Monday, 13 March 2017

Is Krishna Maharaj innocent of a double Murder?

He was born on the 26th of  January 1939 and   is a Trinidad and Tobago-born British Indo-Caribbean businessman and brother of Ramesh Maharaj, former Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago and he is also the brother of Indra Rambachan (née Maharaj) who is the wife of Trinidad and Tobago National Award winner lawyer Roopnarine Rambachan.

Krishna “Kris” Maharaj was a self-made millionaire. He could afford to  collected Rolls-Royces and was one of Britain’s biggest racehorse owners. Then he was convicted of a double murder he has always insisted he did not commit.
This 76-year-old businessman’s murder conviction in 1987 for a double murder, of of Chinese Jamaican businessmen Derrick Moo Young and Duane Young, and subsequently he was sentenced to death. His trial has always looked dodgy. But a legal travesty may finally be put right. In the meantime, he has served 29 years in a Florida prison.  

In 1987 he was convicted by a Florida court for the double murders that Maharaj has always denied committing and according to the human rights organisation Reprieve, the case of Krishna Maharaj may turn out to be an  epic miscarriage of justice.

Before his conviction, Mr. Maharaj had built a fortune in food imports and newspapers, and in the mid-1980s was living in Florida, where he invested in a property scheme with Mr Young, a Jamaican businessman. The partnership soured dramatically, however, when Mr Maharaj accused Mr. Young of defrauding him to the tune of $400,000 (£250,000).

On the 16th of October 1986, Mr. Maharaj went to the Dupont Plaza Hotel in downtown Miami and waited in room 1215 for a business associate who, he says, never turned up. His legal team claims Mr. Maharaj was lured there to leave his fingerprints at the scene, and left before the Youngs arrived. Prosecutors said that he lay in wait for Mr. Young, 53, and his son Duane, 23, confronted them about the missing cash – then shot them both dead.

Later that evening, Mr Maharaj was arrested while eating dinner at a Miami restaurant with his wife, Marita. But the case against him was flawed from the start. He passed a lie detector test shortly after his arrest. Six witnesses placed him 25 miles from the crime scene at the time of the murders, though they were never called to testify.

According to the prosecution, Maharaj arranged a fake meeting with Derrick Moo Young in the DuPont Plaza Hotel, in order to demand that Moo Young repay money that he had fraudulently taken from Maharaj's relatives in Trinidad. Derrick Moo Young turned up at room 1215 together with his son Duane. Once inside the room, Maharaj is said to have appeared with a gun from behind a door. An argument resulted, and the father, Derrick Moo Young, was shot to death by Maharaj. The prosecution stated that the son, Duane, then was taken upstairs in the suite and was also shot by Maharaj.

At the end of his trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death. In 1997, a Florida court overturned the death sentence. In 2001, almost 300 British politicians, church leaders and judges wrote a letter to the then Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, asking for a retrial. The letter stated that there were 'astonishing flaws' in the case against Maharaj. Among those signing the letter were Lord Goldsmith, then Attorney General for England and Wales and Northern Ireland, Lynda Clark, then Advocate General for Scotland, Charles Kennedy, then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, and Nicholas Lyell, former Attorney General for England and Wales and Northern Ireland.

In 2001, British politicians including London Mayor Ken Livingstone, Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, and Lord Goldsmith – then Attorney General – signed a letter addressed to Florida governor Jeb Bush, citing the “astonishing flaws” in the case and calling for a retrial. The following year, Mr. Maharaj’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment but subsequent appeals for clemency have failed.

Governor Jed Bush refused a retrial, but instead, Maharaj was re-sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002.

In 2006, the British human rights organization Reprieve made an appeal to Governor Jeb Bush for clemency on Maharaj's behalf, pointing out that the jury heard from none of Maharaj's alibi witnesses, who would have put him 25 miles away at the time of the murder; that the prosecution’s star witness changed his story several times; and that evidence has emerged since the trial that the murder victims were involved in money laundering and had links to drug traffickers, and that there are a number of alternative suspects with strong motives which were not considered at the time.  The appeal was denied.

In 2008, Reprieve made a second appeal for clemency to the then Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, but this appeal was also denied.

On the 24th of April 2014, judge William Thomas, from the 11th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, Miami, gave its approval that he would allow Maharaj's lawyer to present witnesses during an evidentiary hearing.

On the 14th of November 2014, Krishna Maharaj was informed that he could be freed after 28 years in prison following his conviction for the 1986 killings of business associates Derrick and Duane Moo Young in a Miami hotel room.

Henry Cuervo, a former US Drug Enforcement Administration Agent, told the court that ex-hitman Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez had confessed to him that Escobar arranged the hit on the Moo Youngs. In the phone call, Cuervo said that Velásquez wanted to clear his conscience and had asked Cuervo to testify on his behalf. He also submitted an affidavit from Velásquez — a cartel assassin known as "Popeye" who was recently released from prison in Colombia, where he is reviled as one of the country's most infamous killers.

