The tragedy of Kris Maharaj: Innocent and imprisoned for 22 years
There are few experiences as discordant as representing an innocent person who has been sentenced to death. After all, if the prisoner is innocent, he is one hundred percent sure that he did not commit the crime; yet twelve jurors have concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, not only that he did, but that he should be executed for it.
Those who complain about prisoners’ rights would be well-advised to ponder the root causes of such disastrous mistakes. The law says that it is better for 99 guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to be condemned, but we don’t really believe that. Indeed, the legal system is structured in many ways to make errors more likely and, once they are made, to ensure that the prisoner remains under lock and key – no matter what the injustice.
I’ve just published a book – itself called Injustice – about one of the most frustrating cases in my own career: that of Krishna Maharaj. He was sentenced to death for a sensational double-murder in the Dupont Plaza Hotel that took place in downtown Miami in 1986 – a crime that he patently did not commit. But a combination of factors made his conviction almost inevitable. I can’t hope to explain them all in a brief blog, of course, but first, Kris himself saw no need for a vigorous defence, since he knew he did not do it, so he accepted his hapless lawyer’s advice that he should not call any of his alibi witnesses.
Second, the lead policeman was intent on ensuring that the presumed-guilty should go to prison that he saw no need to share proof that the victims had been laundering money for the Colombian cartels to the tune of $5 billion. Third, because the prosecution felt sure the man on trial had to be guilty, they assured the judge that their star eyewitness had passed a lie detector test when he had actually failed it. Fourth, forensic experts peddled “science” that had never been scientifically validated. Fifth, most readers of the Independent could not even be on Kris’ capital jury: after all, to be eligible to serve you have to swear under oath that you would impose a death sentence if the facts justified it. And so it went on.
Once Kris was on death row, the courts set about ensuring that he would stay there. The courts in America – the richest country on earth – told Kris (now bankrupt) that he had no right to legal aid to present his case to the courts. Next, the federal court held that whether Kris was innocent was not legally relevant under the U.S. constitution to whether he should be held forever. (If you have a hard time understanding this principle, you are in good company.)
I have now represented Kris for eighteen years. We did get him off death row by showing that the judge secretly got together with the prosecutors to ask them to write an order sentencing Kris to death before the judicial sentencing hearing even began. But, more than a quarter century after he went to prison, Kris and his fantastically loyal wife Marita are both 73 this year, and he is only eligible for parole when he is 101 years old – long after he will have died.
Unfortunately, as John Grisham writes on the cover of Injustice, Kris’ case is just “one of thousands” where the justice system got it wrong. At least Grisham resolves his cases before the final chapter; not so, the real world. The question we must contemplate is why those thousands of cases come about, and why the U.S. legal system shows so little interest in correction them?
I wrote Injustice for the simple reason that I have failed Kris in the court of law – we have fallen at every hurdle. I am hoping that we might achieve more in the court of public opinion, where a new witness may surface, or a new champion may offer assistance.
Kris wants his story read more broadly: in one sense, his case reflects the way we treat those all around us. I once asked a gaggle of American judges how they might quantify “reasonable doubt” and they said, on average, they would convict if they were 83 percent sure of guilt. In other words, they were aiming to get it wrong one time in six – and if we aim low, we normally miss. Yet it is a common human trait to condemn rather than to understand.
Indeed, we liberals condemn the way in which politicians (George Bush and Tony Blair in the vanguard) have mortgaged our liberties in the ‘War of Terror’ (as Borat calls it). But we don’t recognise that we have long been advocating the same approach – albeit to people we lefties do not like, such as Simon Harwood, the policeman who apparently struck Ian Tomlinson. If we are honest, we can each imagine several reasons why Harwood should have been acquitted, so we should be thankful that the jurors did not get swept up in our left-wing vendetta.
I only hope Kris’ story can do some good, before it is too late for him – before Marita is forced to bear his ashes back to scatter near his home in London.
Clive Stafford Smith is the director of the legal action charity Reprieve.Tagged in: death row, death sentence, human rights, Injustice, justice, Krishna Maharaj, legal system, prison, reasonable doubt
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