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The Man Who Returned: Trying to Build a Life After 20 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment 

Wednesday, Oct 16 2013

Cover photo by Kimberly Sandie.

Maurice Caldwell looked out the door of the San Francisco County Jail toward Bryant Street, to a city he hadn't walked as a free man for 20 years, six months and eight days. He wanted to run.

It was Monday, March 28, 2011. Caldwell's conviction had been overturned in December and the city's plan to retry him had finally fallen apart the previous Friday. It had been an agonizing weekend, waiting for the California Department of Corrections to process his release. Today he was getting out.

His attorneys, Linda Starr and Paige Kaneb from the Northern California Innocence Project, paced nervously outside 850 Bryant, joined by a small group of Caldwell's family and friends as well as a gathering pack of journalists. For 7,494 days of a life sentence, Caldwell centered his world on the idea that one day his innocence would be known and he would get to come home. But now that it was happening, he couldn't quite believe it.

He wasn't shackled as he was led out of his cell at the San Bruno County Jail that morning — given the Hannibal Lecter treatment, as he joked. He was driven to 850 Bryant. He was given street clothes to change into. It still didn't feel real. He was paid the money he had on his books. The guards opened the door to the final hallway, the visitor's entrance, and dropped back. He saw light.

He hadn't been free since just after his 23rd birthday, a kid from Alemany Projects in San Francisco with a Jheri Curl and a chip on his shoulder. He was 43 now, a little heavier set, his short hair and beard now tinged with gray.

Out on the street, the first person he saw was his sister. There was a blur of hugs. A camera was thrust into his face and Caldwell was asked how he felt toward the family of the murdered man, Judy Acosta, for whom he'd spent two decades in prison. He expressed sympathy, for they'd been wronged too.

"After all these years, they thought they had justice, but it wasn't. It was un-served justice and it's still un-served justice," Caldwell said to the assembled media.

Caldwell's friend Rick Walker, a fellow exoneree, said he'd take him anywhere in town he wanted to eat, no matter the price. Caldwell chose McDonald's. He'd seen countless new restaurants on TV in prison, but he knew what that Big Mac tasted like. He'd been thinking about it.

It was the start of a brief period of Caldwell's life he would think of as "Tony the Tiger" great.

But the elation was short-lived. Caldwell had lost his youth. Twenty years of hard labor had left him with serious back problems. He walked out with no more than he'd walked in with. Less. Born to an incarcerated father, in a part of the city much of San Francisco chooses to forget about, subject to a murder charge that there was now good proof he had nothing do with, he would have to fight the same people to get his life back who had put him away.

In 1990, he was innocent until proven guilty, but now that the city could no longer establish that guilt, he remained guilty until proven innocent.

Caldwell never did finish that Big Mac. The surprise of it all ­— lawyers, family, friends, sitting in a McDonald's in Potrero Hill — was too overwhelming.

Sitting in a small one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Sacramento in the summer of 2013, memories haunt Maurice Caldwell — both his own and the misremembered recollections that cost him two decades of his life.

Telling his life story, and talking about the people he sees as having wronged him, Caldwell is prone to pace about. He is animated because things have happened to him that no one could walk off. But it's also because following 20 years in prison, he's carrying old injuries; sitting can hurt.

In 1990, a man was shot dead following a drug deal in the Alemany Projects. Caldwell went to jail for murder. When he was released from prison in 2011, he was a man thrust into an unfamiliar world.

Commuting to one of the jobs he's had since his release, Caldwell remembers having to have his sister teach him how to pay for parking at a BART station. But once inside, he didn't know how much money to put in the machine for his ticket or how to work it. He says that the people he asked for help thought he was going to scam them.

Caldwell has a lot of stories like that.

The first half of his life, in the Alemany Projects, imperfect and flawed as it may seem in retrospect, forms the majority of his memories as a free man.

"Me growing up in there, them are the memories I still have. Them memories are vivid," Caldwell says, his AC blaring to keep out the scorching Sacramento heat.

Known simply as Lil' Twone, Maurice Antoine Caldwell was born on Aug. 17, 1967, and before his first birthday his father was in prison, having killed a police officer following a gas station robbery. Alemany Projects were a small city housing development sandwiched between the I-280 freeway and a hill. There was not much there but a community center, a small park, and a basketball court.