Yet at an evidentiary hearing scheduled for the week of 10 November, lawyers for the 75-year-old presented compelling evidence that Mr. Maharaj was framed. And in a plot that sounds plucked from the pages of an airport thriller novel, they intend to argue that the Youngs were killed by Colombian hitmen working for Pablo Escobar, the infamous boss of the Medellin drug cartel.

Drug lord Pablo Escobar was behind the killings, according to Krishna Maharaj’s lawyers.

Instead, the jury heard from one Neville Butler, who claimed to have witnessed the killings – but who failed a lie detector test, changed his story several times and has since committed perjury in six court cases, according to lawyers for Mr. Maharaj. As for the alleged motive, Mr Maharaj was suing Mr Young for the fraud at the time. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, he later said, “If I’d wanted to kill him, surely I’d have waited until I got my money?”

The first judge at the trial was himself arrested for taking bribes after falling for an undercover sting by a Florida law enforcement officer posing as a cartel operative. The judge’s replacement, it has since been revealed, had the death penalty drawn up for Mr. Maharaj before a guilty verdict was even delivered. Mr. Maharaj would later tell CNN that as he entered the US penal system, perhaps never to emerge, “I went from living like a prince to existing like an animal.”

Mr. Maharaj has been represented since 1993 by Clive Stafford Smith, the UK legal director of the human rights charity Reprieve, who told The Independent: “There are two ways to prove you’re innocent. The first is proving exactly who did do it, which is very difficult – although in this case I think we can do that. But surely the second way is to ask whether any of the prosecution case is left. And there really is no case left against Kris Maharaj. To me that’s enough; we shouldn’t have to prove who really did it.”

And yet, Mr Stafford Smith and his colleagues suggest they have done just that, securing confessions from three Colombian former cartel members that the Medellin cartel was behind the killings. They also took statements from former Miami police officers and other law enforcers, who admit they helped in covering up cartel involvement and framing Mr Maharaj.

According to the new evidence, the Youngs had laundered as much as $5bn in cartel money in the Caribbean, but were also skimming some of the cash for themselves. That meant they had crossed Pablo Escobar, whose control of three-quarters of the Colombian cocaine trade had made him the world’s seventh richest man.

Former British millionaire Krishna Maharaj sits in prison in 2007 (AP)
Unbeknown to Mr Maharaj’s original defence team, just one other room on the 12th floor of the Dupont Plaza was occupied on the day of the murders. The guest in room 1214 – across the corridor – was Jaime Vallejo Mejia, a Colombian already wanted for his part in a cartel laundering case. The new evidence suggests Mejia was joined there by associates including hitman Guillermo Zuluaga, known as “Cuchilla” – “the Blade” – who carried out the murders at Escobar’s behest.

A former Escobar enforcer, known only as El Asistente, described the killings for Mr Maharaj’s defence, adding, “I have reconnected with my religious faith. The idea that Krishna Maharaj has served more than a quarter-century in prison for a crime I know he did not commit appals me.”

Zuluaga died in 1993, when he was kidnapped, tortured and dropped into a sugar cane threshing machine by members of a rival gang. Escobar was killed later the same year in a shoot-out with Colombian police. Mejia was deported from the US to Colombia, where he is under investigation for money laundering

.Mr. Maharaj, meanwhile, has languished behind bars for 28 years, and two years ago came close to dying after he contracted necrotising fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria that had also afflicted the previous two occupants of the bed in which he caught it.  The condition has left him largely confined to a wheelchair. His wife, Marita, lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I miss everything about him,” she recently wrote in a piece for the New Statesman. “In my small cottage, I never sit down for a meal without laying out  a place setting for Kris. I always think that he might walk in the door.”

In spite of Mr Maharaj’s situation, Mr. Stafford Smith said: “Kris suffers from terminal optimism. Every time we’ve had a hearing or appeal he’s convinced he’s going to win. When you’re innocent, it’s really hard to believe that 12 people will find you guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Kris began with a naive faith in the legal system, and he still has some of that.”

When the new evidence came to light, Florida prosecutors remained steadfast, claiming the defence team’s “fantastical allegations” were based on “hearsay and inadmissible evidence”. Even organising the hearing has been a hellish task for Mr Maharaj’s lawyers, who must marshal witnesses from across the world.

Mr Stafford Smith also said the UK government had gone back on a promise to fund Mr. Maharaj’s case, leaving Reprieve to foot the bill. “I recently received a letter from [Foreign Secretary] Philip Hammond, saying that British people abroad are responsible for what they do,” he said. “Well, what if they didn’t do it?”

I for one would never want to be tried for any crime, no matter how minute the crime may be in the State of Florida. 

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