I was recently involved in a documentary about a man who was sentenced to death for a double murder that happened in October 1986 in Room 1215 of the Dupont Plaza in downtown Miami. His death sentence was overturned because the judge and the prosecutor secretly agreed to it before the judicial sentencing hearing, but he remains in prison 28 years later.
His name is Kris Maharaj, he is 75 years old, and as I worked on the film he appeared to me to be very innocent. Since transmission, even more evidence has come to light, prompting me to take up his case once again. It is not my job, ultimately, to decide his fate -- that is for the courts. And yet the system seems fundamentally ill-suited to the task in various ways.
The true killers appear to have been henchmen of Pablo Escobar. Room 1214, across the hall, was occupied by one Jaime Vallejo Mejia, a Colombian who was even then being investigated by the DEA for his part in laundering $40 million in cash through some Swiss banks. This fact was not disclosed to the defense. More shocking still, three decades on, the federal government has thus far declined to respond to the judge's order to turn over the evidence in its possession regarding Mejia and other cartel members. The federal government apparently argues, routinely, that a state court does not have jurisdiction over a federal agency. Yet surely the innocence of a person in custody in our country is cause for concern to anyone who believes in the law?
A former police officer, now in prison himself, has come forward admitting that Maharaj was framed. The officer says that, in cocaine-riddled Miami in the 1980s, corrupt elements of the Miami Police Department had a policy to "Serve and Protect" the cartels by destroying evidence or collaring the wrong person. He says that there are at least 18 unsolved (or wrongly solved) homicides that he can identify. All this has been brought to the attention of the FBI Civil Rights division, and yet they have not even responded, let alone taken action. Surely, if we accept the adage that it is better that 99 guilty go free than that one innocent should suffer, it is the primary task of any law enforcement agency to respond to such evidence.
Yet perhaps the ultimate flaw in the system is how the courts themselves assess innocence. The Supreme Court has long refused to accept that the federal constitution forbids the imprisonment of the innocent -- the most someone like Maharaj can expect, we are told, is a trial that is procedurally fair, not one that comes to the correct result. This seems bizarre to a lay person like me, as I suspect it does to most people -- the court should reconsider its position.
This simply cannot be right and it is time for President Obama and Congress to take up the issue. If Amtrak were to suffer a train wreck, we would have hearings to identify and eliminate the cause. The Maharaj case is a judicial train wreck, and it is sadly not unique: it is past time for a wholesale reassessment of how we deal with a miscarriage of justice, and time is running out for Mr. Maharaj.