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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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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.

About The Author

James Robinson

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