Page last updated at 22:25 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 23:25 UK

Murder case which 'does not add up'

By Tim Samuels
BBC News, Florida

Krishna Maharaj
Krishna Maharaj's life sentence was commuted from the death penalty

A British businessman who has served 21 years in jail in Florida has lost his final plea for mercy - meaning he faces the rest of his life behind bars.

Despite receiving top-level political support from the UK government, Krishna Maharaj has been denied clemency by Florida Governor Charlie Crist and his clemency board.

This was the last throw of the dice for the 69-year-old Londoner whose legal avenues have already been exhausted - and comes as devastating news for his legal and political campaigners, who had flown out to Tallahassee to plead his case.

They had hoped that the unprecedented UK political backing for Maharaj would hold sway in Florida - a state with strong economic and trade ties to the UK - with the British government openly calling on the governor to grant clemency.

This followed a review of the case documents by the UK Foreign Office which concluded the defence team had shown that there was “prima facie evidence of a miscarriage of justice".

Maharaj was jailed for a double murder in a Miami hotel in 1986 which he has always vigorously denied.

Before a packed hearing in Tallahassee, Governor Crist and his cabinet were addressed by the Londoner's political, legal and religious supporters.

Paul Lomas, a partner for the Freshfields law firm, acting for no fee, told the hearing: "You can present a humane - a wise statesman's - face of the state of Florida, to the government of the UK and to its people, and you can bring life and hope to a deserving, old and sick man, who otherwise has none."

Extraordinary support

Former Conservative minister Peter Bottomley listed the high-level political support for Maharaj - including the foreign secretary and former attorney generals Lord Goldsmith and Lord Lyell.

The MP said it was extraordinary to have the support of two ex-attorney generals - who hardly ever intervened in such cases.

A Catholic bishop who regularly visits Maharaj in jail then testified that he was a humane person; even prison guards could not understand his jailing.

But the case carefully constructed by supporters collapsed under dual attack from the victims' family members and the former prosecutor in the case, who noted that "this defendant got every benefit of our great system".

For the best part of an hour, family members of the murdered father and son, Derrick and Duane Moo Young, called for clemency to be rejected.

A number of the family broke down in tears. The atmosphere in the hearing became noticeably emotional.

Maharaj's supporters were not given an opportunity afterwards to counter the points raised by the victims' family and the ex-prosecutor.

Governor Crist then decreed that clemency had been denied. The victims' family rejoiced - Maharaj's supporters left the hearing stunned.

Considering options

Lawyer Paul Lomas said afterwards: "Today's hearing was emotional and complicated. We are disappointed at the board's decision.

"However, we appreciate the state attorney's offer to provide access to the evidence on their files and to DNA evidence. We are considering the options available to Mr Maharaj."

Central to the support Krishna Maharaj has gathered over the years - not least that of the UK government - is the body of evidence suggesting that he is innocent of the murders of the Jamaican and his son in room 1215 of the DuPont Plaza hotel in October 1986.

A major BBC investigation found there were five alibis placing Maharaj 30 miles away from Miami in Fort Lauderdale at the time of the murders. None of them was called to testify at the trial.

The main prosecution eyewitness has changed key elements of his story and failed a lie-detector test.

There are also extraordinary questions about another man - of similar appearance to Maharaj - who was seen heading to the murder hotel with a gun and silencer but who has never even been questioned by police.

The man's brothers were convicted of a gruesome murder in the UK which involved a plot to kidnap the wife of media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

'Procedural bar'

The Briton's lawyers say the case for Maharaj to kill just does not add up.

They say the prosecution's case has Maharaj taking a virtual stranger to a pre-meditated murder, then sitting with him for three hours outside a hotel to see who came along.

Much of the evidence has never been presented before a court due to a "procedural bar" within the judicial system, which makes it very hard to admit evidence that was not submitted at the original trial.

That trial was not the Florida judiciary's finest hour. The judge was led away in handcuffs for taking bribes in another case following an FBI sting.

The replacement judge then ordered the death penalty to be drawn up before Maharaj had even been found guilty.

This misconduct led to Maharaj's death sentence being commuted to life [a 50-year sentence] in 2002.

There were wider concerns about judicial corruption in Miami Dade county at the time, leading to Operation Court Broom - to break a long-suspected ring of bent judges on the circuit court. Four judges were charged with extortion and bribery.

Awkward timing

This clemency appeal comes as lawyers for Maharaj have unearthed new evidence which they claim further reinforces their contention that he was framed.

They have discovered that a Colombian man who checked out of the hotel room opposite the murders just after the killings had blood on his own door and, soon after the murders, he was arrested by US authorities over money laundering.

He was never questioned by police in association with the Miami murders of which Maharaj was convicted.

But this latest evidence seems immaterial following the dismissal of the clemency appeal.

Supporters have pledged to carry on fighting for Maharaj and are now weighing up their limited options.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was "disappointed at the outcome".

The timing of the decision could prove awkward for Governor Crist, who is due to head to the UK on a Florida trade mission next month.

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