Harvill Secker, £14.99
HALFWAY through this engrossing book, Clive Stafford Smith asks a very simple question. What, in a trial, constitutes “reasonable doubt”? If you are 75 per cent certain that a man committed a murder, is that good enough? Will 90 per cent do? Is 95 per cent reasonable enough?
When he asked the question at a conference of judges in Louisiana, none of them put it any higher than that. In other words: executing one innocent man in 20 wouldn’t particularly trouble their consciences.
The miscarriage of justice Stafford Smith deals with in his latest book happened in Florida rather than Louisiana, but it helps to see it through the prism of those statistics. Because apart from in Hollywood films – and I love Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird as much as anyone – injustice isn’t always immediately obvious. Most times, it’s not black and white, but hiding in that 5 per cent of grey uncertainty.
Take wealthy Trinidad-born British businessman Krishna Maharaj. The case against him outlined by the prosecution in Miami in 1986 seemed unanswerable. Maharaj was arrested after his two biggest business rivals, Derrick Moo Young and his 23-year-old son Duane, were shot dead in a city hotel penthouse. There was a witness, who had identified Maharaj and placed him at the scene – and passed a lie detector test. There was ballistics evidence that the shots came from a type of gun the police said they knew Maharaj owned. There was a motive too: for years Maharaj had been involved in a feud with the Moo Youngs, a feud so virulent that he even bought a Caribbean newspaper in order to pursue it further.
If you were on the jury, at this stage – and certainly after the defence lawyer hadn’t offered anything much apart from a few character references – wouldn’t you vote Maharaj guilty? I would.
But would I vote that Maharaj be executed, according to Florida law? No, and neither would Stafford Smith, who has based his whole life around opposition to the death penalty, and that is why in 1993 he became involved in Maharaj’s case. At first, I did wish that he had picked a more convincing one. Reading his book, I reckoned, would be like being trapped in conversation with a single-issue fanatic, battered with worthiness but not particularly caring.
Boy, did I get that one wrong.
Piece by piece Stafford Smith uncovers evidence that was not disclosed at the trial. The six alibis, not called because the defence lawyer was on a fixed fee and didn’t want to spend time cross-examining them. The ballistics evidence turned out to be valueless. The “witness” hadn’t actually passed a lie detector test, no matter what the court was told. Oh, and a few days into the trial, the judge was arrested for corruption.
But there was much worse to come. In the Moo Youngs’ briefcase were documents showing that they were laundering money – not just millions but billions – for Colombian drug cartels. They had even been trying to skim one per cent off these deals – grounds for murder in any drug boss handbook. And guess who was staying just across the corridor from that penthouse murder scene? A Colombian “businessman” being investigated for carrying $40 million in his luggage en route to Switzerland. Coincidence? What do you think?
Point by point, Stafford Smith shows how the Maharaj case embodies everything that is wrong with the American way of justice.
Maharaj has now used up all his appeals, and will only stand a chance of freedom if Stafford Smith can persuade the US Supreme Court that innocence ought to be a constitutional basis for freedom. Unless that happens, a sick 73-year-old prisoner, who has already served a quarter of a century in jail, will have to wait until he is 103 to be paroled for a crime that he almost certainly didn’t commit.
Edinburgh International Book Festival, 14 August, 3pm
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