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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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Page 4 of 6

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.

About The Author

James Robinson

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