MIAMI (AP) — Someone gunned down businessman Derrick Moo Young and his adult son in room 1215 of the Dupont Plaza Hotel in October 1986 during the height of Miami’s cocaine wars.
But the man convicted of those slayings, 79-year-old British businessman Krishna Maharaj, has maintained his innocence throughout his three decades in prison. In a matter of months, Maharaj may get one last shot at convincing a federal judge he is innocent. And he will try to clear his name by pinning the crime on Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel.
Maharaj, who made a fortune in Britain with a fruit and vegetable import business, had relocated to South Florida in the early 1980s to invest in real estate. Young, who had met Maharaj in London, had offered to oversee the investments when Maharaj was out of town.
At Maharaj’s trial, prosecutors sought to show that Maharaj killed the Moo Youngs, who were Jamaican-Chinese associates, because of a vendetta involving a business dispute. They had testimony from a man who said he witnessed the killings and was kidnapped, as well as evidence that included the murder weapon, a 9mm Smith & Wesson, with a serial number somewhat consistent with a gun Maharaj had owned.
However, an appeals court found that the serial number could apply to thousands of similar guns, “which was not strong evidence of guilt.”
Maharaj had no history of violence, and he has alibi witnesses who placed him miles away at the time of the slayings. He also has fresh evidence that he was set up to take the fall for the shootings, his lawyers said.
“This guy is patently, patently innocent,” said Clive Stafford Smith, a London-based attorney with the human rights group Reprieve. “I don’t know how long the justice system can put up with that.”
The office of Attorney General Pam Bondi has pointed out that seven courts have previously concluded that Maharaj’s conviction should stand.
“Mr. Maharaj’s evidence consists of vague allegations that invite inferences, and none of it comes together coherently without additional inferences. Only his conclusions fill the gap, but this court is not required to accept such conclusions,” Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Geldens wrote.
The innocence claim by Maharaj, who was born in Trinidad and is a British citizen, has been championed by British media and politicians for years. In 2001, some 300 British politicians, church leaders and judges told former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a letter they found the conviction rife with flaws and demanded a new trial.
Maharaj never got a new trial, but he did get his original death sentence reduced to life behind bars in 2002. He lost other appeals in the years to follow.
More recently, his lawyers discovered that a purported Medellin cartel member was in the hotel room directly across the hall from the room in which the slayings occurred, according to court documents. That led to what the lawyers call a slew of new evidence about Escobar’s involvement, even claims that the drug kingpin personally ordered the killings because the Moo Youngs were stealing from him.
The evidence included statements from five people with connections to Escobar who recalled him saying the cartel was responsible for the Moo Young killings.
One witness, Jorge Maya, a purported enforcer for the cartel, said it was well known that Escobar had a big problem with the Moo Youngs.
“Pablo Escobar was very angry with them. In fact, various people from Medellin were talking about the fact the Moo Youngs owed money,” Maya said.
In court papers, Maharaj’s attorneys acknowledge he was in the room the day of the killings — but they say he was there several hours earlier for a meeting with someone that never materialized. Their theory is that he was lured to the phantom meeting as a setup to take the fall by the drug cartel.
The man who set up that meeting, Neville Butler, told police that he saw Maharaj commit the crime in a supposed dispute over money. He said Maharaj also kidnapped him and has testified for the prosecution in several proceedings. Maharaj’s lawyers claim Butler was part of the conspiracy to kill the Moo Youngs, failed a polygraph test and committed perjury multiple times.
In addition, Maharaj has an alibi: He said he was 25 miles away in the Fort Lauderdale area before the Moo Young meeting and was seen by several people there that day.
Maharaj was arrested that day having dinner at a Denny’s restaurant with his wife and friends. He has been in prison ever since.
The Maharaj lawyers took their new evidence to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in March 2017 that it was compelling enough that Maharaj deserved a chance to air his innocence claims before a judge. The case is now before Miami U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez. A final decision on Maharaj’s fate is likely months away.
Maharaj’s Miami lawyer, Ben Kuehne, said Maharaj is in poor health and wants a decision as quickly as possible.
“We are pressing to have this done in as short of an order as possible,” he said. “He cannot survive an intractable delay.”
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