“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
Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.