From Peckham to Death Row

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The Independent Online

Chances are that you have never heard of Krishna Maharaj. The Queen Mother may vaguely recollect him - one of his stable of thoroughbred race horses once beat one of hers in a race at Ascot. Some south London Rolls-Royce dealership may still have his name on a yellowing Rolodex card. A long time ago, when he was a millionaire banana-importer living in Peckham, he had a fleet of Rollers. In fact, he had 24 of them.

Chances are that you have never heard of Krishna Maharaj. The Queen Mother may vaguely recollect him - one of his stable of thoroughbred race horses once beat one of hers in a race at Ascot. Some south London Rolls-Royce dealership may still have his name on a yellowing Rolodex card. A long time ago, when he was a millionaire banana-importer living in Peckham, he had a fleet of Rollers. In fact, he had 24 of them.

But then Maharaj, 60, a British citizen born in Trinidad, has been out of circulation for a while. Out of sight and out of mind. We are not, it seems, very good about keeping up with our own when they fall into disgrace, especially when it is in a foreign land and when that disgrace happens to be a conviction for a double murder. Never mind that there is evidence, mountains of it, to suggest that he may be innocent.

Only now, 13 years after Maharaj was found guilty in Florida and sent behind bars - he languished for 10 of those years on Death Row - is he beginning to get our attention. Last week, 293 British parliamentarians, from the Commons, the Lords and the European Parliament, signed a petition asking that his convictions be lifted. It is to be handed to the Florida Supreme Court tomorrow.

The occasion is a long-awaited special hearing on the case. Lawyers for Maharaj will have 20 minutes to make their pitch. What the justices will hear is a tale that would defy even John Grisham's imagination. If they are duly impressed a new trial could be ordered, opening the way for Maharaj's eventual release. If not, the death sentence that was originally delivered against him in 1987, but which was temporarily "vacated" (or suspended) two years ago, could be reimposed. And Maharaj could once more be facing the electric chair.

Among those determined to ensure that this time the British public is not allowed to ignore the plight of Maharaj is the former Conservative government minister Peter Bottomley. Speaking to reporters last week, he contrasted the oblivion to which the former millionaire has been consigned, with the media blitz that illuminated the trial of Louise Woodward, the British nanny accused in Boston in 1997 of murdering an infant in her care.

"Everyone knows about Louise Woodward, who was white, female and young," remarked Mr Bottomley, who has visited Maharaj in his cell at the Union Correctional Institution, situated close to Jacksonville. "Mr Maharaj is black, British and old and does not have the glamour. But his case is even stronger."

It was in October 1986 that Maharaj's world imploded. Still based in Peckham, where his import business had fallen on hard times, he had travelled to Florida to meet his partners in a property investment deal that was going sour. Specifically, he suspected that the associate, named Derrick Moo Young, had swindled him to the tune of $600,000 (£375,000). For months the two of them had been engaged in a furious feud over the money, much of it aired in newspapers serving South Florida's Caribbean community.

On 16 October, Maharaj was due to meet Moo Young and his son Duane in a penthouse suite - Room 1215 - of the Dupont Plaza Hotel in downtown Miami. Later, police officers made a grisly discovery. Father and son were found lying in a pool of blood, shot to death. Instantly, suspicion fell on Maharaj, whose dispute with the Moo Youngs was so well known. He was arrested, charged and in November of 1987, Maharaj was found guilty of both murders. The judge sentenced him to death.

For the prosecution, it had not been a terribly challenging case. The police had produced fingerprints belonging to Maharaj at the murder scene. Moreover, they had had a witness, Neville Butler, who had testified that he had seen the defendant shooting one of the two victims. Maharaj, meanwhile, had a defence lawyer who, by all accounts, was relatively inexperienced in this type of case. Most strikingly, he did not present evidence to support Maharaj's claim that he had not been in the Dupont when the murders were committed and could supply witnesses to support his claim that he was 25 miles away in Fort Lauderdale.

