MIAMI (Reuters) - A Miami judge on Thursday ordered a rare hearing to hear new evidence in the 1987 conviction of Krishna Maharaj, a British businessman who was found guilty in a grisly double-homicide at a downtown Miami hotel that his defense team blames on Colombian drug traffickers.
Maharaj, 75, spent a decade on death row before his sentence was commuted to two life sentences in 1997.
Judge William Thomas cited new evidence presented by the defense implicating another person and perjured testimony by state witnesses, as well as the failure of prosecutors to turn over evidence that could potentially have exonerated Maharaj at trial.
"This is a huge and important step," said lawyer Ben Kuehne, a member of Maharaj's pro-bono defense team. "This has been a long journey towards justice that we hope is nearing its conclusion."
As a result of the ruling the defense can call witnesses to present its new evidence at a hearing, likely in the fall, to decide if Maharaj should be granted a new trial or a reduced sentence.
Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill said she had "no comment" after leaving the courtroom.
The defense was making its second motion for so-called post-conviction relief after a previous effort to reopen the case was rejected by another judge almost a decade after Maharaj exhausted his appeals.
Defense attorney Michael T. Davis likened the motion to "a Hail Mary to the moon."
"I am absolutely elated by the judge's decision and I can't wait for the whole truth to come out in court," Maharaj said in a statement when visited after the ruling by one of his lawyers.
"I don't even know how I feel right now," said Maharaj's wife, Marita, who was in court for the ruling. "We have been fighting for 27 years. I know we haven't finished yet, but at least we won a battle."
Lawyers for Maharaj contend that Colombian drug traffickers were responsible for the 1986 shooting deaths of Duane and Derrick Moo Young and that the traffickers have provided evidence that the killings were done "at the behest of Pablo Escobar," the former head of the Medellin cartel gunned down by police in 1993.
The Moo Youngs were "eliminated because they had lost Colombian drug money," according to one drug trafficker quoted in the defense motion.
Prosecutors, however, objected to reopening the case saying the defense motion was based on "hearsay and inadmissible evidence."
The defense has submitted fingerprints for three Colombians for comparison with 19 unmatched fingerprints found at the crime scene.
Under Florida law, overturning a jury's verdict, especially after so many years, requires an exceptionally high standard of evidence.
The judge noted in Thursday's ruling that the new evidence "must be of such a nature that it would probably produce an acquittal on retrial."
But in his ruling, Thomas also said he was not "opining on the merits of the evidence" or "Maharaj's ability to establish his right to a new trial."
The evidence in the case currently on record "does not conclusively refute all of Mr. Maharaj's claims," he wrote.
The case has drawn significant media attention, with a book written by one of Maharaj's lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith. It is also due to be featured in July on the CNN documentary series, "Death Row Stories."
The case is State of Florida v Krishna Maharaj F86-030610.
Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson, editing by G Crosse