Members of Caldwell's father's extended family would pick him and his older sister Debbie up for prison visits. These trips made an indelible impression on him as a kid: He remembers the atmosphere as a free-for-all, people having sex in full view. "You got everything going on in their visiting room and the police are there and the police are with it," he says.

Growing up in Alemany, Caldwell says, was good. He was happy. He could stand in one spot and point to where both friends and family lived. When his mother moved to Oakland in 1976 with a boyfriend Caldwell didn't like, he stayed in Alemany and lived with his grandmother.

Caldwell was free to roam the neighborhood as a young boy. It was safer then. As young as 9 or 10 he carried bags at Safeway and cleaned lanes at a local bowling alley. He put the money toward a pair of Bruce Lee-styled yellow-and-black shoes.

The prison visits opened up Caldwell's eyes early to certain realities of Alemany. "I was able to start putting puzzles together, you know. Like, ooh, that's a nice car. I want a car like that. ... How did he have that car? What did he work? No, he sold [drugs]," he says.

Caldwell knew he didn't want to end up like his father in prison, but it was hard to walk the right path.

At 14, Caldwell broke into an empty house with some friends and ransacked it. One of them got caught and named names. It was Caldwell's first run-in with the California Youth Authority. He was out at the end of 1983, now 16, but was soon back in trouble. He was sent to the reform school Preston Castle in Amador County for burglary and violating his juvenile parole, where due to behavioral issues he was kept until the day before his 21st birthday, the maximum allowable time.

Caldwell had a habit of getting the maximum, even as a young man. His family was convinced that it was because he was carrying his father's last name, he says.

While Caldwell was away, Alemany took a harsh turn. Anthony Reed, a friend of his from childhood, says the arrival of crack cocaine put dollar signs in people's eyes, people who weren't used to making a lot of money. The open-air drug trade that developed made San Francisco territorial, with strict lines drawn between Western Addition, Hunter's Point, Potrero Hill, and Bayview.

It was like a poison to Alemany. Once a small, tight-knit community, it began falling apart: Buildings crumbled, graffiti appeared, and worse.

"People started losing their lives," Reed says.

At 21, back in Alemany, Caldwell moved into a unit with Betty Jean Tyler at 949 Ellsworth St. Tyler was like an older sister to Caldwell, but had battled addiction while he had been away. Caldwell split his time between her apartment and his grandmother's house on the other side of the freeway.

Caldwell had been back in Alemany for a little less than two years when early on a Saturday morning, the last day of June in 1990, a few violent minutes changed the course of his life.

According to court testimony, four friends — Judy Acosta, Domingo Bobila, Eric Aguirre, and Dominador Virray — made a trip to the Alemany Projects, after a night's drinking, to purchase crack.

The four of them pulled up in Bobila's black Toyota Supra outside a block of houses on Ellsworth Street in Alemany around 2:40 a.m. A handful of people converged on them and Bobila and Acosta tried to purchase two rocks of crack cocaine, while the other two friends held back.

Bobila and Acosta were told they didn't have enough money and the situation quickly went bad. Someone struck Bobila, knocking him down. A shot was fired. Acosta was wounded. Aguirre and Virray ran. Amid the chaos, Bobila dragged Acosta into the backseat of his car, which was sprayed with shotgun fire as it drove away.

Acosta was declared dead soon after.

As Caldwell told police and anyone else who would listen for the next 20 years, he was smoking pot with a girl, Tina McCullum, in an upstairs room at his uncle's girlfriend's house near the scene of the crime. After the shooting stopped, he went out the back door, which looked toward Ellsworth Street, and ran to see what had happened. He was shirtless, dressed in only sweatpants. Deborah Rodriguez, his uncle's girlfriend, saw him and followed him out.

Out on the street that evening, Caldwell says, the word was that a deal had gone bad and a man named Marritte Funches had shot a man with a handgun, while an associate had opened fire with a shotgun as the car drove away. Funches and Caldwell had once been friends, but Funches' increasingly violent behavior had started to make a lot of people uncomfortable.

