It's the early 90s. Young people are watching MTV, their parents Twin Peaks. Maurice Caldwell is 22 years old and lives in the Alemany projects in Bernal Heights, on the same streets where he grew up. He works in an industrial warehouse in Hayward and likes to hang out with his friends.
But, he admits today, he was also a troublemaker. “I wasn't a choir boy,” says Caldwell. “I sold drugs, from time to time.” And, from time to time, he’d come in contact with police.
So when Caldwell was picked up by police and taken to the county jail on 850 Bryant Street in the morning hours one day in September 1990, he thought nothing of it. Until he learned that he was accused of murder.
On June 30, 1990, on the 900 block of Ellsworth Street in the Alemany projects, a man named Judy Acosta was murdered near a car. Police found one woman who witnessed the killing as she stood at her apartment window. When police first questioned her, she told them that the shooters “do not live around here” and she didn’t “know their names.”
Two weeks later, police returned with a picture of the woman’s neighbor, Maurice Caldwell. According to what was later presented at trial, the woman identified Caldwell as the shooter, and said she’d seen him standing under a streetlight when Acosta was shot. Whether the streetlight is even visible from the woman’s window became a big question, but not until many years later. At the trial, no one questioned her testimony, and Caldwell was disappointed with his lawyer. “I had a so-called lawyer,” Caldwell recalls. “He was totally ineffective, totally. He didn't do anything.”
The prosecutor, Al Giannini, was an assistant district attorney in San Francisco at the time. He says it’s not surprising the witness changed her story. Nor did he hide that fact at trial. “I think it's just a sort of apparent inconsistency that happens when people describe things, but if you talk with them a little bit, it's clear that they mean the same thing,” says Al Giannini.
Giannini stands by the witness, Mary Cobbs, to this day. “It is my personal opinion that Mary Cobbs was an entirely credible witness. And certainly the jury accepted it and she was very compelling,” Caldwell says. “I think if you had seen her or met her, anybody would immediately dismiss the idea that she was fabricating. And it was just extraordinarily unlikely that she was mistaken because of the circumstances.”
Caldwell’s trial for first-degree murder proceeded quickly. What would usually be a year’s worth of preparation was condensed into six months. “They didn't take the time it needed. They just wanted to get away with my character – a bad character – and that was all that was gonna lead to the conviction,” Caldwell says today.
Two weeks after the trial ended, then 23-year-old Maurice Caldwell was locked up at San Quentin state prison. “I had 27 years to life. That means, when they say ‘to life’, that could mean the entire life,” Caldwell explains.
But Caldwell wasn’t going to let his life pass by. Unlike other inmates, who hung out in the yard, made acquaintances, and started to build a life for themselves in prison, Caldwell became a self-styled student of the law. “They got bingo nights, sports, games, working programs… I didn’t want to do none of that. All I wanted to do was to deal with the law,” says Caldwell. He asked himself why he was in there. “It was many a night just wondering what was going on and then just hoping they would open the door and let me out,” he recalls.
Caldwell wrote letters to attorneys all over the country, trying to convince them of his innocence. After 17 years in prison, he finally got an answer. It was from Paige Kaneb, a laywer with the Northern California Innocence Project. She went through thousands of pages of the trial transcript, scrutinizing all the facts surrounding the one witness who testified. The witness, Kaneb says, “went from saying, ‘They don't live around here and I don't know their nicknames’ to ‘it’s Twan, who lives next door to me.’” Immediately, Kaneb saw a problem.
Paige Kaneb had a list of dozens of people who had lived in the area and might have seen something. She searched for them one by one and eventually found one person who had been out there that night almost 20 years earlier, and could help her find two other witnesses. “Both of them told us who the two real shooters were,” says Kaneb. “For both of them it was the first time they ever seen anyone get shot and killed so it stood out of something in their minds.”
Kaneb says that unlike the police, she was careful about jostling the witnesses’ memories. “I interviewed them separately. They hadn't spoken to each other. None of them had spoken to Maurice or the guy who confessed, who is now in prison for another murder.”
But it was hard to get the different parts of the court system to understand the importance of seeking justice both for Caldwell and the murder victim’s family, says Kaneb. Kaneb says it was an impossible process. “I kept thinking that at some point, someone was going to care about who really did this, who really killed this guy. It was like they didn't care at all.”
The whole process of overturning Caldwell’s conviction took more than three years, during which his mother died.
Eventually, Caldwell was released from prison. A judge found that Caldwell’s defense attorney had been incompetent and overturned his conviction. While Caldwell and Kaneb believe justice has been served, Giannini’s disappointed with the outcome. He says the reasons for Caldwell’s release have “nothing to do with guilt or innocence.”
On March 28, 2011, Caldwell walked out of custody, met up with his sister and his lawyers, and went to his favorite restaurant: McDonalds.
“I'll always remember that day,” Caldwell says. He has a photo on his phone of a smiling just-freed face. But it was a bitter day as well. He says he would have liked to hug his mother and grandmother – and prove to them that he wasn’t guilty of murder.
Caldwell is not a rarity. He’s just one of hundreds of former inmates whose convictions have been overturned after spending years in prison. Now, Caldwell is working on his case, hoping to prove not only that he had a mistrial, but he’s factually innocent. He’s hoping to sue the state and get compensation for the time he served.