“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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Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad