Death row/ombudsmen. Rough justice for an innocent abroad?
30 January 1996
3 December 2001
1 April 2002
12 June 1999
23 July 1996
21 April 2005
No one will ever know for sure whether businessman Krishna Maharaj killed father and son Derrick and Duane Moo Young. What does seem certain is that the system which condemned him to death for their murders was rendered unfair by the prosecution's failure to disclose relevant evidence.
Unless the Florida Supreme Court intervenes to order a new hearing, Maharaj will become the first UK citizen to die in the electric chair at the Florida State Prison, an hour's drive from the tourist resorts of Orlando.
Maharaj was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murders of the Moo Youngs in room 1215 of the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Miami. The prosecution case rested on the testimony of Neville Butler, who claimed to have witnessed the murders and have been with Maharaj three hours after the event.
The motive put forward by the prosecution was an ongoing legal dispute between the Maharaj and the Moo Youngs over breach of contract.
But evidence uncovered by Maharaj's appellate attorney Clive Stafford-Smith undermines both of these claims.
It is now apparent there were numerous people with a motive to kill the Moo Youngs. Unknown to the defence at the trial, Derrick Moo Young had been in Panama shortly before the murders. There he had conducted an illegal 'business deal' (apparently drug-related) using a fraudulent $100 million letter of credit.
The Moo Youngs were also aware there were several people with a motive to kill them. They had each taken out life insurance policies for $1 million shortly before their deaths. The civil proceedings launched by the beneficiaries under these policies uncovered a web of shady dealings, including several aliases and suspiciously low tax returns, all of which pointed to the Moo Youngs being involved in drug dealing.
An investigation of the murders carried out for the insurance companies concluded that Maharaj was innocent. The prosecution never disclosed this evidence to the defence.
New evidence also reveals the lengths the prosecution went to in order to bolster the credibility of its witnesses.
Florida prosecutors flew to Jamaica to testify on behalf of Tino Geddes, whose evidence in the witness box destroyed Maharaj's alibi. Also, the fact that Butler repeatedly failed lie detector tests, which Maharaj passed, was not disclosed by the prosecution.
Most astonishing to international observers - including the 100 UK MPs who in September lodged submissions with the Florida Supreme Court in support of Maharaj - are the procedural irregularities which occurred during the trial.
On the fourth day of the trial the trial judge, Judge Gross, was arrested in court on bribery charges and was led away in handcuffs. Not only did Maharaj's counsel fail to object to the continuation of the trial with a new judge, he actually waived his client's right to a mistrial. He also failed to advise Maharaj of the crucial importance of his giving evidence in support of his alibi and failed to present any witnesses at all in support of the alibi, despite several being available and willing to testify. On one occasion the trial judge had to interrupt the testimony of Butler and admonish Maharaj's counsel for his failure to object to inadmissible evidence.
Although the US has remained largely unconcerned about the growing international condemnation of its use of the death penalty, in June 1992 it ratified the International Cov-enant on Civil and Political Rights, part of which seeks to impose common standards with regard to the use of capital punishment. In his submission on behalf of the MPs, Geoffrey Robertson QC argued that Maharaj's trial violated Articles 6 and 14 of the covenant, which guarantees procedural fairness in criminal proceedings.
In their response to the current appeal by Maharaj, Florida's prosecutors are arguing that the Supreme Court should ignore the new evidence, not because it is insignificant but because it ought to have been discovered earlier.
Although views about the legitimacy and morality of capital punishment differ, no one can reasonably dissent from the view that a death sentence should only be carried out after a fair trial.
It is clear in international law that technical arguments such as these are unacceptable when a person's life is at stake. It remains to be seen whether the Florida State Court will take the same view when it hears Maharaj's appeal in April.