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4.0 out of 5 stars Courting Disaster, 29 July 2012
This review is from: Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America (Hardcover)
"Injustice" is about the case of Kris Maharaj who was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Derrick Moo Young and his son Duane in Room 1215 of the DuPont Plaza in Miami in October 1986. Maharaj was sentenced to 25 years to life on the first murder and death on the second. Smith believes Maharaj (who is now seventy three years of age) is innocent, although he conceeds there was a strong case against his client at trial. The book has been written to provide publicity and in the hope it may provoke someone into providing missing evidence which could lead to his client's release. "Injustice" analyses the American legal process and the personnel involved, including the defendant, witness, police, prosecutor, expert, defence lawyer, jury, judge and numerous other aspects of the case . He concludes his client is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. He claims to have proven Maharaj's innocence attributing the crime to a hitman working on behalf of a Columbian drug Cartel.

The book is also about the issue of capital punishment. Smith watched the execution of Nicky Ingram in 1995 although he averted his eyes as his 'emotions surged from despair to a physical sense of nausea, to disgust and back to despair'. It raises the issue about the American practice of electing people to judicial offices. As one observer said of Georgia, ' In this state, no prosecutor or politician ever lost an election by supporting capital punishment.' Capital punishment has become a political weapon within the confines of the court room, providing an incentive for prosecutors to work the system to their own electoral advantage and the disadvantage of the defendant which is what Smith believes happened in Maharaj's case. As regards Ingram he went to his death defiantly spitting in Warden Walter Zant's eye (although contemporary accounts named him as Warden Albert 'Gerry' Thomas).

Smith had tried to get political support for Ingram. He asserts that if John Major had intervened the execution could have been prevented, although there's little evidence to show intervention by any British government has been successful in such cases. A consular official mentioned Maharaj to Smith as someone who would benefit from legal advice. Maharaj had earned a fortune with ruthless business methods and frittered most of it away on horses and cars. The rest went on legal expenses. Notwithstanding Smith's attempt to present him as completely innocent Maharaj's antics in his long running dispute with Moo Young testify to a vindictive streak which did him no favours. The case against him was a strong one. Smith contends, however, it has serious flaws which he deals with issue by issue.

The alleged murder was witnessed by Neville Butler who described how Maharaj had shot Derrick Moo Young several times and then shot Duane separately. Smith alleges that Butler, who failed a polygraph test, was lying on the stand in order to support the prosecutor's case. He regards prepping witnesses as a major fault in the American justice system. Another is the low rates of pay offered to court-appointed lawyers which attracts poor quality attorneys and gives them an incentive to underperform. He cites one case in Mississippi which he appealed in which a third year law student, who had never been in a courtroom before, was appointed to represent a mentally disabled client. Maharaj's defence lawyer, Eric Hendon, failed to call any of the six witnesses who placed Maharaj elsewhere at the time of the murder. He did so on the grounds that one of them had recanted, although five had not.

Smith argues the American system of justice is structured to fail. In Florida each juror in a capital case is asked about their views on capital punlishment. Those opposed to it are presumed unable to discharge their duty to apply the death sentence where the crime requires it, so are excluded from serving. In Maharaj's case the first the trial judge was removed after being arrested for bribery which provided an opportunity to start afresh with a new trial. Smith accuses Hendon of being more concerned with the financial implications (he was on a set fee) than justice for his client. The second judge asked the prosecutors to write up a draft order sentencing Maharaj to death before the sentencing hearing. A third judge asked prosecutors to present an order stating their reasons for upholding the death sentence which he then re-dated and signed. Both instances amounted to collusion, not least because they were not revealed to the defence lawyer. When permission was granted to appeal against sentence, the appeal could not include the claim that the appellant was innocent!!

Smith claims the lead detective on the case misrepresented what Maharaj had said and that his notes (hidden from the defence) confirmed this. Also hidden from the jury was the fact that the Moo Youngs were involved in financial matters, including purchasing a bank in Panama for $600m. In addition, the man in the room opposite 1215 was Jaime Vallejo Mejia, a Colombian national wanted for carrying $40m in cash to Switzerland. From Moo Young's documents Smith deduces they were involved in money laundering on behalf of the Medellin Cartel and were skimming money off the top for their own benefit. Smith's view is that the Moo Youngs were murdered by a Cartel hitman, probably Mejia.

This is not the first time the American legal system has been criticised. The Supreme Court has decided that no defendant has a constitutional right to the assistance of a state-funded lawyer in the appeals process. In Maharaj's case it was ruled that innocence on the grounds of new evidence was insufficient for habeas corpus to suceed. The federal court was not the forum to correct errors of fact. "Injustice" is an indictment of the American legal system and well worth reading. Four stars.
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