A British businessman of Indian origin who has been wrongly incarcerated in a Florida prison for more than quarter century has written of his despair as he approaches his 75th birthday.
Writing in the Sunday Observer, Krishna Maharaj describes in painstaking detail the drudgery of prison life among the hundreds of drug dealers, car thieves, fraudsters and murderers at the curiously named South Florida Reception Centre in the Sunshine State.
“This year I will celebrate my 75th birthday at the South Florida Reception Centre just outside Miami, USA.
I will be roused by the prison guards at five in the morning. At six, there will be grits for breakfast, along with something they call “chicory” (there is no real coffee). After my insulin shot, I will be locked back down until around 9.30am.
Then I should get a couple of hours on the yard, along with 600 other “inmates”.
On a normal day, I would be facing a soya patty, rice and Kool-Aid drink for lunch, though I would not eat the rice – it’s pretty bad for a diabetic. After another hour of lockdown, I might get a further hour on the yard before a second congealed soya patty for dinner.
They spend an average of $1.67 (£1) a day on my food here, and you can imagine what one gets for 56 cents a meal. I used to have a German shepherd called Jason – how I loved that dog! – and he would bite me and run away if I fed him this stuff.”
Maharaj was born in 1939 to Indian parents in Trinidad and Tobago before moving to South London in the early 1960’s where he became a multi-millionaire after establishing a thriving fruit import business.
He was sentenced to death in 1987 for the double murders of Jamaican businessman Derrick Moo Young and his son Duane in a Miami hotel.
Moo Young had posed as a property magnate to form an investment company with Maharaj in the early 1980’s. In later interviews, Maharaj said he soon discovered that his ostensibly “respectable” business partner had embezzled more than half a million dollars from company accounts.
The bodies of Derrick and his son Duane were found in room 1215 of the Dupont Plaza Hotel on October 16, 1986.
Derrick, 53, had been shot six times whilst his 23-year-old son had been killed with a single gunshot to his head.
Maharaj has always insisted that he was having lunch 30 miles away at the time – an alibi that was backed up by half a dozen witnesses, none of whom were called to testify at his trial. Maharaj’s fingerprints however, were found inside room 1215 but he maintains that he had been in the room earlier in the day for a different meeting.
The prosecution’s case rested on the finger prints and the claim that his dispute over the embezzled money was a strong motive. Maharaj has rubbished the claim, telling the Mail on Sunday last year: “If I’d wanted to kill him, surely I’d have waited until I got my money?”
Later investigations have revealed that a number of vital prosecution witness – including a former Jamaican gangster and an assistant to infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar – lied or withheld critical information that would have led to Maharaj being exonerated.
Various newspapers in the US and Britain have also reported that several police officers who handled the case had been on the payroll of the drug lords who controlled the rampant drugs trade in Florida during the 1980’s, a fact confirmed by former colleagues of the officers.
In light of the new evidence – including documents linking Moo Young to a money laundering business and a number of drug traffickers – a Florida court overturned Maharaj’s death sentence in 1997.
In 2001, almost 300 British politicians, church leaders and judges wrote a letter to the then Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, brother of George W Bush, asking for a retrial. The governor denied requests for a retrial but commuted Maharaj’s death sentence to life imprisonment in 2002.
Successive Florida governors have repeatedly denied requests for a retrial, including several made by the British human rights group Reprieve which has represented Maharaj for nearly two decades.
In the Sunday Observer, Maharaj writes that the re-sentencing is of little relevance as he will be ineligible for parole until after his 101st birthday.
“I am bankrupt, so I cannot support my family, let alone pay for my appeals. I have come close to death several times, either in Florida’s electric chair or in the similarly deadly prison hospital”, Maharaj writes.
His incarceration is in stark contrast to the glamorous life he lived after moving to Peckham, South London in 1960 with the help of a £1500 loan.
He started a business importing exotic fruits – then unheard of in Britain – from the Caribbean and became a millionaire several times over.
Maharaj quickly became a fixture on the social scene in “Swinging Sixties” London, partying with celebrity friends and indulging in his passions for Rolls Royce cars and race horses, at one time owning more than 100.
Above: Clive Stafford Smith attorney for Krishna Maharaj with Marita Maharaj (right)
In the year of his 35th birthday, his horse ‘King Levanstell’ won the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot, ahead of a horse owned by Queen Elizabeth. The same year he met and married Marita, a banker from Portugal.
Whilst his 75th birthday will be far less memorable, Maharaj is thankful for little mercies, such as the fleeting visits Marita is allowed.
“There is one way my birthday will be better than those halcyon days”, Maharaj writes.
“Now I truly understand what love means This year, there won’t be any champagne. There won’t be any winners at Kempton Park. But this year fortune smiles on me. My birthday falls on a Sunday, so it’s visitation day. This year I will see my wife, Marita, perhaps for two full hours.
Some people call their life’s partner an angel; in my case, I know she is one.
Marita has forsaken everything for me, barely able to survive, just so she can take my five-minute calls, and come for these treasured prison visits. Without her, I would long since have been consigned to the mental asylum or the grave.
With her, even this half-life is worth living. All I can do is hope – and I hope against hope that her next birthday, her own 75th in November, will be held among old friends in London.”
– Main image courtesy of Claire Phillips