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5.55 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I apologise to the House for not being present to hear earlier speeches. I am glad that many hon. Members will have had the opportunity to contribute.

I should like to echo the words of some of my hon. Friends who have spoken about the state of post offices. Worthing has the highest proportion of retired people in the country. The future of rural post offices is a matter of interest, but urban post offices are often of greatest interest. None the less, I know that many of my villages will feel very miserable if their post offices are withdrawn because of Government mismanagement of Post Office issues.

I should have liked to speak at some length about overseas British pensioners, as half of them live in countries where they get upratings in the state retirement pension, while the other half do not. The issue may soon come before the courts, but because I want to raise another pressing matter, I hope that those pensioners will forgive me if I do not deal with the issue at the same length as I have done previously and hope to do in future.

I want to turn the attention of the House to the situation not of a Louise Woodward, who was young, female and white, but of Krishna Maharaj, who, at 63, is just about a pensioner, male and black. He has an Asian background; he was born in Trinidad, and born British. For those who are concerned about the proprieties of the House, let me say that I am not going to speak about the hearing that is under way in Miami, Florida about whether Krishna Maharaj should go back on to death row. I want to raise a question that is excluded from that hearing: whether he is guilty.

In the years since 1986, when Krishna Maharaj was convicted, the question whether he is guilty has not come forward, but it matters. I am part of a group that believes that he deserves his life and liberty, and justice. I am aware of the growing help from Foreign and Commonwealth Office consular staff. It is the convention that we do not name civil servants, and I shall not break it, but I am pleased that the help being made available is growing. It is a shame that the Florida prosecution authorities did not notify the British consul when Krishna Maharaj was arrested. They broke their international obligation. Some may regard that as a technicality, but I

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think that it might turn out to be more. I believe that if Krishna Maharaj had had effective representation from the beginning, he would not have been convicted of the murders for which he was sentenced.

I shall turn in a moment to some of the particular issues in Krishna Maharaj's case, many of which are listed on the Krishna Maharaj website at, where the Florida supreme court knocks down a number of the arguments that in this country and most others—and probably in many other US states—would have gained an order for retrial. Before going into detail, I want to point out that more than 300 people are on death row in Florida. Krishna Maharaj has not been on death row in a technical sense since the evidentiary hearing in 1997 in Miami, which I attended. He came off death row because the second judge in his case had asked the prosecution for a draft death sentence before the jury reached its conclusion. It is a convention of the courts that judges maintain an open mind until a jury has reached a conclusion, and asking for a draft death sentence does not necessarily support it.

In respect of the past 20 or 30 years, I have received information on 24 people who have had death sentence murder convictions either quashed or listed for rehearings. I will not talk at length about people who were almost certainly innocent but were executed, and this speech is not about the death penalty as such. I am grateful to the organisation Reprieve and to Andy Lamb, who helped to provide some of the information. Some of the details may not be precisely accurate because of the short time that has been available to bring the information together.

The first case that I want to discuss is that of James Richardson, who was convicted in 1968 and released in 1989—a period of 21 years. Krishna Maharaj has been in jail for 16 years. James Richardson was convicted and sentenced to death for poisoning one of his children. The prosecution argued that he had committed the crime to obtain the insurance money, but in fact no such policy existed. The primary witnesses against James Richardson were two jailhouse snitches, as they might be described, to whom he is said to have confessed. Post-conviction investigations found that the neighbour who was caring for Richardson's children had a prior homicide conviction, and the defence provided affidavits from people to whom he—probably the real killer—had confessed.

James Richardson's conviction was overturned after further investigation by the then Dade county state attorney-general, Janet Reno, which resulted in a new hearing. Hon. Members will recall that she has since been United States Attorney-General and may be the Democratic challenger to Governor Jeb Bush at the forthcoming Governor's election. I will not give a view on whether she or Governor Bush would be the better choice—that is for the people of Florida to decide—but I hope that both the present Governor and his possible challenger will consider whether there has been an injustice in this case in Dade county and give their backing to law, order and justice by asking for a review so that the Florida courts can decide whether the conviction is safe. If, having been given a list of some of the issues involved, the prosecution still thinks that it can secure a conviction, it should not object to a retrial, and if it fears that it would not obtain a conviction, it should jolly well join people like me to argue for a retrial.

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I should advise the House that I have notified the registrar that on my visit to see Krishna Maharaj in jail at the Raiford Union correctional institution 11 days ago, two legs of my flight were arranged by the Krishna Maharaj support group and the other two legs and other expenses were paid for by myself.

Another example involves Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts, who were convicted in 1963 and released in 1975. They had 12 years in jail. Although no physical evidence linked them to the deaths of two men, their guilty pleas, the testimony of an alleged eye-witness and an incompetent defence counsel led to their convictions. The men were sentenced to death but maintained their innocence. After their convictions, someone else confessed to the crime, the eye-witness recanted her accusations and the state attorney-general admitted that the state had unlawfully suppressed evidence. The men were granted a new trial and were again convicted and sentenced to death. They were released in 1975, when they received a full pardon from the then Governor Askew, who stated that he was

I suggest to Governor Jeb Bush's advisers that they should ask an independent person to review all the points that have been put together, some of which I shall list and others of which are available, to decide whether Krishna Maharaj should benefit from a similar declaration and executive action by the governor.

