British Ex-Millionaire Fights for Freedom

Krishna Maharaj went from the high life to a life sentence for a crime he might not have committed

Dressed in plainclothes and accompanied by another officer, Lt. John Burhmaster sped off to the diner, at LeJeune Road and NW 25th Street. Burhmaster slid in beside the unsuspecting Maharaj and stared him down. "I told him who I was, put my gun in his side, and told him to get up from the table and act like a gentleman," Burhmaster tells New Times. Maharaj obliged.

A mere dozen years before, in June 1974, the winning horse at Ascot — the British equivalent of the Kentucky Derby — belonged to a 35-year-old self-made millionaire from Trinidad. Maharaj had become the second-biggest racehorse owner in Britain. His thoroughbred, King Levanstell, had even beaten the queen's entry at Ascot.

Maharaj's high life was the product of years of dedication to the business he had started soon after arriving in London in 1960. What began with a $3000 bank loan to export beef to Nigeria turned into supplying shipping lines with food and then importing produce. Maharaj earned enough cash to complement his stable of 100-plus horses with a fleet of 24 Rolls Royces.

Koren Shadmi

But even as the money poured in, the man with the lilting island accent shunned the idea of a home in Knightsbridge or Notting Hill — swanky London neighborhoods he could well afford — for a property adjacent to his company warehouses in the working-class district of Peckham, in the capital's south end. Maharaj also took on the financial burden of assisting many of his 10 siblings, even paying for one brother's law school tuition. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj went on to become attorney general of Trinidad and Tobago.

Enjoying the good times alongside Krishna Maharaj was a young bank worker, Marita, who had become his wife five months after they met at a party in London. The years rolled on; Maharaj expanded his real estate holdings, and in the mid-Eighties the couple came to soak up the Florida sun for a few months each year. They bought a large house on SW 193rd Lane, in a neighborhood in western Broward county. The first issue of the Caribbean Times was published July 4, 1986.

Three months later, Maharaj was charged with murdering Derrick and Duane Moo Young. In his October 1987 trial, it took the jury less than three hours to convict Maharaj. He was sentenced to death.

When the verdict was read, Maharaj collapsed. Marita sat weeping quietly in the first row. "My husband is a good man!" she exclaims during a recent telephone interview from her home in South Florida, where she has lived for more than two decades. "He did not do this. This has been a huge, a terrible mistake."

Maharaj, whose fortune has been long-since swallowed up by legal fees, denies any involvement in the Moo Young murders. He occupies an airless six-by-nine-foot cell in Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, which he calls home for 23 hours a day. Over the past two decades, his lawyers, Miami-based Ben Kuehne and UK-based Clive Stafford Smith — who are working the case pro bono — have gathered a wealth of evidence that raises doubts about Maharaj's guilt. Nonetheless few details of the bizarre trial — one that not only imploded in an orgy of corruption and betrayal, but also saw the original judge indicted on bribery and extortion charges related to previous cases — have surfaced in the American media.

Not even the British government knew about the case until the Londoner was already on death row.

Maharaj's death sentence was vacated in 1997 by Judge Jerald Bagley, citing a judge's request for the prosecution to prepare the death sentence order before the jury had even found Maharaj guilty. All of his subsequent appeals have been denied; his legal avenues are now exhausted. This past month, in a last-ditch attempt to prove his innocence, his lawyers filed for clemency. Maharaj is pleading with Gov. Charlie Crist to look at the facts and set him free.

"If the governor were to take his least knowledgeable attorney and say, 'Read it all,' even a law clerk would say, 'How did this man get convicted?'" says Ron Petrillo, the lead investigator hired by Maharaj's original defense attorney. In his first interview with American media, Petrillo, a former police officer, tells New Times: "I have no doubt in my mind that Kris Maharaj is anything but an innocent man who was falsely accused and falsely prosecuted. And if it can happen to him, it can happen to me. It can happen to you."

Adds Petrillo: "We treat animals in Florida better than we have Kris Maharaj."

How did a mild-mannered British businessman with no criminal record come to murder two men in a Miami hotel room?

The prosecution offered both a motive and two witnesses whose damning testimonies were crucial in putting Maharaj behind bars.

The meat of the prosecution's case was largely based on the testimony of the only eyewitness, Bahamian writer Neville Butler, who called the police.

Maharaj had known Derrick Moo Young for more than 20 years, and the two had become business partners in 1984. Indeed the Moo Youngs lived next door to the Maharajes in Broward County, but the two families had suffered a very public falling-out over a contentious real estate deal. Just a few months before the murders, Maharaj had filed a civil suit against Moo Young, alleging the Jamaican owed him more than $240,000.

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