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Judge takes British man off death row

Ten years after he was sentenced to die in Florida's electric chair, British businessman Krishna Maharaj got a new lease on life Tuesday.

Although Dade Circuit Judge Jerald Bagley upheld two murder convictions against Maharaj, he threw out the death sentence due to improper conduct by the prosecutor and the sentencing judge.

Maharaj, whose case has drawn international attention, looked solemn at first as the judge denied a series of defense motions for a new trial. Marita Maharaj, his wife, quietly cried in the second row of the public seats.

But dismay turned to partial relief when Bagley ordered that Maharaj be taken off death row and resentenced.

Outside the courtroom defense lawyer Ben Kuehne declared victory. "This is a very positive day. Kris' vindication has started," he said.

His lawyer described Maharaj, a 58-year-old former millionaire food importer, as "very optimistic" as he was led from the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles. "Kris is very buoyant. He's looking for the day that there really will be justice," said Kuehne.

But back in jail Tuesday afternoon, Maharaj telephoned the St. Petersburg Times office in Miami to express his disappointment with the ruling.

"I know it sounds odd, but for me a life sentence is worse than a death sentence," he said. "I want the chance to prove I am innocent. I don't want to be resentenced. I want the truth to come out _ the whole truth. It's all or nothing."

Pending a likely appeal by the prosecution to have the death sentence reimposed, Maharaj could be resentenced in a few months. For the time being, Maharaj will be taken off death row, and his prison conditions will improve. The defense also plans to appeal the convictions to the Florida Supreme Court.

The case has made headlines in Britain ever since a Miami jury found Maharaj guilty in November 1987 of gunning down two Jamaicans in the penthouse suite of a downtown Miami hotel. At his trial, one witness claimed to have seen Maharaj pull the trigger.

At a hearing last month, lawyers for Maharaj argued that his original trial lawyer, Eric Hendon, mishandled the case _ no defense witnesses were called _ and that the Dade County State Attorney's office failed to turn over important evidence. Prosecutors deny that and insist there was an airtight case against Maharaj, who they say had been engaged in a bitter financial feud with the victims.

Defense lawyers say new evidence shows Maharaj could not have committed the murders. During a hearing last month, lawyers presented evidence that Maharaj was more than 40 miles away when the killings occurred, and named other suspects who had a motive to kill the Jamaicans.

Bagley ruled Tuesday that Maharaj's trial was fair, his lawyer performed adequately and prosecutors did not suppress evidence that would have affected the outcome. He described new evidence presented by the defense as "primarily hearsay and speculation."

But Bagley agreed with the defense's allegation that Dade Circuit Judge Harold Solomon's 1987 sentence order had been secretly prepared by the prosecution. Documents revealing that were discovered by the defense only years after the trial.

Bagley said his review of the evidence "unequivocally shows that the sentencing judge completely abdicated and delegated his duty to conduct an independent and comprehensive evaluation."

Maharaj deserves to be resentenced before a new judge and jury, Bagley concluded.

After almost 10 years on death row, Maharaj says he's broke. The one-time millionaire is seeking money from the British government in order to appeal.

His legal team, led by Kuehne, a Miami attorney, and Clive Stafford Smith, a British anti-death penalty crusader, is working virtually pro bono to fight the case.