Last hope for death row Briton

Human rights appeal: Racehorse owner facing electric chair asks for retrial in Florida court
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Home Affairs Correspondent

A former leading British racehorse owner on Florida's death row yesterday made an eleventh hour plea for a retrial in an attempt to prove his innocence.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, a leading London human rights lawyer, was given a special hearing before the state's Supreme Court, to argue that Krishna Maharaj's first trial was flawed and that there was now new evidence which cast doubt on his conviction.

Maharaj, now aged 57, has been on death row in a Florida jail - just a short drive from Disneyworld - for nearly 10 years. He was convicted of the assassination of two wealthy businessmen, Derrick Moo Young, 53, and his son Duane, 23, in a Miami Hotel room - both former associates. By the narrowest seven to five verdict, he was sentenced to death.

The case again focuses attention on American use of the electric chair after the execution last year of British-born Nick Ingram. But his lawyers say that unlike the case of Ingram, there exists real doubt about Maharaj's guilt, as well as grave concerns about the trial.

Maharaj has always maintained his innocence. He admitted that he was in the hotel that night, but claimed he was lured there by a man who failed to show up for the appointment.

Since his trial, however, it has emerged that the company which insured the two dead men found they were probably the victims of a drug-related hit - and not because of any connection with Maharaj, who was then running a newspaper for the West Indian community in Miami.

His trial was beset by irregularities, particularly the arrest of the trial judge for allegedly taking bribes. His lawyers say that evidence pointing to other suspects and away from Maharaj was wrongly withheld by the prosecution. They also maintain that as he was about to win a damages claim for breach of contract from the two men, so had no motive for the killing.

Yesterday Mr Robertson - a veteran of death row cases - told the judges that unless they ordered a retrial "the state of Florida will be responsible for taking the life of a man whose innocence was never fully tested". He said they had a duty under the UN Human Rights Convention to ensure that there was no room for doubt.

John Major has refused to intervene on Maharaj's behalf, but Mr Robertson was speaking with the support of more than 100 cross-party MPs and the Bar's human rights committee.

Maharaj - renowned in the world of horse racing - will now have to wait after the judges reserved their decision, but yesterday's hearing is regarded as his best hope of escaping the electric chair.

Born in Trinidad, Maharaj moved to Britain in 1960 and amassed a fortune importing fruit from the Caribbean. His passion was horse racing and he bought stables at Lambourn and Middleham, producing many winners. He moved to Florida in the mid-1980s.

None of his former racing friends believe he is capable of murder. But the US prosecutors claim he lured the Moo Youngs to the hotel and killed them, because of rivalries with another community newspaper.

The Supreme Court is likely to reach its decision within a month.