Maurice Caldwell illustration
Illustration by Molly Oleson

On March 28, 2011, Maurice Caldwell walked out of San Francisco County Jail at 850 Bryant St. after spending more than 20 years incarcerated for a murder that another man eventually confessed to committing. A judge overturned Caldwell’s conviction, and his first steps of freedom were imbued with seemingly infinite promise.

These days, however, Caldwell, now 53, is hardly a free man. He’s broke and unable to work because of enduring injuries he sustained in prison. He collects disability, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento and does what he can to contribute to the livelihood of his three young children.

He does not go out at night — afraid that, as a Black man, he might find himself in the same position as he did 30 years ago: accused and wrongfully convicted of a crime.

“I’m barely surviving, but I’m surviving,” Caldwell told Mission Local.

Now, Caldwell is seeking compensation through a civil lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department for its alleged wrongdoing in putting him behind bars for two decades. Yet the one thing that Caldwell did gain with the overturning of his conviction — the presumption of his innocence — is not his to claim in the eyes of San Francisco’s government.

In defending the SFPD, the San Francisco City Attorney is actively fighting in court to maintain that Caldwell remains guilty of murdering a man named Judy Acosta in 1990 in the Alemany Projects and wounding a second man, Domingo Bobila. 

No matter that a judge overturned Caldwell’s conviction 10 years ago and the charges against him were dropped. No matter that there is no new evidence. No matter that another man, Marritte Funches, confessed to the murder in detail and identified his accessory as a man other than Caldwell. In its defense of the city and the SFPD, the City Attorney presses its accusation: Caldwell murdered Acosta and wounded Bobila. 

“The presumption of innocence has no place in a civil trial,” argued Meredith Osborn, the chief trial deputy at the City Attorney’s office, in a motion filed on July 14. The next hearing takes place on Aug. 27, and the city is attempting to prevent Caldwell’s case — already eight years in court — from going to trial on March 15, 2021.

The City Attorney’s accusation against Caldwell is explicit and central to its defense. John Coté, a City Attorney spokesman, stated flatly: “Caldwell was not exonerated.” 

That’s counterintuitive — but there is no hard and fast legal definition of “exonerated.” Although Caldwell’s conviction was overturned and he is listed in the National Registry of Exonerations, a panel of California Court of Appeal judges in 2018 ruled that Caldwell had failed to refute “compelling evidence” that he pulled the trigger — a ruling that the City Attorney holds up as proof of Caldwell’s guilt.

Because when a Superior Court judge in 2010 overturned Caldwell’s conviction, that alone didn’t entitle him to state compensation for his years of incarceration. For that, he needed to proactively prove his innocence — a nigh-impossible task that the Court of Appeal spurned.

This Kafkaesque situation — Caldwell being mired in a purgatory of neither “factual” innocence nor guilt — is typical among exonerees in California. 

And while Caldwell’s legal standing is ambiguous, the City Attorney’s claims are not. “On June 30, 1990,” Osborn wrote in a June 1 filing, “Caldwell and an accomplice shot and killed Judy Acosta … at the Alemany Housing Projects in San Francisco during a botched drug buy. Acosta’s friend Domingo Bobila was also shot by Caldwell, but he survived his wounds.” 

And this is typical, too. Times have changed, but this has not: In the last 20 years in San Francisco, five men, including Caldwell — all Black and from the San Francisco projects — have been cleared of murder charges. Nevertheless, the City Attorney has aggressively fought all of their claims that SFPD officers fabricated or withheld evidence, failed to properly investigate the murders, or that the department’s culture nurtured this behavior. 

And, in all five of these cases, the City Attorney has either implicitly or explicitly maintained these men were guilty of murder, according to both the attorneys who represented the exonerees during their civil cases as well as court documents. In every instance, the City Attorney’s arguments held that, despite the exonerations, San Francisco’s police force acted properly in pursuing murder cases against these men.   

Police officers rarely face legal consequences, and so the culture never changes, Caldwell’s attorneys said. A big reason for this traces back to the aggressive legal defense they’re provided by government lawyers.

“The City and the SFPD simply refuse to admit their mistakes,” said Terry Gross, Caldwell’s lawyer in his civil suit against the city. “Even when the evidence shows that they obtained a conviction by manipulation, discrimination, the withholding of exculpatory evidence — they still refuse to admit that their failure, and instead continue to claim that the wrongfully convicted person is still guilty.” 

In most of the cases, the city’s lawyers also fought vigorously for the court to grant the allegedly involved police officers “qualified immunity,” a controversial legal doctrine that protects government employees — most notably, police — from civil rights lawsuits and an often-used tactic to bury claims of police misconduct.

