Waiting in court

Image of Kris Maharaj

By Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s Founder and Director and lawyer for Kris Maharaj.

We are here in court in Miami, waiting for the judge to rule in Kris Maharaj’s case.

His wife Marita has been up since 3 am, nervous as a cat, waiting for her husband’s fate to be resolved after all these years. Kris is not in court. He just did not want to be here. It would have meant a 75 year old man who uses a zimmer frame being transferred in the normal, rough, humiliating way, to the local jail, where he might not get any of his medicine for days. And he is confident that now he will finally get a new trial, if not outright exoneration. So we have agreed that I will let him know the result as soon after the hearing as I can.

I find myself surprisingly calm. In part, it is because I continue to have an residual faith in the system, and I cannot believe, after 28 years, that Kris will not get justice today. He simply did not kill Derrick and Duane Moo Young, father and son, in Room 1215 of the Dupont Plaza Hotel back on October 16, 1986.

It is a full courtroom, with three television cameras outside and one pool camera here in the court room. The newspapers are here in force. Derrick’s daughter Shaula is here. It is one of my greatest regrets that I have never been able to speak with the victims’ family – the fact that I strongly believe Kris is innocent does not mean that the family’s pain is any less significant. But the prosecutors from years ago barred me from approaching them. It is very sad.

The lead detective from the original trial, John Buhrmaster, is also here. I ran into him in the coffee shop on the first floor. I wished him a good morning, but he only gave me a grumpy nod. He has made it quite clear that he doesn’t like me, and thinks I have spent two decades making up things to put him in a bad light. He no longer works for the Miami Police Department, and it is perhaps telling that he has come to the court for Judge Thomas’ ruling today: he is clearly very invested in the case, and is unlikely ever to accept that he made a tragic mistake in the case.

There is a long delay before Judge Thomas sweeps into the courtroom at 10am, thirty minutes late, and immediately apologizes to everyone cheerfully, saying he has been finishing up his opinion in Kris’ case. He has a very humane courtroom manner, and treats the prisoners as people rather than criminals or case numbers. He goes through his docket first. Miami is a diverse city, with a huge Hispanic population. Yet today five people – all African American men – are before the court, all shackled, all in the orange uniforms lent international notoriety by Guantánamo Bay.

Kris Maharaj_FloridaNow it is time for him to turn to his decision in Kris’ case. Now the moment has arrived for Kris after all these years. The judge is cheerful, smiling at the courtroom. It has to be a moment of great joy for Kris and his wife.

But it is not. The judge says he will not read the whole ten pages, but it is obvious from the first sentence that he is going to deny relief.

The State did not know about some of the exculpatory evidence, he says, and therefore cannot be blamed for covering it up. And much of the new evidence – admissions by members of the Medellin Cartel – is hearsay and therefore inadmissible. So he is confident (very confident) that Kris should not get a new trial.

It is a dreadful moment. An extended moment. I am numb, and cannot quite believe what I am hearing. So much time, so much effort, and absolutely no result except for false hope. Somehow, it is so much harder to take it from a judge who is pleasant. I would rather face outright hostility. If a decent person can get it so very wrong, what hope is there for us?

But most of all (initially) I worry about Marita, who is sitting, suddenly pale, in the courtroom. She has just been condemned to more years stranded in America, with no healthcare, little contact with her friends, and just a few minutes on the phone with her husband each day.

And now I must tell Kris. I dread doing this, of course. While we will appeal, that will take another year, maybe more. It will be like telling him that he has another death sentence. I immediately call the prison, as we had an agreement that I could get on the phone with him to discuss the result, and I do not want him to learn his fate from the hovering television cameras. But the phone rings and rings, with no answer. I try the main number and they try to put me through too, with the same result. The phone rings and rings.

The sentence has been imposed, but the condemned man does not know it.

Read more about Kris’s case. 

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