Justice Severed

Maharaj went from the high life to a life sentence — 20 years so far for a crime he may not have committed

Krishna "Kris" Maharaj awoke on October 16, 1986, and donned a white guayabera and dark pants. Shortly after 7:45 a.m., he climbed behind the wheel of his wife's blue Chevrolet Caprice and headed away from the couple's home in western Broward County, toward Miami.

The burly 47-year-old had gone from meager beginnings in Trinidad, struggling to be heard in a family of 13, to driving a truck to make ends meet to becoming an importer in the United Kingdom. In England, the jovial Londoner's name was associated with both high society — he even made a splash among the horsy set as owner of the winning horse at Ascot in 1974, the British equivalent of the Kentucky Derby — and with a stubborn work ethic and humility. His trade in bananas and West Indian produce had made him a millionaire.

When he and his wife, Marita, moved to the United States in the mid-1980s to escape the British weather, Maharaj decided to try his hand at a new career: publishing. In 1985, he partnered with Dereck Jhagroo, a Plantation doctor, to launch a small weekly, the Caribbean Times. They set about drumming up business among South Florida's tight-knit Caribbean community.

Koren Shadmi

According to Maharaj, he was on one such errand that October morning in 1986, heading to the DuPont Plaza Hotel in downtown Miami to meet Bahamian businessman Eddie Dames to discuss distributing his paper overseas. Maharaj would later come to believe the meeting was a trap — one that would lead to charges against him for the murder of two men and a date with a lethal injection.

The 8:30 a.m. meeting, Maharaj says, was arranged by Neville Butler, a freelance writer he'd hired from a rival publication a few weeks prior. By the time he'd parked in front of the hotel, Butler was there to greet him, and the two men headed up to room 1215, but Dames wasn't there. Maharaj says he lounged around waiting, sipping a soda, watching a little TV. When nobody had arrived by 10:20, the busy publisher left.

It was just after 11 a.m. by the time he pulled into the parking lot of his printing press in Fort Lauderdale and bumped into his friend, Caribbean Times Staff Writer Tino Geddes. The reporter was en route to a nearby café, and Maharaj decided to join him for a beer. Maharaj picked up the check and split. "He paid, yeah," Geddes later testified, chuckling. "Kris always paid the check whenever we went out."

Maharaj then met with his accountant, George Bell, and a real-estate agent, inviting the two of them to lunch about 1 p.m. According to the manager at Tark's seafood restaurant in Hollywood, Maharaj enjoyed some oysters, washed them down with a beer, and paid the bill. He headed back to Margate with his two associates, parting ways with them at 3:30 p.m.

Shortly after nightfall, a City of Miami homicide detective received a call from Butler, who claimed to have seen two people shot dead in a hotel room that afternoon. The killer, he claimed, was Maharaj, and he could be found at a Denny's near Miami International Airport.

Dressed in plain clothes and accompanied by another officer, Lt. John Burhmaster sped off to the diner, at Le Jeune 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 recalls. Maharaj obliged.

Maharaj was charged with the deaths of Derrick Moo Young, 53, and his 23-year-old son, Duane. The two Jamaican men were found shot to death in room 1215 of the DuPont Plaza, Dames' room, after a housekeeper spotted a red stain seeping under the hotel room's door. It was blood.

A year later, in Maharaj's October 1987 trial, it took the jury less than three hours to convict him. He was sentenced to death. When the verdict was read, Maharaj collapsed and his wife sat sobbing quietly in the first row.

"My husband is a good man," she exclaimed 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, housed now in a six-by-nine-foot cell at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, his large fortune long since swallowed up by legal fees, denies any involvement in the Moo Young murders.

Over the past two decades, his lawyers, Miami-based Ben Kuehne and U.K.-based Clive Stafford Smith — who are working his case pro bono — have gathered a wealth of evidence that raises doubts about his guilt. Still, few details of the trial — one that not only imploded in a welter of corruption and betrayal but also saw the original trial judges indicted on bribery and extortion charges related to previous cases — have surfaced in American media.

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 his subsequent appeals have been denied; all 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.

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