I could go on to discuss the case of Joseph Green Brown, in which charges were dropped after the prosecution had knowingly allowed false testimony to be introduced at the trial. That came within 13 hours of the execution, when a new trial was ordered. Brown was released a year later when the state decided not to retry the case.

The following elements exist in the Krishna Maharaj case. He was arrested on the day the two men were killed. The detective did not take a paraffin test on his hand to see whether gunpowder was there. For anything other than a professional contract killing, that paraffin test is always introduced. Another factor in the detective work is that the detective concerned took 21 witness statements, 20 of which were notarised, typed, signed by the witness and recorded. The sole exception was the interview with the suspect, Krishna Maharaj. I would suggest, putting it gently, that that allows room for dispute or error in what Krishna Maharaj actually said in answer to questions. This is not one of the cases in which it is suggested that the accused was tortured, bullied or coerced into making a false confession. In this case, Krishna Maharaj always denied the charge.

Furthermore, it is acknowledged—it is possible to check this—that an assistant state prosecutor, Myra Trinchett, went to Mr. Maharaj's cell before the trial and said words to the effect of, "Why don't you take me or somebody else on as your defence attorney for $50,000?" Krishna Maharaj says that she told him everyone knew he was innocent, and that he would be treated leniently. That visit is acknowledged.

What has not yet been acknowledged—although the prison records ought to demonstrate it—is whether a man called Harvey Swinkle went to Krishna Maharaj's cell before Myra Trinchett and asked for $75,000. The reason that the price dropped from $75,000 to $50,000 is that

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Krishna Maharaj had passed a lie-detector test in the meantime, and his innocence was rather better established. The prison ought to have a record—it has not yet disclosed it—of whether that visit by Harvey Swinkle was made.

A further piece of factual information that the Governor's advisers should ask for is whether either of those visits to Krishna Maharaj was recorded under the FBI's Operation Court Broom, in which the bureau secretly taped a number of discussions between prisoners and people claiming to be there on behalf of judges. If so, can the tapes and transcripts be released? Is it true that, of the 13 judges in office in Dade county at the time of Krishna Maharaj's trial, five were subsequently sent to jail for irregularities? Is it also true that a detective involved in his case was taken off murder cases for misusing witnesses' testimony?

There are a whole series of issues surrounding the pre-trial procedure that are worth checking. I will not go on at any length about the fact that, three days into Krishna Maharaj's trial, the trial judge was taken away in shackles, accused of accepting bribes in a different case. I acknowledge that Krishna Maharaj and his lawyer, who is new to capital charges, decided not to ask for the case to be re-started, so it continued for another week and a half. Krishna Maharaj's assets put him just above legal aid level, but do not allow him to employ his lawyer for very long. I have mentioned the mistake by the second judge in asking for the death sentence in draft before the jury came back with the verdict, and I shall not make anything of the fact that the first appeal judge was later taken off the case because he had been in the state prosecutor's office at the time of the prosecution.

There are a number of similar issues, which are technical, but, taken together, they begin to draw a picture that at least introduces an element of severe doubt—in fact, a whole series of doubts—about whether Krishna Maharaj could have committed the crime. There is no doubt that he had been in the room at the time and, as the excellent Channel 4 film, "Murder in Room 1215", made by Roger Bolton and his associates about seven years ago showed, there are a number of other elements involved.

I shall conclude by focusing on the key prosecution witness, Mr. Neville Butler. He is known to have lied. At the trial, it was accepted by the court that Krishna Maharaj had booked the room in which the murder took place, because Neville Butler said that he had done so. Am I right in saying that, after the trial, the FBI discovered that Krishna Maharaj could not have done so, because Neville Butler had booked the room himself? Is the key so-called eye-witness therefore implicated in booking the room in which the murders took place?

These issues matter a lot, because Krishna Maharaj might have been convicted of crimes that he did not commit and, because he is British, it is our responsibility—and the responsibility of our Government—to try to help the Americans to get things right. I am not making broad accusations against the Miami police, the Dade county judges, or the supreme court in Florida. I am saying that they should be as concerned as we are in this country about discovering whether justice has been seen to be done.

I could raise a number of other issues, but I shall finish by saying that, in Illinois, immunity has been taken away from state prosecutors. In that state, because of various scandals, any prosecutor who knowingly uses perjured

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evidence is exposed to investigation and prosecution. That is not the case in Florida. Although I was not given a rough time yesterday, I was shut up quite often by the judge when I was giving evidence, as the state prosecutor objected to most of the things that I wanted to say. If it turns out that any state prosecutor in any of the cases or hearings in which Krishna Maharaj has been involved knew that evidence had been given that was not true—or it turns out that they knew of evidence that ought to have been made available to the defence and to the court—I hope that Florida will consider what action ought to be taken. To take one relatively small example, the murder victims in the case, the Moo Youngs, were said to have been innocent business men. In their case, the prosecution knew in advance of the trial that they had been setting up drugs accounts around the Caribbean and had been involved with some pretty suspicious characters. That makes it possible that they suffered contract killings, which is far more likely given the circumstances.

I hope that, in time, the Foreign Secretary will be able to come to the House and announce that Krishna Maharaj has been set free and allowed a new trial. When I saw him, his words to me were, "I don't just want to be released from jail. I want a new trial so that I can be found innocent, not just discharged with a cloud over my head."

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