Police made slow headway into investigating the crime. Detectives were on the scene that evening for several hours, but according to the inspectors' log it was not until July 13, almost two weeks later, when the area was again canvassed, when veteran homicide inspector Art Gerrans reported to Alemany with narcotics officer Kitt Crenshaw.

Caldwell had appeared suddenly and mysteriously on the police radar the day before, after an anonymous tip had been phoned into the Ingleside police station, received by the station captain himself, announcing that investigators should "check out a Maurice Caldwell" and that he had been "shooting off guns in the projects at Alemany and Ellsworth for years."

Gerrans knocked on the door of Mary Cobbs, a reserved 28-year-old woman with two young sons, whose house sat next to the crime scene. She'd recently been moved down the hill into Alemany — next-door to where Caldwell was living with Tyler — while her old house was being renovated. She never spoke to anybody, Caldwell remembers.

According to a transcript of their interview, Cobbs told Gerrans that she had been woken up by the noise that night and saw two shooters, side by side, standing under a streetlight, firing away. She had seen the shooters before. She didn't know their names, but they were not from Alemany.

As Cobbs was giving this taped statement, Caldwell was driving back into the neighborhood. He parked and was cuffed without explanation by Crenshaw, he says. Crenshaw knocked on Cobbs' door with Caldwell in tow. Caldwell says that he thought he was being led to his own house next door. Gerrans answered Cobbs' door. Caldwell says he and Cobbs saw each other and that Crenshaw announced him by name. Crenshaw asked for Gerrans' keys to his squad car, where he interrogated Caldwell about the murder and let him go shortly after.

Crenshaw's interruption, potentially exposing the only suspect in a murder to the only witness, is acknowledged on the transcript of the tape.

But Cobbs was now pegged as a witness. She claimed to have received threats and later said that Caldwell told her he was going to kill her and her family, which Caldwell denies.

Despite having nothing revealing from Cobbs and only an anonymous tip to work with, the investigation never looked past Caldwell. There is no record of any effort to find Marritte Funches.

On July 26, 1990, Cobbs etched a version of events that would put Caldwell away for 20 years.

That day, Cobbs picked Caldwell's photo out of a lineup as the man she saw with a shotgun outside her window. She referenced him by name.

The next day, paperwork had been filed to move Cobbs out of Alemany. For her bravery, she received a Medal of Merit from San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and an all-expense-paid trip from United Airlines to Disneyland for her and her sons.

When her move was complete in September, a warrant was issued for Caldwell's arrest.

Caldwell says that the influence of Crenshaw, with whom he had a history, has never sat right with him.

The two of them had first met less than two years earlier, around Halloween in 1988, when Crenshaw raided the low-rent Amazon Hotel in the Mission, where Caldwell was staying with a girlfriend, the daughter of a drug kingpin.

Caldwell and Crenshaw would tangle often. Not that Caldwell made things easy on himself. He held down jobs, but also sold drugs and on occasion shot streetlights out for fun. He seemed to infuriate local cops, driving around town in a canary yellow Cadillac Seville, without insurance or a license. He was arrested frequently throughout 1989 and early 1990, but the charges would always be dropped. He'd go to the station after he was raided to reclaim confiscated cash, he says.

It was an uneasy battle of wits between Crenshaw and Caldwell. Late on the evening of Jan. 24, 1990, Caldwell says tensions between the two exploded. Caldwell was shooting out streetlights in Alemany with friends, unaware that police were watching from up on the hill.

Caldwell soon had an angry Crenshaw upon him. But he pled ignorance. He'd snuck the gun back into his house.

According to a written complaint Caldwell filed two days later, Crenshaw grew impatient and assaulted him. The complaint says that he drove Caldwell, handcuffed, to a dark lot in Bayview. He told him he was going to kill him if he didn't tell him where the gun was, and then allegedly choked him. Caldwell played along but when they returned to Alemany he screamed for help. Two days later, the Office of Citizen Complaints in San Francisco documented his injuries.

Crenshaw would rise to be a commander of the San Francisco Police Department. In his career he attracted controversy and accolades at a steady rate.

A mother filed suit against him in July 1988, alleging that Crenshaw and other officers mistakenly burst into her home in Bayview, detained her and her 11-year-old son for an hour, and held a shotgun to his head.

