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MIAMI (Reuters) - Lawyers for a British man serving two life sentences in Florida for a 1986 double homicide filed an appeal on Thursday seeking to have the conviction overturned based on an affidavit alleging that Miami police officers framed an innocent man.
Krishna Maharaj, 73, was convicted in 1987 for the murder of Derrick and Duane Moo Young, a Jamaican-American father and son who were shot dead, one of them execution-style, in October 1986 in a downtown Miami hotel suite.
The 90-page appeal purports to cite new evidence including a sworn affidavit from an unnamed witness "who has come forward after many years" alleging that Maharaj was framed by police officers. Maharaj's legal team said it was withholding the identity and other information about the witness out of concern for the safety of the source.
"We have developed very solid proof that Colombian drug dealers were behind these murders and Kris was framed by Miami police," said Maharaj's pro-bono attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, an Anglo-American lawyer, who heads a London-based human rights group, Reprieve, that fights for prisoner rights.
The appeal did not provide any evidence for how and why the Miami police executed the alleged scheme to frame Maharaj. It also did not provide the basis for the concerns about the safety of the witness.
The Miami Police Department had not seen a copy of the appeal and would not comment until its legal office had a chance to study it, said spokeswoman Kenia Reyes.
Stafford Smith, 53, recently published a book about the case titled 'The Injustice System,' describing an 18-year personal crusade to free Maharaj, a wealthy businessman before his arrest who made a fortune in the food importing business in Britain and owned a string of racehorses and Rolls Royces.
The book carries an endorsement by best-selling crime writer John Grisham who called the Maharaj case a "spectacular example of a bogus conviction."
Miami police and the state prosecutor's office have vehemently defended their actions in the case for years.
In a statement to Reuters last month before the latest appeal was filed, the Miami-Dade county prosecutor's office said it stands by the handling of the Maharaj case.
"The Florida Supreme Court twice thoroughly addressed this case and found the evidence of Maharaj's guilt to be 'overwhelming and substantial,'" the statement added.
Despite the new testimony, the defense faces an uphill battle to re-open the case. Overturning a jury's verdict, especially after so many years, requires an exceptionally high standard of evidence under Florida law, experts say.
Maharaj and the Moo Youngs were former business partners and neighbors, both with roots in the Caribbean. Maharaj hails from an elite Trinidadian-Indian family while the Moo Young family is from Jamaica, of Chinese descent.
The two families fell out after Maharaj accused Derrick Moo Young of defrauding him of $400,000. Prosecutors cited that at trial as the motive for the murders.
Maharaj's finger prints were found in the room where the murders took place. He said he had been lured there in order to frame him, and left the room before the Moo Youngs arrived.
Alibi witnesses said Maharaj was having lunch with businesses associates 25 miles away at the time of the murders, though one changed his story at trial and said the alibis had been concocted.
Maharaj spent a decade on death row before his sentence was commuted to life in 1997.
In the latest appeal, the defense alleges that a deceased former Miami police officer named Peter Romero, who retired from the force in June, revealed at the time to the unidentified witness that Maharaj was framed by fellow Miami police officers.
A 30-year veteran, Romero committed suicide in August, shortly after retiring.
In the affidavit, the witness stated that he decided to come forward after 26 years because he felt a moral duty to help free an innocent man, said Stafford Smith.
Based on conversations with the unidentified witness and other evidence, Stafford Smith is convinced that the Moo Youngs were deeply involved in money laundering and that they were murdered by a cartel hitman.
"There was a great deal of corruption in Miami at the time, and the police were complicit with the drug cartels - they would help cover up crimes, even homicides, that the drug dealers committed," Stafford Smith stated.
The defense "is unable to elaborate on this information," the appeal states, requesting that it be allowed to discuss the reasons privately with a judge 'in camera.'
"This will be fleshed out at an evidentiary hearing where the full extent of police corruption will be presented," the appeal states.
The state prosecutor's office had not seen a copy of the appeal yet so was unable to comment, a spokesman said before the appeal was filed.
Editing by Claudia Parsons