November 11, 2014 / 1:23 AM / 5 years ago

Briton serving life for Florida murders makes bid for freedom

MIAMI (Reuters) - A British man, who has served 27 years in jail for a grisly double-homicide in Florida, was given a last chance on Monday to convince a U.S. judge that the murders were carried out by Colombian drug traffickers.

Krishna Maharaj sits for an interview in Miami Dade county jail in Miami, Florida, October 15, 2012. REUTERS/David Adams

Krishna Maharaj, 75, spent a decade on death row for the crime he says he did not commit, before his sentence was appealed and commuted to two life sentences in 1997.

Lawyers for Maharaj say the execution-style murders of Duane and Derrick Moo Young, and Jamaican-American father and son of Chinese descent, at a downtown Miami hotel in 1986 were ordered by Pablo Escobar, the former head of the Medellin cartel.

The defence hopes that new evidence at the three-day hearing will be enough to persuade Florida Circuit Court Judge William Thomas to overturn Maharaj’s conviction. The defence contends Escobar ordered the murders after the Moo Youngs stole money from him, according to court records.

On Monday a former American pilot who flew cocaine shipments for the cartel testified that during a conversation with Escobar at his Colombian ranch in 1986 he heard the drug lord admit to having killed “los chinos” (the Chinese) at a downtown Miami hotel. The pilot, who was allowed to testify anonymously to protect his life, admitted under cross-examination that neither the victims nor the hotel were fully identified by name.

A retired DEA agent, Henry Cuervo, also testified that the initial 1986 investigation by Miami police ignored “red flags” pointing to the involvement of Colombian drug traffickers, including documents that indicated the Moo Youngs were involved in money laundering.

Brenton Ver Ploeg, a lawyer who investigated a $1.5 million life insurance policy held by the Moo Youngs, told the court that financial records suggested the family company was involved in illegal activities including drug money laundering.

Ver Ploeg said he stored the documents in the case for 28 years because he felt there was “something wrong” with the case, and was surprised that investigators never asked to see his files until years later.

Prosecutors sought to block Monday’s testimony saying the defence case consisted of hearsay and inadmissible evidence. “They (the defence) may not like the rules but we follow the rules here,” said Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill.

The prosecution also reminded the judge that Maharaj’s finger prints were found in the hotel room where the murders took place and that he had a long-running feud with Derrick Moo Young over money.

The defence has likened this week’s hearing to “a Hail Mary to the moon.” Overturning a jury’s verdict, especially after so many years, requires an exceptionally high standard of evidence.

The case has drawn media attention in Britain and was the subject a one-hour CNN documentary.

Editing by Bernadette Baum, Letitia Stein, Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker

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