In 1998, the San Francisco Bay Guardian detailed a police raid overseen by Crenshaw, then a lieutenant in the SFPD narcotics division. Ninety police officers stormed a housing complex in Western Addition, blowing doors open with shotguns, separating kids as young as 6 from their parents. There were reports of grandmothers being held at gunpoint and a pit bull being shot by police.

"The raid went off, more or less, without a hitch," Crenshaw said at the time.

Caldwell's trial stretched over nine days in March 1991.

Assistant District Attorney Al Giannini's opening statement set the tone for the trial. He mentioned the projects, crack cocaine and the frequent violence. "You probably already know the story just from your common sense and experience," he said.

The prosecution had its story: Mary Cobbs was an altruistic hero, Maurice Caldwell the murderous thug. Giannini acknowledged that without Cobbs they wouldn't be here.

"Most of the young men like Caldwell... mostly what they do is hang out, use cocaine, fight, shoot their guns in the air, make life miserable for the people who do live there," Giannini said.

The prosecution argued that Cobbs did not initially identify the shooter as having lived in the neighborhood because Caldwell had no legal residence there. At the time of her first interview, she really didn't know Caldwell's name.

Caldwell's attorney, Craig Martin, meanwhile, was ill-equipped to fight for Caldwell's version of events. He would later concede that he never hired an investigator, which was standard practice, and never examined Cobbs' supposed vantage point of the crime scene. Martin's defense for Caldwell consisted of three people: his roommate, Betty Jean Tyler; his uncle's girlfriend, Deborah Rodriguez; and Alice Caruthers, a friend of his who had seen the shooting before running away.

Tyler testified that Caldwell lived with him, next door to Cobbs, which should've invalidated Cobbs' claim that the supposed shooters weren't from the area. Giannini insinuated that she was afraid of Caldwell.

Rodriguez's testimony that Caldwell was upstairs at the time in her house was questioned because of her family connection to Caldwell. And Caruthers was forced to admit to having used crack in the past. Giannini successfully exploited the fact that any witness from Alemany, where drug use and criminal records are a part of life, had an immediate credibility bias.

Caldwell was found guilty of second-degree murder, attempted murder, and shooting at an inhabited vehicle. He was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. He says he began to cry in front of the full court.

"I never thought I'd be found guilty. If you is innocent, you don't think about having to prove that you didn't do something."

In the middle of 2013, Caldwell spends his days mostly at home, watching TV. Money is extremely tight. Unannounced visitors make him nervous. He likes to control who he sees and when. He goes to therapy to talk through his resentments about what happened; he has lost trust in a system that others take for granted.

Caldwell finds himself from time to time looking at the words the State v. Maurice Caldwell on case documents. On darker days, he reads it literally: Everything is against him. Sometimes, Caldwell says, he wonders if he hasn't swapped one sentence for another.

It was a decade in prison before Caldwell found people who wanted to look into the version of events that would free him.

After his conviction, Caldwell was transferred to San Quentin. Over the years, he'd bounce between Folsom State Prison, Sacrament State Prison, and Mule Creek State Prison. He took any option open to move, he says, because mixing up the locations helped him pass time.

In 1993, Henry Martin, who Caldwell believed to be the man with the shotgun, came through San Quentin on a violation. Caldwell was young and angry and says he planned an attack. "I thought, 'Why, if I ever come across one of them, especially in here, will I let him go back free?'"

Caldwell says Martin caught word of his approach and fled. Caldwell ran after him, choosing instead to talk.

"I expect you to let my lawyer know what really happened. If you got to say you was out there, you better do it," Caldwell recalls telling Martin, who has never admitted on record to holding the shotgun.

Martin did later approach Caldwell's appellate lawyer, asking about immunity, which could not be guaranteed. Martin said nothing else.

When that didn't go anywhere, Caldwell began writing letters to anybody he could think of. Copying files and sending case notes out took up much of the money that was placed on his books. Innocence projects — nonprofit legal organizations that dedicate themselves to exonerating wrongfully conflicted prisoners — were less common in the 1990s. He wrote to one in New Jersey, which eventually recommended another in San Diego, which suggested finding one closer to home. After he sent a letter out, the wait for a response was torture.

