“I have been waiting for him to come home for 27 years, 3 months and 10 days”

For more than half of his time in prison, Marita Maharaj's husband Kris was on death row. His sentence was commuted in 2002, but he still faces life imprisonment.

On 16 October 1986, I went into a Denny’s diner in Miami for dinner. I was very happy, people were telling jokes. My life was as beautiful as it could ever be. I had a lovely husband - I don’t think you could get a better one than Kris. I had everything I needed. Maybe I had never really had a proper worry in my whole life until that evening.

When I came out, a short while later, my life was essentially finished. The first thing I remember, as we sat at the table, was that someone appeared with a gun. I later learned that the people running the restaurant called the police because they thought we were being assaulted or robbed. We were, in a way: I was being robbed of a husband. The man with the weapon was a police detective. He took Kris away, and accused him of two murders.

Earlier that same day, around noon, Derrick Moo Young had been shot in the Dupont Plaza Hotel, along with his 23 year old son Duane. We knew them, of course. Derrick had done some work with us, though we were not on good terms, as he was not an honest man. But I knew then – and I know now – that Kris could not have done the crime. It’s not just a matter of who he is, and how he hates even the sight of blood. I was with Kris that day, right around 11 o’clock. We were miles to the north of Miami. Half a dozen other people could confirm that he was nowhere near the Dupont Plaza, let alone in Room 1215, when the murders took place.

26 January 2014 is Kris’ 75th birthday. I’ll go to see him, but it won’t be much of a celebration. I have been waiting for him to come home for 27 years, 3 months and 10 days (that’s a total 9,965 days and nights). I miss everything about him. In my small cottage, I never sit down for a meal without laying out a place setting for Kris. I always think that he might walk in the door. I left the Christmas dinner table untouched for three weeks, as I hated the thought of yet another Christmas gone by without him.

I pretend to myself that Kris is travelling. When I have five minutes on the phone with him in the evening, I pretend to myself that he is talking to me from a trip, not from a cell.

Before Kris was locked up I had never been near to a prison. I had no idea what it was like. It is a horrible place. I visited him last week, as I always do. It was very cold. Kris had some thermal underwear on under his uniform. The guards made him go back, and take it off. He was not allowed to have it on. I thought that was cruel. I had to cut the visit short because Kris was very cold. That is just one small example of everything that I have witnessed over the years. Some things have been much worse. 

For more than half of his time in prison, Kris was on death row. For the first two years, I drove up to Starke – the state prison in northern Florida – by myself. I did not know anyone. I was in America without any friends. I had to survive by myself. I went each weekend, 300 miles each way. I was younger of course, so it was not so difficult then as later.

Then I met Kay Tafero. She was the mother of Jesse, another person on death row. I would pick her up in Orlando and we would ride together. Life was hard on her. What with everything happening to their child, her husband had suffered a stroke. Jesse was not allowed to go to the funeral. Kay is dead now too, though she was only my age. But she didn’t pass until after her son was executed. When the electric chair malfunctioned, Jesse’s head caught fire. I was not there, but I saw it on the news. I felt so bad for Kay. She was a lovely lady.

Even today, if I think about it, it is terrible. It makes me shiver. The same thing could have happened to my husband.

It would have happened if we had not had volunteer lawyers. We ran out of money twenty years ago. Since then we have depended on the kindness of strangers, though they’re not strangers any more, after all this time. It’s strange, when the State wants to kill someone, that they won’t even give him help to defend himself. Kris would be dead if Clive Stafford Smith and Reprieve had not stepped in. I would probably be dead also. I could not have lived through that.

Some kind people even help me pay my rent. They want it to be anonymous so I don’t even know who to thank properly.

Tomorrow, we are in court again. After years of trying, Clive has identified three Colombians who were really behind the murders. It was a cartel hit. They admit it, but for some reason the prosecutors won’t believe them. Why would Colombians lie for us? We have the real assassins’ records, and there are 19 unmatched prints found at the crime scene. I just don’t understand why the prosecutors oppose us testing them. What are they afraid of? It is disgusting. I wonder how they can sleep at night. I hope they can sleep.

One of the prosecutors said that this case won’t finish until Kris is dead. But that’s not true. It won’t finish until the truth is told.

Marita Maharaj is married to Krishna Maharaj, who was sentenced to death in 1987 for the 1986 murders of the Moo Youngs. His sentence was commuted in 2002, but he still faces life in prison, and is not eligible for parole until he is 101 years old. Marita can be contacted through Reprieve, at info@reprieve.org.uk.

Krishna Maharaj has been in prison since 1986. Photo: Getty
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war