It was after the trial had ended, however, that the first clouds of doubt began to appear. These doubts finally helped persuade a court two years ago to agree to suspend the death sentence pending the hearing that will take place tomorrow. Oddly, that decision was based on one of the least troubling aspects of the original trial - namely that the judge had asked prosecutors to draft an order to impose the death penalty even before the arguments had been completed, a practice that was then allowed but which has since been outlawed.

There is much else about the case, however, to give us pause. It is on record, for example, that four days into the original trial, the judge, Howard Goss, was arrested and led away in handcuffs on charges that he had taken a $6,000 bribe from a party in the case. The replacement judge then simply took up where Goss had previously left off, declining to re-start the trial and hear the evidence for himself from the beginning.

According to Clive Stafford-Smith, a high-profile British lawyer based in the US, who is an eminent anti-death-penalty campaigner now representing Maharaj, the Goss question is more serious still. The Justices tomorrow will be told that Goss dispatched a go-between to Maharaj's hotel room before the start of the trial to ask him for $50,000, in return for a promise to fix the trial in his favour. Maharaj turned the person away.

"If only Kris had paid that measly amount to the judge, he would be a free man now. Unfortunately, at that time he still believed in the American justice system," Mr Stafford-Smith told me last week.

Much else that seems fishy about the conviction has since emerged, some of it uncovered by Mr Stafford-Smith himself and some by a life insurance firm with which both the Moo Youngs had taken out policies just before their deaths - worth $1m each. It is now suggested that, for example, the prosecution had told the defence privately that Maharaj had failed a lie-detector test and that Butler, the witness, had passed his. It is now claimed that the opposite was true. Maharaj had passed his polygraph test, denying that he had been at the hotel at the time of the murder.

Mr Stafford-Smith also alleges that the state had evidence, which it suppressed at the time of the trial, that the Moo Youngs did far more than invest in legitimate property deals. They allegedly also had direct links with the drugs-smuggling trade from Latin America.

It appears, moreover, that they were engaged in a huge money-laundering scam, worth some $5bn, that spanned the Caribbean. If, as Mr Stafford-Smith believes, the Moo Youngs were also attempting to skim profits from the laundering operation - thus defrauding others much more powerful than Maharaj - then, he said, "surely that gives a much better idea of a motive for someone else to kill them".

In short, the justices, sitting in the Supreme Court in Tallahassee, will be told not only that the first trial was deeply flawed but also that Maharaj was set up and framed by the true perpetrators of the Moo Young slayings. They will hear that he can provide no fewer than eight witnesses ready to testify that he was indeed in Fort Lauderdale when the shootings occurred. Meanwhile, others who testified for the state at the trial have since recanted their testimonies.

Also speaking up for Maharaj in London is Lord Goodhart, the Liberal Democrat peer. "There are some extraordinary and gross irregularities in the conduct of the case, which makes the conviction wholly unsound," he remarked. "The Bar is particularly concerned with the procedural flaws. It is quite extraordinary that the judge was hauled off in shackles after three days of the trial and that his successor took over and did not restart the trial."

One voice, however, is missing. And of all the twists in this sorry tale, this is surely the strangest and most poignant. Not one word has been heard from a certain Ramesh Maharaj. This name you may know if you are from Trinidad and Tobago itself, or if you have been following its government's zealous reintroduction, over recent months, of the death penalty there. The politician most directly responsible for reinstating the gallows in the city prison of Port of Spain is that country's powerful and charismatic Attorney-General - Ramesh Maharaj. And Ramesh, believe it nor not, is Krishna's younger brother.

It is perhaps not surprising, in such extraordinary circumstances, that Ramesh Maharaj has kept his counsel on his brother's predicament. Reporters who have attempted to draw him on the subject have met with determined silence. It was Krishna, after all, who paid for his younger brother's legal training in London and helped him to the position he now holds. But as the Caribbean's foremost proponent of accelerating executions, Ramesh, apparently, has opted not to speak out about a brother who is himself on death row.

Ramesh, says Mr Stafford-Smith, has been "absolutely useless" to Krishna. But then so, he adds, has almost everyone else - the state of Florida, the British Government and indeed us, the British media, too.

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