The years added up. In prison, he made a point of sleeping until 11 a.m. It hurt, waking up after a night with his dreams. He hated the laughter at breakfast in the morning. "It's like, excuse my language, but what the fuck they laughing at?"

In 2001, with Caldwell's appeals exhausted, his sister and her partner hired an experienced private investigator, Beverly Myers. The prevailing story about the case, the one that sent Caldwell to prison, never sat right with Myers, she remembers.

Visiting the crime scene, Myers was shocked to see that Mary Cobbs could not have witnessed what she claimed to. The lamppost she was supposed to have seen the shooters standing under wasn't visible from her bedroom. Bars over the window further restricted the view.

As it had in 1990, the name Marritte Funches kept coming up. People thought he had died.

"Something was wrong," Myers says.

Myers teamed up with Paul Myslin, who had opened up a small innocence project in the San Francisco Public Defender's office and come across Caldwell's case. "The combination of Bev's enthusiasm and how much this all hung on a single eyewitness really stood out," he recalls.

In 2005, the case turned. Myers found Funches. He was alive. He had fled to Reno shortly after the shooting in June 1990 and been sentenced to life without parole for killing a cab driver in March 1991.

Myers and Myslin drove to see Funches. After their visit, Funches wrote to Myers, enclosing a diagram of the crime scene and a written confession.

If Cobbs had looked out the window, she would've recognized him, Funches said. The two knew each other. The second shooter wasn't Caldwell. He wouldn't say who it was, fearing reprisals against his daughter. The man with the shotgun was tucked around the corner of the block of condos Cobbs lived in, out of sight from her window and definitely not next to him as she had claimed.

Separated by 15 years, prison walls, and state lines, Funches had outlined a version of events that closely matched Caldwell's.

Myslin's innocence project closed in 2006. But Caldwell's case was transferred to the Northern California Innocence Project at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

NCIP was started in 2001 as a nonprofit legal clinic affiliated with the university. Caldwell's case was one of the first letters they received, says Linda Starr, NCIP co-founder with Kathleen Ridolfi.

The Acosta murder seemed badly investigated to NCIP, with only one eyewitness, a recipe that plays a part in roughly 75 percent of wrongful convictions — though a case can be badly investigated, Starr says, and still get the right guy. But in this case, there was just nothing to go on.

When Starr saw that Funches had been found alive and had confessed, Caldwell's case had new impetus. She assigned it to Paige Kaneb, a young lawyer with the project who was hired by NCIP straight out of law school.

In June 2008, Funches supplied NCIP with a signed affidavit confessing to the crime. When Kaneb and Starr later visited Funches in Ely, he reiterated what he'd told Myers, the investigator hired by Caldwell's family.

Kaneb, with Myers, hit the ground in Alemany again, looking for eyewitnesses. It was a slow process: It had been 18 years. People had scattered.

Early in 2009, they found Marcus Mendez. Mendez was 14 at the time of the shooting and lived in a house across the courtyard from the shooting. He knew Caldwell from the neighborhood. After the shooting had stopped, he said he looked out his back door and saw Caldwell running toward the scene empty-handed.

Kaneb tracked down Craig Martin, Caldwell's lawyer. He admitted to grievous failings as a defense attorney. A few months later, he was disbarred on a separate matter.

In October, they found Maurice Tolliver, who had been interviewed by police on the morning of the shooting, but never contacted since. He said that he saw Caldwell with a girl that night. He witnessed the shooting and said he saw Funches and Martin fire the guns.

Demetrius Jones came forward and reiterated Tolliver's story. Tina McCullum, the woman Caldwell claimed to have been with when the murder happened, confirmed Caldwell's version of the story.

From Funches' confession, the NCIP had built up a compelling new version of events. All witnesses signed legal affidavits.

The Innocence Project filed a writ of habeas corpus on Caldwell's behalf in February 2009 and slowly added to it throughout the year. It argued that Caldwell's conviction should be vacated due to new evidence, false testimony, ineffective counsel, factual innocence, and procedural errors that violated Caldwell's rights.

