To trust a kidnapper, or not to trust a kidnapper? That is the question it seems jurors will have to wrestle with in the largest international hostage taking case to reach an American court this decade.
More than three years after the first arrests were made in the case, prosecutors and defense lawyers finally met this morning for opening arguments in the trial of seven men accused of abducting Balram Maharaj, a naturalized American citizen who died while being held hostage in his native Trinidad.
As she stood before the jury in the courtroom of Judge John Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Miller called it a trial about "greed, conspiracy, and the slow agonizing death of an American citizen." In turn, defense attorney Jonathan Zucker attempted to paint the government's star witness — one of the alleged kidnappers — as a "pathological liar."
In April 2005, while visiting friends and relatives in Trinidad, Maharaj was kidnapped by a group of men and held for $500,000 ransom. Investigators believe he died of a diabetic coma as he was held captive in a remote forest hideaway. His corpse was chopped up and buried.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, which prosecutes foreigners who kidnap Americans abroad, has been investigating in the case since 2006. One of the 13 alleged conspirators was acquitted during his solo trial in 2007. But four men, including two of the plot’s alleged ringleaders, have already pleaded guilty to their involvement in the crime, and are scheduled to testify.
In remarks that lasted nearly an hour, Miller unfurled a tense, step-by-step description of the crime, holding up her wrists and passing a hand over her lips as she described how Maharaj was bound and gagged. She rolled out the prosecution’s theory that Maharaj’s former lover, who is still in custody in Trinidad, hatched the plan, then hired on one of the defendant’s to organize and execute it. From there, Miller said, the conspiracy grew.
Several of the defendants, Miller said, were hardened criminals who had taken hostages before. Though none of them were ever charged or convicted for the crimes, prosectuors are hoping that the testimony of former victims will show that the men were essentially professional kidnappers.
“It was not a mistake that some of these men became part of Balram Maharaj’s kidnapping,” Miller said.
Zucker and Steven Kiersh both made opening statements on behalf of the seven men on trial. Acknowledging the brutality of the crime, Zucker asked the jury to ignore the act itself and to focus largely on the credibility of one witness: Jason Percival, an alleged ringleader of the plot who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.
He described Percival as an “accomplished liar” and “masterful manipulator,” who attempted to dodge a mandatory life sentence, took a plea bargain and named innocent men in his confession to minimize his own role. The three other witnesses who had pleaded guilty, Zucker said, simply signed onto the script.
"In this trial you're going to learn something you already know: People lie to avoid consequences," Zucker said. "If you put a gun to their heads, they will tell you anything to save their life."
Of course, the defense will also have to contend with the fact that five clients allegedly confessed to their crimes in Trinidad. On that front, Zucker attacked the record keeping of the Trinidad police — they write down confession statements instead of recording them — and asked the jury to keep an open mind.
The trial is expected to last at least month. See the National Law Journal's last story about the case here.