Justice Severed

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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.

"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?' " scoffs Ron Petrillo, the lead investigator hired by Maharaj's original defense attorney.

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

The prosecution offered both a motive and two witnesses whose damning testimony was crucial in putting Maharaj behind bars. The meat of the prosecution's case was largely based on the testimony of the only witness, Butler.

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 Maharaj in Broward County, but the two families had suffered a falling-out over a contentious real estate deal. Just a few months before the murders, Maharaj had filed a civil suit against Derrick Moo Young alleging that the Jamaican owed him more than $240,000.

According to Butler, Maharaj wanted to settle the dispute face to face. At Maharaj's request, Butler said, he agreed to lure the elder Moo Young to room 1215 of the DuPont Plaza, where Maharaj planned to reclaim his money.

Butler contends that when the Jamaican showed up unexpectedly with his son, Maharaj jumped from behind the bathroom door with a gun. An argument ensued, and Maharaj shot Derrick Moo Young repeatedly. Butler claims that he was ordered to tie up the son but that he broke free and ran upstairs. Maharaj chased him down, Butler professed, and executed the young man he had known since he was a boy, a young man who referred to Maharaj as "Uncle."

Butler then alleges Maharaj marched him — at gunpoint — to his car in front of the hotel, where the duo remained for the next three hours, watching for police to arrive.

Butler's story was supported by the dozen sets of Maharaj's fingerprints found throughout the room, which Maharaj had never denied visiting. The projectiles and casings found at the scene were from a 9mm Smith & Wesson, like one owned by Maharaj (and about 270,000 other people, his attorney pointed out).

However damaging Butler's testimony was, it was inconsistent, and he changed a number of elements at various times. First it was Butler who reserved the room; then it was Maharaj. He admitted lying to police about when Maharaj allegedly appeared — first, Butler claimed he showed up at the room unannounced after the Moo Youngs; then he said he leaped out from behind a door inside the suite once they had arrived. Butler also failed part of his polygraph — unlike Maharaj, who passed every question.

Lt. John Burhmaster says he can't remember why Butler was never given a paraffin test to corroborate his assertion that he did not fire a gun that morning, nor does Burhmaster recall why he failed to examine or test Butler's clothing, though the alleged witness admitted he changed his blood-soaked attire before giving a statement. In fact, Burhmaster failed to test any clothing or conduct any paraffin tests. "Maharaj had taken a shower," Burhmaster, who today heads the City of Miami Police Department's homicide division, offered by way of explanation. Burhmaster said he did not think it strange that a murderer would kill two people, spare the only witness, then hold him at gunpoint for hours yards away from the murder scene before allowing him to walk away.

The state's other main witness was Jamaican journalist Tino Geddes, who now lives in Kingston, where he freelances for the Sun-Sentinel, among other publications. Geddes had originally provided an alibi witness for Maharaj. The day after the murders, he told the Miami Herald, "I am certain that this man who I was sitting having a meal with [Maharaj, at Denny's] didn't shoot anybody shortly before that. From his demeanor, no human could sit there with his editor, his wife, and one of his main columnists and could put on an act like that."

But shortly before the trial, he changed his story and testified that Maharaj had been scheming to murder the Moo Youngs.

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Joanne Green