In August 2009, the court ordered the city to show cause why his release shouldn't be granted. The San Francisco District Attorney's Office had 30 days. It responded a year later. Caldwell's mother died while he waited.

Four months after that, in December 2010, Judge Charles Haines overturned Caldwell's conviction. He did not touch on the issue of innocence in his ruling.

Judges, NCIP's Linda Starr says, are often reluctant to overturn the will of a jury.

But in the ruling judge's eyes, Caldwell's "trial was unfair and the verdict unreliable," because his lawyer, Martin, had never properly investigated Caldwell's innocence. Had the court heard from the people who had been painstakingly tracked down two decades later, a different verdict could have been reached.

Preparation for a new trial moved quickly in 2011 on both sides. But over 20 years, the city's story had evaporated. Old exhibits had been destroyed. Mary Cobbs had died in 1998.

In 2011, as in 1991, without Cobbs, there was no case. The city wanted an actress to read her testimony in court. On March 25, 2011, this was deemed inadmissible. Three days later, Caldwell was free.

On Caldwell's first night out, he returned to his sister's home in Antioch. He was determined to never return to Alemany. His half-brother Franceil had been murdered there in 2004. He asked his sister's partner, longtime San Francisco bus driver Danny Milton, to teach him how to live in the outside world. Milton agreed to support Caldwell.

"I told them I wasn't going to let anything happen where they could take me away again," Caldwell says.

But freedom alone only took Caldwell so far. Before his first Thanksgiving, he was struck with a toothache. He went to the dentist, but it was going to be $99 just to have a dentist look at the afflicted tooth. He pointed to the tooth he wanted removed. He didn't need a check-up and didn't have much money. The pain was excruciating. The NCIP had to organize free dental care through a board member to get the tooth pulled.

He started to get an appreciation of how uniquely unprepared he was to take care of himself.

Caldwell was a visitor from the past. The first time he'd laid eyes on a cellphone in prison was in 2007. He had only rudimentary computer skills. Kaneb gave him her father's old laptop. He called one day to ask her to remind him how to check his email. She began to explain, but he was lost. He didn't know what the address bar was, or the back button. On another occasion Kaneb gave Caldwell a CD of his exhibits to go over for a suit they were filing. He called her soon after because the disc didn't work. He'd put it in his DVD player.

There was no escape in sight for Caldwell from the stories that were governing his life. He had his truth, the story that freed him, and their truth, the story that locked him away.

Cobbs' death had sped up Caldwell's release in 2011. But with a new trial impossible, the city could claim his release was all luck. The city was free from ever having to consider his side of the story.

"I just think it needs to be clear that there was no finding that this defendant was innocent," said San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Eric Fleming on the day of Caldwell's release.

For the city, it had what it still tried to stress was a sound conviction overturned merely by the convenient excuse of ineffective counsel.

"[Caldwell] has been gaming the system all his life and continues to do so now," says Sean Connolly, a lawyer for the San Francisco City Attorney's office tasked with defending the officers involved. "This is not a case about an innocent man wrongly convicted. This is about a murderer who got off on a technicality."

NCIP disagrees, vehemently. As Starr sees it, "Constitutional rights are not a technicality."

Both sides claim confidence in their version of what happened that night. The Northern California Innocence Project and Caldwell think that the overwhelming weight of the new evidence, against what was suspect testimony from Cobbs, gives them a case of which they are certain.

"Although once you're in front of a jury, it is really anyone's guess," Starr says.

In April 2012, Caldwell, through the NCIP, filed a civil suit for unspecified damages against the City and County of San Francisco, naming former homicide inspectors Art Gerrans, James Crowley, and Kitt Crenshaw, claiming that they'd built a case against Caldwell on the back of an unreliable witness.

Caldwell also filed a compensation claim with the California Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board, requesting the legally mandated $100 a day for time wrongfully served.

For Caldwell, getting compensated isn't about vengeance and it can't make right the time he served for something he says he didn't do. He needs it to build a life and to support a family. His adult life was taken from him, he says. He lost the opportunity to build a life.

Personal injury and tragedy only compounded this. Toward the end of 2011, Caldwell was rocked by the sudden death of his friend Danny Milton, his sister's partner and Caldwell's primary source of financial support.

