“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 cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman