Kris Maharaj turns 80
by Clive Stafford Smith
Founder of Reprieve
Krishna ‘Kris’ Maharaj was sentenced to death in Florida in 1987 for two murders he didn’t commit.
In 2002, Reprieve’s work on his case led to a reduction in his sentence to life imprisonment. He would be eligible for parole aged 101. For Kris, “life” is a death sentence in all but name.
On Saturday 26th January 2019, Krishna “Kris” Maharaj reaches eighty years old.
Let us avoid the suggestion that he will “celebrate” his birthday, for he has little to be happy about. Since October 16th, 1986 – more than thirty-two years now – Kris has been variously on death row and latterly serving a life sentence, ineligible for parole until he is 101.
The optimist would say that Kris has done well to reach this milestone: in Florida’s prisons, the deplorable conditions and the absence of medical care mean that life expectancy hovers only a little over sixty. Kris suffers from everything from diabetes to high blood pressure, but with the help of the British Consulate we have managed to ensure he gets a basic level of care.
“Humanity is not faceless, and each person has just one life to live, or to lose. Kris has promised to stay alive for his wife, so that they can share their final days together.”
Meanwhile, things are little better for his decades-long-suffering wife Marita, who is 79 herself. She scrapes by thanks to donations from strangers. Marita can only visit on Saturdays, which this year does at least mean that she will be able to see her husband on the day of his birthday. Later, she will set a place for him at the annual birthday dinner in her cottage, creating an annual pathos, the unrequited dream that Kris will walk through the door with a cheerful shout, as he used to so long ago.
I am often asked to identify when I have been most touched in 35 years of human rights litigation. It is very difficult to choose from perhaps 400 capital cases, 88 Guantánamo detainees, and other challenges around the world. Obviously, though, Kris and Marita would have to be close to the top. It is all just so extraordinary – and so utterly unjust.
“The first judge had been arrested during the trial for taking a bribe from an undercover police officer posing as a cartel member. No court has been willing to find that this astounding irregularity should require a new trial.”
The initial appeals left Kris bankrupt, leaving him dependent on “do gooders” like myself and my co-counsel Ben Kuehne, willing to represent a man on death row for nothing. Ironically, had Florida not resolved to electrocute Kris at Starke Prison, he would have received no assistance at all, as the thousands of prisoners serving life rarely find a volunteer lawyer to help.
My contribution has, though, done him little good to date. Ben and I got his death sentence thrown out, because the second judge on the case had secretly met with the prosecutors to impose a death sentence before hearing the evidence at the judicial sentencing hearing. The first judge had been arrested during the trial – ironically, given what we would later prove – for taking a bribe from an undercover police officer posing as a cartel member. No court has been willing to find that this astounding irregularity should require a new trial.
That was just the beginning. Over the years we have proved that the police officers lied to the jury on the most important evidence, the “star” witness changed his story and failed a lie detector (though the prosecutor had told the judge he passed it), and the defence lawyer failed to call six alibi witnesses who could place Kris 25 miles from the crime scene in the Dupont Plaza Hotel.
“We tracked down half a dozen conspirators willing to admit that the cartel committed the homicides. Indeed, some of them sounded rather aggrieved that the Colombians were denied credit for a crime of such magnitude.”
Equally, Ben and I gradually developed compelling evidence that the victims (father and son, Derrick and Duane Moo Young) were not the innocent businessmen portrayed at trial but were laundering the money for Pablo Escobar around the Caribbean to the tune of a hundred million dollars or more. Their notes make clear that they were skimming one percent off the top – as much as a million. For someone like Escobar, who would kill you for stealing a dime, this was a compelling motive for murder.
Most of all, though, we tracked down half a dozen conspirators willing to admit that the cartel committed the homicides. Indeed, some of them sounded rather aggrieved that the Colombians were denied credit for a crime of such magnitude.
“I have kept time sheets for most of my career, so I can say with some accuracy that I have spent perhaps three years’ worth of time, and counting, on Kris’ case.”
With all this, any sensible legal system would long since have sent Kris and Marita back to Peckham, to continue his fruit importation business. Instead, he languishes in prison, snatching a few words with his wife on the phone when he can.
I have kept time sheets for most of my career, so I can say with some accuracy that I have spent perhaps three years’ worth of time, and counting, on Kris’ case. Again, people ask why I spend so much time, and Reprieve spends such resources, on a man who cannot expect to live much longer than that if we do get him out?
Ultimately it comes down to the principle that drives everything that we do at Reprieve: humanity is not faceless, and each person has just one life to live, or to lose. Kris has promised to stay alive for his wife, so that they can share their final days together. Marita has shown unparalleled loyalty to Kris, and we owe the same to them both.
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