At the start of 2012, Caldwell got a job at a recycling plant, desperate to take on some of the economic load. At the recycling plant, Caldwell's back, weakened by two decades of physical labor in prison, gave out on him. He had a bulging disc.

Caldwell moved to Sacramento with his girlfriend, Pamela Haynes, and her young daughter. The three of them moved in with his dad in Sacramento, where, after developing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Caldwell found himself unable to work at all.

Caldwell's opponents remain unimpressed.

"I don't know anybody who beat a case on appeal who didn't immediately stand on the courthouse steps and say that it was a terrible miscarriage of justice and could he please have several million dollars," says the case's original prosecutor, Al Giannini, now a semi-retired attorney for the San Mateo District Attorney's Office.

Caldwell got lucky, Giannini thinks. He should walk away. Craig Martin's subsequent disbarring in 2009 had created a "problem in retrospect we couldn't get around."

Tasked with defending the city's coffers in a civil suit and the officers involved (all of whom declined to comment until litigation had been dealt with), Sean Connolly supports Cobbs. She had a bird's-eye view of the crime scene and recalled Caldwell and the shooting with "exacting detail and certainty."

Both Giannini and Connolly concede that it comes down to Cobbs versus the new witnesses. They can't both be telling the truth. The stories of the new witnesses, while displaying small discrepancies, align with Caldwell's alibis presented at trial, naming Marritte Funches as the first shooter and Henry Martin as the man with the shotgun. All the statements raise questions about whether Cobbs could have even seen the second shooter. It tells a story that matches what Caldwell tried to tell officers from the outset.

"The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that Marritte Funches and Henry Martin committed this crime and that Maurice is innocent," says NCIP's Kaneb.

It's put a back-and-forth in play that has no immediate and satisfying resolution.

Connolly, representing the city in civil litigation, says the new testimonies are riddled by inconsistencies.

Tolliver claims that he saw two people fire the shotgun, not one, he says, and contradicts Caldwell's statement in further ways. Both Tolliver and Jones were interviewed by police officers the morning of the murder but claimed then to not see anything.

Kaneb counters that in Alemany there was a difference between cooperating with the police and helping a wrongly convicted friend.

Connolly says that Tolliver and Jones were convicted felons. Funches was in prison. "They have nothing to lose and stature to gain by helping Caldwell," he says.

Kaneb and Starr see this as the city justifying a botched investigation that had a disastrous result. "They can say those things, but it doesn't make them true," Starr says.

In June 2012, Caldwell, with his girlfriend and her child, moved into a small one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento. Caldwell was broke. He was blessed and he had love in his life, he says. But he couldn't go anywhere. He couldn't take care of his family members. His sister was grieving. His uncle who'd raised him was dying. He'd lost his youth. He had no skills.

Resolving his case won't be quick. The California Victims Compensation board, in charge of approving Caldwell's claim of $100 a day, can take years to rule. The civil suit is pending, but it will not be heard anytime soon.

Caldwell has grown frustrated. "I'm struggling, man," he says.

Every day out of prison was a gift, but Caldwell's life had been colored by the murder conviction. For some recognition of what had been done to him, he now had to go up against the same system that took 20 years of his life.

"These people took all this time out of my life. They put me in this situation by snatching me up and putting me right there," he says.

The innocence project set up speaking engagements for Caldwell, which he looked forward to and which gave his life purpose. It empowers him to create a new story of his own, one that can help others. Given a second chance, he wants to do good.

The sad irony for Caldwell is that after all the time the system spent telling him that he needed to take responsibility for his own actions, that same system hasn't acknowledged any of its own mistakes.

At the start of September, Caldwell's girlfriend, Pamela, gave birth to their son, Maurice Armon'i Dawaun Caldwell. They moved into a larger three-bedroom apartment with space for Maurice Jr., Pamela's young daughter, and Caldwell's uncle.

When it comes to his son, Caldwell says he will make sure he grows up with his father there. He knows he won't be able to tell his son to trust the system, though.

"The police cars, they got that 'Protect and Serve' on the side. They don't protect and serve," he says.

"Well, I'm alive I guess, so maybe they can say they protect. But I don't really think so."

About The Author

James Robinson


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