“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
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Donald Trump's rise is a reaction to Obama's two terms as president

This week, from Barack Obama’s legacy to memories of Angela Carter.

My children can’t believe that I grew up in a racially segregated Alabama, or that I reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (for this magazine). One of their earliest memories is of helping a family friend sell coffee and hot chocolate in sub-zero temperatures to the crowds celebrating the inauguration of Bar­ack Obama in Washington in January 2009.

My past is ancient history to them. I strongly recommend that anybody who still feels that way watches In the Good Ol’ Days, the YouTube trailer for a documentary called 13th by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. It splices physical abuse of black people at Donald Trump’s rallies (and his taunts about how they would have been “carried out on a stretcher” in the past) with documentary footage from the 1960s. It’s chilling.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I went back to my old school in Montgomery to see how attitudes had changed. It was no longer segregated, of course, but it was still predominantly white. A former classmate told me that when he was five, the family handyman got chucked over a bridge and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. We never heard these stories in school. Then I met the progressive headmaster, who assured me that everything was non-discriminatory now. But, as I left, I was escorted to my car by the school bursar, who told me he didn’t trust Obama because he was a “Muslim”. The way he said it made it sound like the N-word to me.


Going South

There has been surprisingly little discussion about the extent to which the rise of Trump has been specifically a reaction to Obama’s two-term presidency. Yes, we have heard how Obama’s legitimacy has been questioned by the “birther” movement and we have listened to Trump crow about forcing the first African-American president to produce his papers (or rather his birth certificate). But when even a former grand wizard of the KKK – an absurd title – says that Trump talks “a lot more radically” than he does, it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension to this election.

The two big states that Trump still hopes to swing his way are Pennsylvania – memorably described by the Clinton adviser James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “Alabama in between” – and Ohio, where my mother was born. She is from the northern Democratic stronghold of Cleveland; Cincinnati, she used to sniff, was the South. She didn’t mean geographically.


Bill and Hill

There are many good reasons to be wary of Trump but I have never felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton. The governor of Alabama in my day was Lurleen Wallace, who was in office because her notoriously racist husband was ineligible to run for a consecutive term. She didn’t even bother to disguise that she was a proxy candidate and ran as Mrs George C Wallace, while he became known as “the first gentleman of Alabama”.

Admittedly, Hillary Clinton is far more her own woman than Lurleen ever was but Bill Clinton, remember, is a former Southern governor, of Arkansas. Bill and Hill had the idea long ago of a “twofer” run at the White House – and they’ll definitely have known about the Wallaces’ example. Alas, it’s too late to dwell on how much better it would be if the first female president of the United States hadn’t already been its first lady and Bill Clinton hadn’t set his sights on returning as first gentleman. But it’s Trump v Clinton and, thus, no contest.


Granny knew best

Enough about the US elections, hard though it is to tear our eyes away from the car crash. Last week, I went to the launch party at Daunt Books of Edmund Gordon’s wonderful biography of Angela Carter, a literary heroine of mine. I was a young publicist at Virago in the late 1980s when I visited Carter at home in Clapham, south London, where she was living with her much younger husband, Mark, a potter, and their little boy. She looked like a magnificently eccentric granny to me, with her shock of thick, wavy, grey hair. I thought that she was ancient because she’d had a baby at 42 but, as ever, she was just ahead of her time.


Partial eclipse

I’d no idea until I read The Invention of Angela Carter just how many Virago novelists she had nurtured. Pat Barker, for instance, the author of the Regeneration trilogy about the First World War, was one of her protégées. The photographs, though, show Carter with the young men who eventually eclipsed her: Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. She taught Ishiguro creative writing at the University of East Anglia and introduced him to
her agent, Deborah Rogers. He told me at the party that there were only half a dozen students on the course with him and the university couldn’t be bothered to find enough people to fill the places the following year. Yet it has since become the stuff of legend.


Lost treasure

Carmen Callil, Carter’s great friend and the founder of Virago, was also at the party. She told me that her joy in publishing faded when Carter was offered only £60,000 for her last novel before she died of lung cancer in 1992. By then, the men – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, et al – were getting far bigger advances of several hundred thousand pounds, even though she was every bit as good as them (or better).

At the end of her life, her thoughts were on money and how her “two boys” – her husband and son – would manage without her. She told her literary executor, Susannah Clapp, to give permission to everything and anyone who wanted to use her work for commercial purposes, however naff or vulgar. Her last book, by the way, was to have been a fictional life of Adèle Varens, the vivacious young ward of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. How I would have loved to read it.

Sarah Baxter is a former political editor of the New Statesman and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood