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

Wednesday, Oct 16 2013
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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."

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James Robinson

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