November 10, 2014 / 12:55 PM / 5 years ago

Rare hearing for Briton in Florida, serving life for double murder

MIAMI (Reuters) - A rare legal hearing in Florida in the case of a British man, who has served 27 years in jail for a grisly double-homicide, began on Monday, with defence lawyers hoping to convince a judge the murders were carried out by Colombian drug traffickers instead.

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 didn’t commit, before his sentence was appealed and commuted to two life sentences in 1997.

The first witness for the defence was a retired veteran former DEA agent, Henry Cuervo, who testified that the initial 1986 investigation by Miami police ignored “red flags” pointing to a possible link to Colombian drug traffickers.

In granting the three-day hearing, Florida circuit court judge William Thomas cited new evidence by the defence implicating other people, perjured testimony by state witnesses, and the failure of prosecutors to turn over evidence that could have exonerated Maharaj, a Trinidad-born businessman.

Prosecutors unsuccessfully objected to the defence case, saying it consisted of hearsay and inadmissible evidence.

The defence hopes to overturn Maharaj’s conviction.

The state attorney’s office stands by the original trial, declining to comment on the case, which has drawn media attention in Britain and been the subject of a one-hour CNN documentary.

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.

Lawyers for Maharaj say Colombian drug traffickers were responsible for the execution-style murders of Duane and Derrick Moo Young at a downtown Miami hotel in 1986. They contend the killings were done “at the behest of Pablo Escobar,” the former head of the Medellin cartel, according to court documents.

Defence witnesses are expected to testify that they heard Escobar and cartel members discuss the murders, saying it was organised by Jaime Vallejo Mejia, a convicted Colombian money launderer who, records show, was staying in a hotel room across the hall from the Moo Youngs the day they were killed.

The Moo Youngs were “eliminated because they had lost Colombian drug money,” according to one drug trafficker cited in court records.

“The Moo Youngs were known to be drug traffickers by the feds, everyone knew it was a cartel hit,” said Maharaj’s pro-bono attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, who heads a London-based human rights group, Reprieve, that fights for prisoner rights.

Editing by Bernadette Baum, Letitia Stein and Sandra Maler

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