A convicted killer’s bid to win a new trial featured throwbacks to 1980s South Florida crime lore — including a fashion photographer turned secret government informant and a sitting Palm Beach judge who used to try murder cases in Miami court.
Seeking a new trial: Krishna Maharaj, a one-time British businessman who insists that Miami police framed him, on behalf of the Colombian cartel, for a double murder in 1986.
Maharaj, 75, is serving a life sentence for the slaying of Derrick Moo Young and his son, Duane, at the Downtown Miami Dupont Plaza Hotel. He was convicted at trial in 1987 after jurors heard Maharaj had been in a bitter business dispute with Moo Young.
Higher courts have consistently upheld his conviction, although Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas is allowing him to explore his claims.
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Thomas is not expected to rule immediately on whether he deserves a new trial. Wednesday marked the second day of testimony in Maharaj’s latest bid.
His defense team claims that notorious Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, in an elaborate plot aided by Miami police, actually ordered Moo Young killed for stealing from him.
On Wednesday, a colorful ex-U.S. government informant named Baruch Vega, a jet-setting fashion photographer, took the stand to say that he believed the Moo Youngs had been killed by a Colombian money launderer who also had a room in the hotel the day of the shooting.
“We had to kill this Chinese ... crook,” Vega claimed the money launderer once told him.
As a U.S. law enforcement informant, Vega said he partied with and spied on high-level cartel members at the notorious Mutiny Hotel nightclub in Coconut Grove. But Vega admitted that he did not know Moo Young by name and only heard about Maharaj’s conviction recently — when told by a journalist.
Vega also admitted that he has penned a biography and is pitching a movie about his career as an informant. “You do seek quite a lot publicity,” prosecutor Gary Winston said to Vega.
Vega nodded. “I do it when it is necessary to do it,” he said.
Prosecutors say Maharaj’s defense theory is far-fetched fantasy — especially because back then, the cartel killed enemies brazenly, never needing to frame their victims.
At Maharaj’s trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Maharaj rented the room. His fingerprints were found inside. An eyewitness testified that Maharaj pulled the trigger. Witnesses also told jurors that Maharaj, at a Denny’s dinner after the homicide, tried to concoct an alibi.
“The evidence that had been developed against Mr. Maharaj was, in the government’s view, overwhelming,” one of the original Dade prosecutors, John Kastrenakes, testified on Wednesday.
Kastrenakes is now a Palm Beach Circuit Judge.