Voices: A British citizen will die in prison in the US. Liz Truss won’t intervene

Krishna Maharaj has spent 28 years in a US jail convicted of a double killing in a hotel room he says he didn’t do
Krishna Maharaj has spent 28 years in a US jail convicted of a double killing in a hotel room he says he didn’t do

The Truss government has already proposed various controversial measures, from Kwasi Kwarteng’s tax cuts for rich people to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s reversal on fracking to Liz’s own elimination of the cap on bankers’ bonuses. Although the augurs are not good, it has not been easy for citizens to evaluate the actions of the new government, given that the media has been otherwise engaged for much of the last month.

Another unnoticed, yet nevertheless radical break in tradition took place just as the Queen sadly passed away. On September 6th, 2022, James Cleverly assumed the role of Foreign Secretary. One of the first actions his department took, three days later, was to refuse to intervene in Kris Maharaj’s desperate battle for justice in Florida.

Kris is 83 years old and was originally sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of Derrick and Duane Moo Young in Miami. The Foreign Office asked me to take his case on in 1993 (under Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd), and for the past 29 years I have developed a wealth of evidence corroborating Kris’ claim of innocence, despite the obdurate lack of transparency of the United Stated government. Meanwhile, Kris’s wife Marita, herself 82, has stood steadfastly by him.

The British government once considered it its duty to intervene when a British citizen was in dire straits abroad — but that’s a practice that the new government under Liz Truss and Suella Braverman appears to have abandoned.

There was also a time in the 1990s, when I was first doing death penalty cases in the US, when the British government was of little use. I can never forget – nor, honestly, forgive – how John Major refused to lift a finger for Nicky Ingram in 1995. Nicky and I were born in the same hospital – Addenbrookes, in Cambridge. Major was in the US when the state of Georgia announced plans to execute Nicky. All the PM had to do was make a simple request, and my client might have lived. Instead, Major elected to do nothing and I had to watch Nicky be electrocuted to death by 2,400 volts. It haunts me to this day.

It is now almost twenty years since the last British national perished in the death chambers of the US states. Since then, we have been able to keep everyone alive – and gradually the UK government started to play an increasingly proactive role that saved lives and promoted justice.

This is only right. As a nation, the UK opposes the death penalty, and we purport to promote the rule of law. In our British passports, Cleverly now personally assures the holder: “His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of His Majesty all those who it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.” The government has encouraged local consular officials to look out for British citizens, and the Foreign Office has consistently agreed to, and has given legal support to my British clients.

I have personally put over 7,000 pro bono hours into Kris Maharaj’s case and the rewards have finally arrived: six members of Pablo Escobar’s Colombian drug cartel admitted in court that they carried out the Moo Young murders for which Kris was convicted and sentenced to death. They stated unequivocally and without any incentive to do so that Maharaj had nothing to do with it. As bizarre as it may sound, there is a US Supreme Court precedent (Herrera v. Collins) holding that “mere” innocence, standing alone, is not sufficient to justify a prisoner’s release. Along with my eager summer students, I have spent the last three months reviewing several thousand cases that cite to Herrera — so that we can launch an assault on this affront to justice of killing or imprisoning for life those whose primary argument is “mere innocence”. All we asked of the UK government was an intervention on a simple principle. The primary goal of any legal system is to sort the innocent from the guilty, and the British government has an obligation to promote that principle not only at home but for its nationals abroad.

A law firm had kindly prepared a draft brief stating that position on behalf of the British government at no cost, and stood ready to file it. How tragically wrong, then, that Cleverly’s department should refuse Kris Maharaj’s request for support. “Under our policy,” came the reply, “[the government] will only intervene where there is a point of international law at stake.”

There is a legal term for this: Bullsh*t. First, there is a certain irony to the supposed reliance on international law. Suella Braverman, until recently Attorney General, urged “ministers [to] ‘take radical action’ to counter the influence of European human rights rules”. It is hard to see why ministers would be so enamored of such rules now. It is also hard to discern why permitting a national of your country to serve a life sentence in a second country while innocent does not implicate principles of international human rights law.

Previous Foreign Ministers have intervened in Maharaj’s case (and others) on a range of issues, including to urge the right to a fair trial based on the Magna Carta – which, while venerable, apparently does not qualify as international law. Does the Foreign Office honestly think that Maharaj, a UK national, should not enjoy an international human right to be freed from a life sentence because he is innocent?

As I see it, the sad truth is that this is a simple and cruel betrayal of a now aged and infirm British citizen who has lost 36 years of his life to a profoundly unfair conviction. It also appears to be an illustration of the Truss government’s failure to adhere to any principle that might inspire respect for her government or her country.

Clive Stafford Smith is a human rights lawyer and founder of the UK non-profit 3dc.org.uk

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.