British citizen Kris Maharaj has spent 35 years in prison for a crime committed by a Colombian drug cartel. At 82, he doesn’t have much time left.
British citizen Kris Maharaj was wrongfully convicted in 1987 of a double murder that took place in Miami on October 16, 1986. After 15 years on death row, Kris was re-sentenced to life imprisonment: another kind of death sentence as he is not eligible for parole until he is 101. Kris remains in the Florida state prison system – in poor health, unvaccinated and at risk of Covid-19. He is desperate to reunite with his wife Marita and to return home to the UK.
“What have I missed? My wife. My freedom.” – Kris Maharaj
The Life of Riley
Kris Maharaj once had it all. A self-made millionaire, Kris arrived in the UK from Trinidad in 1960 with little to his name. He set up a business importing tropical fruit and through hard work, initiative and charm (he is described by friends as a “gentleman” and is unfailingly polite to everybody), he quickly became a millionaire.
Kris enjoyed his wealth – this was a man who owned 24 Rolls-Royces in succession and at one point was the second biggest racehorse owner in the UK. In 1974 his horse, King Leven stall, beat the Queen’s horse at Ascot – a triumph of which he remains proud.
Despite his success, Kris was not motivated by money; rather it was the struggle that he loved. He recognized his good fortune and was eager to share it with those around him, often helping out friends and acquaintances in need and with no expectation that the favor should be repaid.
In 1976 Kris met his match in Marita, a glamorous Portuguese bank worker. “She was beautiful, clever, spoke 6 languages,” reminisces Kris. They got married after a whirlwind romance, honeymooned in Paris and planned to spend part of the year in Florida to escape the British winter, and where Kris decided to invest in property.
In 1986, Kris was framed for the murder of father and son Derrick and Duane Moo Young. The Moo Youngs had embezzled Kris’ property that they were meant to be managing. Both, it later transpired, had got into laundering billions of dollars for a Colombian drug cartel.
The Moo Youngs were shot to death at the Dupont Plaza Hotel at around noon on 16th October 1986. Kris was arrested and charged for the double murder when at the time of the crime half a dozen alibi witnesses could have confirmed that he was 25 miles north of Miami.
What should have been an easy case to win, became a Kafkaesque fight to be declared innocent. Kris’ case exposes the inherent injustice in the American justice system: in Florida, for example, it becomes illegal for you to declare yourself innocent once you have been found guilty, no matter how flawed the original trial. It also highlights a web of corruption in the Florida police and judiciary in the 1980s.
“I couldn’t believe that in America you could be found guilty for something you didn’t do.” Kris Maharaj
A True Crime Thriller
The compelling story of what really happened makes for a true crime thriller. In 1986, the FBI labelled Miami the ‘murder capital of the USA’: a result of the ‘drug wars’ where two-thirds of the cocaine coming in to the United States was coming through Miami. The cartels had law enforcement in their pockets. By the late 1980s, almost 10% of the Miami Police Department had been fired or suspended. One former officer has come forward to describe how they “hooked Maharaj up,” in other words framed him, because the corrupt elements of the police department had a deal with the cartel.
During Kris’ trial, crucial evidence was withheld by the police – including, not least, the contents of the Moo Young’s briefcase found at the murder scene that lead down a rabbit hole of international money-laundering and drug-trafficking. It appears that the Moo Youngs had been laundering for Pablo Escobar and taking a cut. In 2014, five drug cartel associates, including one of Pablo Escobar’s chief lieutenants, gave statements admitting that the cartel was responsible for the Moo Young murders.
According to the investigator appointed by Kris’ trial lawyer, the trial lawyer was threatened by the cartel and forced to “throw” the case. This would explain why he failed to call any of Kris’ alibi witnesses. Kris claims that prior to his trial, the judge sent a lawyer to solicit a bribe for his liberty – one that Kris refused to pay. On the third day of Kris’ trial, the same judge was arrested for bribery. A decade later, Kris’ original death sentence was thrown out because the new judge in the 1987 trial had met secretly with the prosecutors and instructed them to draw up an order imposing death before the judicial sentencing hearing had even begun.
“This is not just injustice, this is corruption of unspeakable magnitude.” – Kris Maharaj
In an interesting twist, there appears to be a link between the murder of the Moo Youngs in 1986 and the kidnap and murder of Muriel McKay in Britain in 1969 (she was mistaken for Rupert Murdoch’s wife). Muriel’s body was never found.
Two Hosein brothers were convicted (see the recent documentary The Wimbledon Kidnapping) however it was the third brother Adam Hosein, who was suspected of masterminding the plot but was never charged. Documents covered up by the prosecution reveal that the same Adam Hosein had been laundering money with the Moo Youngs. Adam Hosein’s employee George Abschal gave a sworn statement that he went to the Dupont Plaza Hotel on the morning of the murder. Phone records also show a call for Room 1215 at the Dupont from Hosein’s number that morning.
“Kris’ case has more evidence that was covered up than any of the other 300 capital cases I have done in four decades.” – Clive Stafford Smith
Clive Stafford Smith has been fighting for Kris’ freedom since 1993 – a 28-year fight. The extraordinary investigation into proving Kris’ innocence has come at no small cost; with Kris’ fortune long gone and a lack of legal funds for defence teams, all of the work has been done pro bono. Clive estimates that he has spent 7,600 hours of his time on Kris’ case. If you add in the time of fellow lawyer Ben Kuehne and the various investigators, it would total over 10,000 hours of work – equivalent to $10 million in corporate lawyers’ rates.
An Exemplary Prisoner
“Other than being behind bars, I don’t think he behaves any different than he would if he were outside.” – Sergeant Guthrie, Department of Corrections.
Despite his 35-year ordeal and failing health (Kris has advanced cataracts so is now nearly blind and struggles to walk), Kris has been an exemplary prisoner. He is respectful to everybody, keeping to routines where possible and trying to look to the future where he will at last be reunited with Marita and they will return to live in the UK. The only time Kris broke prison rules was to kiss Marita twice as opposed to the permitted once during visiting time on death row.
“In a way, I think the death penalty is more humane than what I have suffered. Many days I have woken up saying to God: “take me home.” It is only because of Marita that I am still here.” Kris Maharaj
In Greek mythology, Penelope waited for Odysseus for 20 years; Marita Maharaj has been waiting three and a half decades for her husband. Whenever able, she has spent three hours with Kris every Saturday (at times travelling the length of Florida), fifty-two weeks a year. Marita is the heroine of this story.
“When I married Kris, I remember the words I said: ‘for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ’til death us do part. I married him because I loved him, and I meant it then as I mean it now. We are both poor, we are both in ill health, but we have not died yet. I am here as long as he needs me.'” – Marita Maharaj
Help free an innocent man and reunite star-crossed lovers #FreeKrisMaharaj
Listen: Abuse of Power, Series 2 – The State of Florida vs. Kris Maharaj. An Audible Original podcast with David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer, launching 25th November 2021. This 6-episode podcast examines the flaws in Kris’ capital trial and subsequent hearings, as well as the evidence that suggests a different story to the official version of events. Rudolf and Pfeiffer, both attorneys, cast a legal eye on proceedings and encourage the listener to look beneath the surface. The podcast features interviews with key players in the case, including Ron Petrillo, Kris’ investigator and Clive Staffod Smith, Kris’ lawyer for the past 28 years.
Watch: Death Row Stories – Kris Maharaj: Murder in Miami (2014, Executive Producer Alex Gibney). This excellent documentary unravels the case against Kris and explores the influence of the cocaine trade in 1980s Miami.