Escaped the death penalty verdict written by not the judge presiding his case.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: It seems straight out of a Bollywood film, but is scripted in Florida: an innocent man incarcerated on charges of a double murder ordered by a drug cartel, with the police, justice system all cooperating to mask the real culprits and ensure that their complicity is never discovered.
That convicted man, Krishna ‘Kris’ Maharaj, a British citizen of Indian origin originally from Trinidad and Tobago, who once was a famous exporter, a self-made multi-millionaire who dined and wined with royalty, had luxury cars and 100 race horses that competed against thoroughbreds held by Queen Elizabeth II – he was the second biggest racehorse owner in the UK then, and planned to spend his winters in America, is now a pauper; has been in a Florida jail – the South Florida Reception Center – for the last 27 years, having escaped a death penalty judgment. He is now 75 years old.
Maharaj’s riveting story was the first case explored by CNN’s original series “Death Row Stories” on how the capital punishment system works in America, that began on July 13th. The hour-long documentary made it amply clear that Maharaj was framed in the murders of his business partners Derrick Moo Young and his 23-year-old son Duane – both American citizens – in October, 1986, at the Dupont Plaza hotel in Miami.
Maharaj had accused the Youngs of embezzling him of more than $400,000, and had gone to meet them at room in the hotel. According to Maharaj, he went to the room, but never met the Youngs, and left, to have lunch with an employee of his at a public eatery, where witnesses say he was present. The Youngs were later found murdered – shot dead inside the room. Nineteen unidentified fingerprints found in the room were never investigated. Blood stains were found on the door of a room opposite the room where the murders took place. It was occupied by a Colombian man. He was let go after the investigating officer spoke to him for a few minutes in the corridor of the hotel, and never interrogated again. Maharaj was also shown by the prosecution to be in possession of a gun, but in the documentary he makes it clear that he had a gun in Trinidad and in the UK, not in the US.
That hotel guest who was briefly interrogated was later revealed to be Vallejo Mejia, a veteran money launderer and senior executive of the infamous Pablo Escobar drug cartel mafia.
The overwhelming evidence presented in the documentary suggested that Escobar ordered the killings. The Youngs were allegedly involved in money laundering for the cartel, but were skimming money off the operations. The documentary also clearly brings out shocking facts that the defense lawyer of Maharaj didn’t put up a single witness to counter the allegations against his client, and rested his case after the prosecution laid out their case, and an order written to pass the death penalty against Maharaj was in fact not written by the judge handling the case, but by somebody else, days before the actual case came to a close. Also, a disgraced former cop, who was at the scene of the crime, has confessed that the Escobar ordered the killings and the officers investigating the case decided that they would frame Maharaj, and overwhelmingly, several former gang members of the Escobar mafia have confessed that Pablo Escobar ordered the killings.
The human rights organization Reprieve has termed the case of Maharaj as “an epic miscarriage of justice”.
Maharaj’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison with parole at the age of 101, in 1997, when facts like the order of his death penalty being written not by the judge presiding over the case, came to light. But at that re-trial too, no fresh evidence was allowed for the jury to consider. A plea for clemency and retrial was denied by the then Governor of Florida Charlie Crist. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the verdict of life in prison.
Escobar was the king of the underworld narcotics, especially cocaine, trade in the US in the 1970s and 80s, leading the Medellin Cartel. He was responsible at one point for almost 80% of Colombia’s cocaine exports, and was the seventh richest man in the world, with an estimated wealth of $30 billion. Miami in those decades was also known as the crime capital of the US, with murders, rapes and mafia killings so rampant that the police force was unable to cope with the violence. Escobar was killed in a rooftop shootout with authorities in 1993, although some of his family members say he committed suicide.
CNN’s fine new documentary ‘Death Row Stories’, which is sure to give a run in popularity to Anthony Bourdain’s series ‘Parts Unknown’ also interviews Maharaj in prison, and shows footage of how he collapsed in court when his defense lawyer – who has now been promoted a judge in Florida – didn’t put up any of his witnesses, and instead rested the case.
“When the verdict took place that I was found guilty, I thought…This can’t be real. It is unreal,” says Maharaj in the interview. “I couldn’t believe in America you could get found guilty for something you didn’t do.”
He describes his ordeal in prison: “Put it this way I went from living like a prince to existing like an animal.”
The documentary also brings out the strong vital support Maharaj has received from his wife Marita Maharaj in prison all these 27 years. They talk to each other every day over the phone, and she goes to see him every Sunday – in an empty room with only a guard watching over them.
In an article for the New Statesman earlier this year, titled ‘I have been waiting for him to come home for 27 years, 3 months and 10 days’, Marita writes: “I pretend to myself that Kris is travelling. When I have five minutes on the phone with him in the evening, I pretend to myself that he is talking to me from a trip, not from a cell.”
She also writes: ‘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. I left the Christmas dinner table untouched for three weeks, as I hated the thought of yet another Christmas gone by without him.’
Now, finally, there may be respite for Maharaj, and a chance to be a free man again.
In April of this year, Florida 11th Judicial Circuit Judge William Thomas ordered a hearing this November to determine if new evidence from Maharaj’s lawyers “undermines confidence in the verdict,” according to court documents, and reported by CNN. Defense attorneys also must establish that the new “evidence would probably produce an acquittal or less severe sentence on retrial.”
Maharaj’s lawyers say they have 53 witnesses and 498 fresh documents to prove his innocence.
The question is: is that enough for the Florida justice system to let Maharaj be a free man again?
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar.)