Lawyers seek state aid for Briton on death row

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The Independent Online
Four of Britain's most senior lawyers yesterday called on the Government to fund a last-ditch appeal that could clear a British businessman awaiting execution on Florida's death row.

Making the plea for Krishna Maharaj, a former leading British racehorse owner, Robert Owen QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said his conviction for double murder was "extremely disquieting ... there are real doubts about this man's guilt and there is no doubt at all about the manifest unfairness of the trial process."

Maharaj, 58, has protested his innocence from the moment of his arrest for the killings of Derrick Moo Young, 53, and his son Duane, 23, in a hotel room in Miami in 1986. He was sentenced to death for the killing of the son by a seven-to-five jury verdict.

After startling irregularities during the trial and appeal processes, Maharaj languished on death row facing the prospect of the electric chair until two British QCs, Philip Sapsford and Geoffrey Robertson, providing their services free, persuaded the Florida Supreme Court a year ago to order a fresh evidentiary hearing to review his appeal.

The three QCs were joined yesterday by last year's Bar Council chairman, David Penry-Davey QC, the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley, and Maharaj's daughter, Christina Nandall, 35, and his son, Chris Tasker, 31, to protest against the Foreign Office's refusal to provide funds for forensic, ballistics and other investigations prior to the hearing on 16 June.

Following questions raised in the Commons about the case by Mr Bottomley in January, Liam Fox, a junior foreign office minister, insisted in a letter to the MP that the Capital Collateral Representative (CCR), Florida's assistance scheme for foreign nationals on death row, would provide representation. But a letter on the same date from the CCR informed Maharaj's American attorney that it lacked the staff and resources to take on any more clients.

Maharaj was born in Trinidad, where his brother is Attorney General, but lived in London from 1980 to 1986, becoming a millionaire from a fruit importing business.

He has always admitted he was in the hotel room but claimed he was lured there by a man who failed to show up. He was convicted largely on the evidence of Neville Butler, a former employee who testified for the prosecution in return for immunity.

Maharaj had no obvious motive for the killings - the victims were former business associates from whom he was expecting to receive damages for a breach of contract.

By then he was running a newspaper for Miami's West Indian community. Having lost most of his money he could only hire a lawyer for a week.

The lawyer failed to call Maharaj as a witness in his own defence or challenge the expert evidence, or object to the judge's insistence on keeping the jury sitting until late at night.

Halfway through the trial, the judge was arrested on charges of accepting bribes in other cases, but the lawyer failed to object when another judge took over the case instead of ordering a retrial.

The company that insured the dead men later found they were probably the victims of a drug-related assassination.