The below article was published in Florida daily newspaper the Sun-Sentinel on April 28, 2020. As the newspaper’s site is not available in Europe due to GDPR, we are reproducing it here.
Don’t let COVID-19 kill an innocent 81-year-old man in a Florida prison
This month, I received the news that a prisoner in Kris Maharaj’s cell block at the South Florida Reception Centre had been taken into quarantine with suspected COVID-19. Kris is an 81-year-old British man, held prisoner for the last 33 years for a crime he did not commit.
A federal judge recently ruled that that “no reasonable juror” could convict Kris, based on “clear and convincing evidence” that he is innocent. It would be an unspeakable tragedy if coronavirus were to kill him before he can be exonerated and set free.
As the longest-serving member of the UK parliament, first elected in 1975, I have the honorary title ‘Father of the House’. I have met Kris a number of times in jail and prison, and seen the overwhelming evidence that he is innocent. I gave up my place at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, to attend his post-conviction hearing in 1997.
Kris was sentenced to die for the 1986 murder of Derrick and Duane Moo Young in the Dupont Plaza Hotel, in downtown Miami. For more than 33 years, he has fought alongside his pro bono lawyers, Miami attorney Ben Kuehne and Reprieve’s founder Clive Stafford Smith, for a court hearing to consider the many problems in the investigation of the murders.
Half a dozen Colombian cartel members have come forward to describe how the unfortunate Moo Youngs were victims of Pablo Escobar himself, as he decided they were stealing some of his drug money in the process of laundering it.
Kris’s death sentence was thrown out in 2002, but he will not be eligible for parole until he is over 100 years old, so he still has prison’s sword of death hanging over him. Now it looks like he might face execution by COVID-19. Is the state of Florida going to let him die, as he waits for the scheduled evidentiary hearing that will exonerate him, once and for all?
The Washington Post described Florida prisons as “dangerous petri dishes for the novel coronavirus.” There is no “social distancing” in such an institution: Kris is in a dormitory with 40 other prisoners. Now that the first man in that dormitory has been taken out with suspected COVID-19. Kris and the rest are being held in isolation. The virus may well be in the cell block with them already.
This is little short of a second death sentence for a crime he did not commit. He is at the top of the COVID-19 death list, an octogenarian with diabetes and with ten other illnesses that have to be treated every day. He is a dead man walking — or rather, a dead man shuffling around the prison yard with his walker.
Lawyers for Kris have asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to show compassion: Let Kris out on a furlough — the same as bail — to live in a small cottage with his long-suffering, 80-year old wife Marita, who has stood by his side these last 33 years, never giving up hope that he may one day be released.
I support the British government’s respectful request that the governor recognize the judge’s finding.
California Gov, Gavin Newsom recently pardoned four of the Innocence Project’s clients on the reasonable principle that they have suffered enough already and should not be left to die of COVID-19. Americans and British citizens look around the world and see that Iran has released at least 85,000 prisoners, including American Michael White (almost half of their total prison population of 190,000). Britain should be doing more. If there are injustices that Americans would like to bring to our attention, my parliamentary door is open.
Meanwhile, Gov. 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.
Sir Peter Bottomley is the longest-serving member of the British parliament.