or set you free. It’s totally deranged.”
There is an appeal court that have granted Maharaj a hearing as far back as April last year, but Stafford-Smith says the original date set for June 20th “probably won’t happen then, because the judge refused any discovery. We know the federal government has in its hand documentation proving who really committed this murder. What we need is documentary proof is that Kris didn’t commit this murder, but we are still being prevented access to this. What it’s all about is the emperor wears no clothes and no-one wants to point out is this not only a miscarriage of justice but they had been covering it up for 31 years. Kris’s long-suffering wife Marita has stuck by him all that time, and the idea they’d cover this all up is unconscionable. I’m afraid it isn’t unique. Let’s take something such as Watergate – the cover-up is worse than the crime.”
Asked why the six Florida governors that have been in office since Maharaj was sentenced haven’t released him, Stafford-Smith points the finger more towards political rhetoric. “The governments preach so loudly about locking bad people up and that protects you that it’s difficult politically to admit that the police were corrupt. We had a police officer testify that a large section of Miami police were corrupt. In 1985, 10% of Miami police were arrested or fired for corruption. The police officer that gave us this testimony that Miami law enforcement had a deal with the cartels that if the cartels wanted to murder someone, they’d check with the corrupt element of the Miami police, and if they said it was OK, they would have a police officer present to ensure the cartels weren’t getting into trouble. One of the reasons is that sort of thing happen was that the police were paid to poorly that officers could make more in a day from this than they would in a whole year for doing the job properly. It puts a slant on the motto of the Miami police – to serve and protect. They were serving and protecting the wrong people.”
Maharaj was living in Florida at the time of the murders, but had been a British citizen his whole life, and was a millionaire through a food importation business. Why was he made the fall guy? “It’s very difficult to know for sure,” says Stafford-Smith. “When you represent innocent people, they don’t know any of the answers. Why he was fingered I’m not sure, but I have a theory. Back in the day, cartels had a process where they’d try to collect money that had been stolen from them before they murdered you. The different ways they’d do it – which we can see documented in this case – is that they’d make you give them all their money or at least get someone else to pay that person’s debt. The Moo Youngs didn’t know many rich people, and Kris was one of the richest men they did know. Even though he had problems with Derrick – because he’d ripped Kris off – they thought Kris would’ve paid their debts and save them, and I think he would have if he’d known. I think that’s the reason they manoeuvred Kris to be in the same room, but of course that fell apart when Derrick and Duane didn’t show and Kris waited for an hour, thinking he was there for a business meeting and he left. That’s only my speculation, though, and I can’t prove that.”
Stafford-Smith says that if Maharaj were – I asked optimistically ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ – to be freed, he and his wife “would take the first flight home”, back to Britain, but what else might he do? “One thing he wants more than anything else in life, apart from treating his wife well after the support she’s given, is to make a big deal out of what has happened to ensure other people don’t go through the same nightmare. I’ve constantly been optimistic about this being overturned every time we’ve fought it. I’ve had hundreds of cases like this but none of them like this in that it’s never been clearer that he’s innocent and put on more evidence that he is innocent and we’ve still lost every time. So I am hesitant about saying when not if because I’ve been wrong so many times.”
Many British politicians have taken-up the fight for Maharaj, supporting him publicly and signing petitions to endorse his release. “This dates back to 1995/1996, when I was first involved in the case”, Stafford-Smith says. “We got many politicians sign a friend of the court brief on Kris’s behalf saying he deserved a fair hearing. We’ve recently had an intervention by the British government saying he should given the discovery he hasn’t got. And recently we had another one signed by over 100 Parliamentarians and members of the House of Lords challenging this astounding rule in America that innocence isn’t sufficient to be released. This is where I’m sometimes ashamed of my profession – lawyers will look at a document, like the US Constitution and nowhere does it say ‘thou shalt not execute an innocent person’ so they assume there’s no rights for them to be set free if they’re innocent. It’s absurd. There are certain things competent, common sense people understand that people in the legal profession don’t.”
Stafford-Smith said that parliamentarians who haven’t signed the brief still can. “If I was an MP it’s something I’d sign in a heartbeat. We aren’t asking them to support setting him free, just that people take his innocence in his account. It’s not a controversial brief.”
Stafford-Smith reiterates that party political opinion should not sway signing the brief, citing Sir Peter Bottomley – a Conservative MP for over forty years – as “a leading light” in this campaign, adding: “He’s supported Kris for 25 years or so and has been brilliant. It’s not a Labour or Liberal thing, a lot of Conservatives have been involved too.”
Asked what he would say to people that might be interested in the case and want to be involved, Stafford-Smith says: “I can’t tell anyone what they can and can’t do but if anyone feels passionate they should contact their MP and they should contact Reed Smith, which is the law firm that have done this for free on our behalf. Reed Smith have contacted all MPs two or three times but people are busy. I don’t know of any MP that have refused to sign it, apart from the people that aren’t allowed to such as Cabinet ministers and anyone in the Shadow Cabinet, but I’ve had several nice emails from people like that.”
When asked if he’d be prepared to put a percentage on the chances of Maharaj being freed, Stafford-Smith reiterates that he is reluctant to do anything of the sort. “In a sane world it should be 100% but it isn’t a sane world. All sorts of procedural reasons prevent me from promising Kris’s release, but one thing I will promise is that we will carry on trying until we get justice.”
The full interview with Clive Stafford Smith is available below.
You can contact your MP at https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/contact-your-mp/ and Reed Smith at https://www.reedsmith.com/en. I would encourage people to contact their MP to ask why they haven’t signed this brief if they haven’t already. You can view who has signed it at https://reprieve.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018_05_21_PUB-MP-and-Peers-Amicus-as-filed.pdf
Clive Stafford-Smith is the founder and director of Reprieve.
Jack Oliver Smith is the Associate Editor of New Media Central. You can follow him on Twitter @MisterJackSmith
Photo credit: Ambra Vernuccio; Jordi Adria
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