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Prisons Week

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a charity with a particular focus on legal support for those facing the death penalty or held unjustly or in secret prisons around the world. Although now based in the UK, Clive is an Englishman who famously has spent more than 20 years of his life representing defendants facing the death penalty in the US. A contrarian who inspires strong emotions in other people, no-one can fail to be impressed by his industry, his dedication and his steadiness of purpose. He is a man whose moral clarity survived adulthood intact after being inspired through writing an essay on the subject of capital punishment when at school at Radley.

This article, specially written by Clive Stafford Smith for us to mark Prisons Week, which starts on 17th November, contains one very important truth. Many prisoners merit their sentence. Some do not. But every prisoner is an individual, worthy of consideration, worthy of a hearing, worthy of love, and worthy of redemption - because the process which led to his sentence is subject to human failings, his own and those of others.

Meet a Murderer by Clive Stafford Smith

On 16 October 1986, two murders took place in Room 1215 of the Dupont Plaza hotel in downtown Miami. This is a fingerprint of the killer. One year later, Kris Maharaj, a British citizen, was convicted for these murders and sentenced to death.

This is not his fingerprint.

Fast forward to October 2013 and I am giving the latest in a long line of talks aimed at bringing Kris’ case into the court of public opinion. Perhaps, unlike the years of litigation, this will finally get him justice from the US.

I begin by asserting, emphatically and beyond any doubt at all, that Kris is innocent. I point out that those in the audience – almost all self-proclaimed liberal Guardian readers who have come to the Southbank – are seated on a leaflet on which a fingerprint of the real killer is printed in bold. I then detail the case originally made against Kris in his 1987 trial by the prosecution. The audience is required, much like a jury, to come back with a verdict: no fudging, it must be an up-or-down vote.

Ninety-six of the 100-strong audience vote guilty.

How can we explain this? What hope is there for a person on trial in a conservative American jurisdiction if the overwhelming majority of liberal people cannot see a reasonable doubt in the prosecution case – albeit a confected one – when Kris Maharaj is patently innocent?

Kris is a British businessman and self-made millionaire who decided in the early 1980s that he would split his time between London and South Florida. Kris originally hailed from Trinidad and despite an active love of cricket and all things British, the UK’s sullen climate had taken its toll. In Miami, Kris entered into business with an acquaintance, Derrick Moo Young.

This relationship did not last long. Kris discovered that Derrick and his 23 year old son had not only stolen roughly a half million dollars from him, but had also embezzled money from several of his family and friends. The Moo Youngs tried to fob Kris off with a couple of bad cheques, and then initiated a smear campaign against him in the local media.

Soon after, Derrick and Duane Moo Young were found murdered in Room 1215. Krishna Maharaj was arrested. While the evidence against him was fairly powerful, the evidence the jury did not hear was much more compelling.

The jury heard how Kris’ fingerprints were found in the room and a police officer testified that Kris denied ever being there and said he had never owned a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol - the type of gun apparently used in the murders. This was despite another officer saying that Kris had bought such a gun from him. One of Kris’ alibi witnesses (Tino Geddes) turned state’s evidence, claiming that Kris had paid him to fabricate an alibi and had attempted to murder the Moo Youngs before. Lastly, a man by the name of Neville Butler said that he had witnessed Kris shoot the pair.

Based on this, the jurors voted guilty and imposed a death sentence. The 96 Guardianistas agreed that Kris should at least spend his life in prison, though none favoured capital punishment.

Understandable, perhaps, except for the evidence that the jury never hears:

1) Kris had told the police that he had been in room 1215 earlier that day (he had been invited for a business meeting with a man named Eddie Dames, but left – leaving his fingerprints – when Dames failed to show);
2) He had not only mentioned his handgun, but described in detail how it had been stolen earlier that year;
3) Butler had failed a lie detector test, had committed perjury in at least five other cases, and his testimony had been hugely reshaped both by others involved in the crime, and the prosecutors;
4) Tino Geddes had been involved in a Jamaican drug gang, and only changed his story when Florida prosecutors rescued him from a potential life sentence for smuggling arms and ammunition into Norman Manley Airport in Kingston; 
5) Five other alibi witnesses all stated that Kris was 30 miles away at the time.

And this was only the impeachment of the government’s case. Early in my own involvement (starting 20 years ago now), I discovered that Kris had complained about his judge, Howard ‘Howie-the-Mouse’ Gross – dubbed so because of his rodent features. Kris said Gross had sent a bag lady over to the jail to solicit a $50,000 bribe to fix the case. Nobody had paid much attention, even when Gross was arrested on the third day of Kris’ trial, after being tape recorded accepting dirty money in another case. Gross was replaced mid-trial by Harold Solomon, who then secretly solicited the prosecutors to write up an order imposing death on Kris, before the evidence had even been presented at the judicial sentencing proceeding.

Meanwhile, the Moo Youngs had been painted as hand-to-mouth businessmen who declared an annual income of roughly £16,000. Like the prosecution’s evidence, the Moo Youngs were not all they appeared: they had been offering gems and bonds around the Caribbean to the tune of five billion dollars. They had a corporation called Cargil International (clearly a front) that was incorporated at the office of one F. Nigel Bowe – a Bahamian lawyer who was then wanted, and later convicted, for his involvement with the Colombian cartels. Bowe was friends with Dames, who was an air traffic controller who had allegedly been involved in narcotics with Carlos Lehder.

The only other room on the twelfth floor rented out that day was in the name of Jaime Vallejo Mejia. He came from Pereira, in Colombia, and (it transpired) was wanted at the time of Kris’ trial for taking $50 million in cash to Switzerland. The Miami police had paid no attention to this, despite the fact that Miami was awash in narco-dollars at the time, and drug killings happened almost daily. So I should not have been surprised when a former Miami police officer agreed to sign a statement saying that the police had framed Kris, as part of an arrangement they had with the cartels – perhaps this is what the police mean by the motto on the side of their vehicles, “To Serve and Protect”.

Far too many years went by – still in prison, Kris is now 74 years old – before the members of the cartels themselves agreed to speak. Some of Pablo Escobar’s erstwhile lieutenants sneered at the notion that Kris Maharaj had committed these crimes. Of course not! The Moo Youngs died because they were ripping off Escobar and his Colombian associates. Indeed, Escobar himself ordered their execution, as he thought they were stealing his money faster than he could make it.

To be sure, the audience was presented with a loaded deck, stacked by crooked cops, corrupt judges and praetorian prosecutors. But that is always the way when an innocent person is condemned to prison – and often when he is guilty. The jury is meant to be the bulwark against such bias and corruption, but if the ranks of Guardian readers are unwilling to set the bar high enough on the government, it is unlikely that others will. The broader question, then, is how we can persuade everyone to approach the awesome power of punishment with a rather more open mind.

Meanwhile, the appellate courts are no better at correcting the jurors’ mistakes. Kris Maharaj remains in a Florida prison and is in increasingly poor health. His wife Marita, also 74, takes his ten minute call each night and visits him every weekend without fail – waiting for the day when they get to go home to London.

To find out more about how you can help Kris, please email clive@reprieve.org.uk. This article is a brief summary of a far more detailed analysis that may be found in Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America (Harvill Secker, 2013) by Clive Stafford Smith.