Fears for health of Briton stuck in Florida prison coronavirus ‘death camp’
Florida’s governor is facing diplomatic and legal pressure to release a British inmate imprisoned for 33 years for a crime he denies, after the coronavirus turned his jail dormitory into a ‘death camp’. Five guards and two inmates have tested positive for the virus at the Miami prison where Kris Maharaj, 81, remains in custody despite a US court finding last year that he had proven his innocence in a 1986 murder case “by clear and convincing evidence.”
“We didn’t get him off Death Row only for this virus to put him back on it,” said Clive Stafford Smith, of the human rights organisation Reprieve, who got his original death sentence vacated in 1997.
“He’s been a victim of injustice for more than three decades. Now he’s at risk of execution by Covid 19.”
Backed by the UK government, Mr Stafford Smith has filed a formal application to Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, to grant Maharaj a compassionate furlough and allow him to move to his wife’s home in Tamarac, south Florida, with an ankle bracelet. Alternatively, he urged, the governor could release him altogether.
Maharaj suffers from a heart condition, kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and suspected prostate issues – all of which pre-dispose him to a higher chance of death if he contracts the coronavirus – and is reliant on ten medications a day.
He is housed in a dormitory of over 40 elderly inmates, one of whom tested positive for the virus last week, prompting a lock down. The prison has tested just 18 of its 2,200 inmates.
Beds are spaced just three feet apart and there is no personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer or cleaning supplies for the inmates.
“It is a death camp…they are just crammed together to die,” said his wife, Marita, 80.
“Kris is innocent and it’s time to bring him home, bring him back to me. The courts know he’s innocent – they said so. Please don’t let him die alone in that awful place.”
Maharaj was found guilty in 1987 of murdering two businessmen in Miami, but strongly denied any knowledge of the crime and passed a lie detector test.
Mr Stafford Smith, who adopted his case pro bono subsequent to his conviction uncovered evidence that the victims – represented in court as respectable businessmen – had actually been working as money launderers for the Medellin drug cartel operated by Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar. Several of the cartel’s members have sworn under oath that they arranged, committed or facilitated the murders and that Maharaj had nothing to do with the cartel or the crime.
The trial prosecution’s ‘star’ witness changed his story and failed a lie detector test, despite the trial court being told that he had passed it, and six alibi witnesses who could have testified that Maharaj was 25 miles from the scene of the crime were never produced in court by his then defence lawyer.
Mr Stafford Smith’s years of investigation have also revealed evidence of police corruption. The murders occurred at the height of Miami’s ‘Cocaine Cowboy’ era, when cartel kickbacks to police, politicians and judges were not uncommon.
In 2017, the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that there was “compelling” evidence that the victims were killed by the cartel. In September last year, a federal magistrate judge found that Maharaj had proven his innocence by “clear and convincing evidence” and that “no reasonable juror” could convict him.
Yet federal law does not recognize such a finding as grounds for release. The British government has urged Gov DeSantis to recognize the court’s finding.
“Losing 33 years of your life and freedom for a crime not committed is a terrible injustice,” Mr Stafford Smith wrote to Gov DeSantis on March 30.
“(Kris) is high on the list of those who are in jeopardy…He will almost certainly die if he gets the virus in prison…Given the injustice, and given that this is a life-and-death matter, I would be very grateful for an urgent response.”
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, granted authority to justice officials to release prisoners to home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic. In a memo on March 26, the US Attorney General William Barr urged the Bureau of Prisons to consider “at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism.”
“I am hereby directing you to prioritise the use of your various statutory authorities to grant home confinement for inmates seeking transfer in connection with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic,” he wrote.
Gov DeSantis’s office has not yet responded to Mr Stafford Smith’s application.
Sir Peter Bottomley, Conservative MP and father of the House of Commons, who has campaigned for Maharaj’s release for decades, said: “Kris has suffered enough, this has been a serious miscarriage of justice. He’s clearly no danger to society, he’s at risk, he’s spent over 30 years in jail. It’s time to bring Kris Maharaj home.”
He added: “Governor DeSantis: please let Kris Maharaj spend this terrible Covid-19 time with his wife, rather than in a room with 40 potentially virus-bearing prisoners….This is little short of a second death sentence for a crime he did not commit….He is a dead man walking.”
Maharaj has laid awake for the last few nights listening to other detainees on his dormitory coughing – potentially a sign of coronavirus infection.
“I am innocent…and the judge has agreed, yet I am still here in prison,” he said.
“The police fabricated a case to put me on death row. I have six alibi witnesses saying I was somewhere else. It has been over five years since half a dozen members of the Colombian cartel said they did the murder. How is it that I am still here, and not back with my dear wife?”
Photo: Chris Bott/Reuters