By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - A rare legal hearing in the case of a British man, who has served 27 years in jail for a grisly double-homicide, begins Monday, with defense lawyers hoping to convince a Florida judge the murders were carried out by Colombian drug traffickers.
Krishna Maharaj, 75, spent a decade on death row for the crime he says he didn't commit, before his sentence was appealed and commuted to two life sentences in 1997.
Florida circuit court judge William Thomas granted the three-day hearing in April, citing new evidence by the defense implicating other people, perjured testimony by state witnesses, and the failure of prosecutors to turn over evidence that could have exonerated Maharaj, a Trinidad-born businessman.
The defense says it hopes the new evidence will convince the judge to overturn Maharaj's conviction.
The state attorney's office stands by the original trial and has declined to comment on the case which has drawn media attention in Britain, and a one-hour CNN documentary.
The defense is making its second motion for so-called post-conviction relief after a previous effort was rejected by another judge almost a decade after Maharaj exhausted his appeals.
The defense has likened this week's hearing to "a Hail Mary to the moon."
Overturning a jury's verdict, especially after so many years, requires an exceptionally high standard of evidence.
Lawyers for Maharaj say Colombian drug traffickers were responsible for the execution-style murders of Duane and Derrick Moo Young at a downtown Miami hotel in 1986. They contend the killings were done "at the behest of Pablo Escobar," the former head of the Medellin cartel, according to court documents.
Defense witnesses are expected to testify that they heard Escobar and cartel members discuss the murders, saying it was organized by Jaime Vallejo Mejia, a convicted Colombian money launderer who, records show, was staying in a hotel room across the hall from the Moo Youngs the day they were killed.
The Moo Youngs were "eliminated because they had lost Colombian drug money," according to one drug trafficker cited in court records.
"The Moo Youngs were known to be drug traffickers by the feds, everyone knew it was a cartel hit," said Maharaj's pro-bono attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, who heads a London-based human rights group, Reprieve, that fights for prisoner rights.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)