Of the four concluded cases preceding Caldwell’s, all of the exonerated men were eventually compensated millions of dollars from the City of San Francisco for police and prosecutors’ role in their wrongful convictions. Only one case — brought by Jamal Trulove — went to trial. In April 2018, a jury awarded Trulove $10 million. 

Each of these awards, however, was won only after all-out legal war with the city. Caldwell has been fighting this battle since he filed his lawsuit in 2012. 

“In the present atmosphere,” Gross said, referring to the national reckoning over law enforcement, “the City and the SFPD needs to confront the system racism that infects their processes, and come to a reconciliation with the people who truly are the victims of the SFPD’s improper processes — the wrongfully convicted.”  

Caldwell in Legal Limbo

Like most exonerated men and women in California, Caldwell remains in legal limbo — not guilty, but technically not innocent in the eyes of the government agencies who would be liable to compensate Caldwell for the decades he lost in prison.

“We don’t just compensate people for the mere fact that they were wrongfully convicted — which should be enough,” said Paige Kaneb, the supervising attorney at the Northern California Innocence Project.

Kaneb and the Innocence Project helped Caldwell overturn his conviction in 2010, presenting nearly a dozen witnesses — including Marritte Funches’ confession of the murder and his identification of another man as his accomplice — and debunking the testimony of the prosecution’s central witness, Mary Cobbs.

Despite what Kaneb described as a “mountain of evidence,” Caldwell’s conviction was overturned solely on the basis that Caldwell’s defense attorney failed to find and present those witnesses. Such decisions — convictions overturned on legal technicalities — are the most common. The judge stopped short of agreeing that Caldwell completely proved he was “actually innocent.” 

Then-District Attorney Kamala Harris recharged Caldwell, but ultimately opted to drop the case due to a lack of evidence.

Once his conviction was overturned, Caldwell had several legal options to pursue in obtaining some redress: getting a panel of judges to attest to his factual innocence, presenting his case for compensation before the state compensation board and filing a civil lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department.

To receive state compensation, Kaneb said, an exoneree must prove his or her “factual innocence,” an exceedingly difficult task without unassailable evidence — which is rarely available.

“Some people have the good fortune of being on camera, or being with people who are impeccable witnesses who aren’t their family members,” she said. “But most of us are at home with loved ones, or alone most of the time — and so we can’t prove our innocence.”

“It’s proving a negative,” she explained. Which is nearly impossible. 

The Night of the Crime 

On June 30, 1990, four men drove into the Alemany projects to buy crack cocaine. Those men — Eric Aguirre, Judy Acosta, Domingo Bobila and Dominador Viray — pulled up on Ellsworth Street at around 2 a.m., got out of the car and tried to make an exchange with the dealers. 

Although accounts vary about how the incident escalated, a man named Marritte Funches, as he later confessed, shot Acosta in the chest with a revolver. Bobila got back into the car and pulled Acosta into the back seat. The two other men scattered on foot. Bobila heard more shots as he drove away. 

Acosta died almost instantly and Bobila was seriously injured by shotgun pellets. 

None of the three surviving men — Aguirre, Bobila, and Viray — could positively identify Caldwell as a shooter that night, however. And no physical evidence linked him to the crime. 

Yet over the course of their investigation, the police eventually focused on Caldwell. Police and prosecutors alleged that he was the shotgun shooter, an accusation that relied solely on the testimony of one witness, Mary Cobbs, who claimed she saw the entire incident from her window. 

Based on her testimony, a jury found Caldwell guilty of second-degree murder, attempted murder, and felony discharge of a firearm. They sentenced him to 27 years to life in prison. 

Twenty years later, a judge overturned Caldwell’s conviction. 

The Northern California Innocence project obtained the account of an eyewitness who was never called to the stand, as well as Funches’ confession that he shot Acosta. Funches said his friend — whom he later identified as Henry Martin — fired the shotgun. Caldwell, Funches said under oath, was not present for the shooting. (Martin has denied he was the shotgun shooter.) 

The innocence project also cited major inconsistencies in Cobbs’ testimony and showed she was incentivized to implicate Caldwell with promises of being moved out of the projects. 

With these findings, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charles Haines overturned Caldwell’s conviction on the grounds that his defense attorney was ineffective in gathering and presenting this evidence. The latter, he found, would have provided Caldwell a fair trial. Haines, however, never declared Caldwell “factually innocent,” stating he “need not” rule on that matter, given his ruling on the ineffectiveness of Caldwell’s counsel. 

Caldwell and “factual innocence”

To receive a state compensation award, Caldwell and other exonerees must prove that they are “factually innocent,” which can only be granted through a so-called “finding of factual innocence.”

Such a finding, under California law, guarantees an exoneree compensation from the California Victim Compensation Board. 

Lacking that clear finding when Haines overturned his conviction, Caldwell went back to the judge in 2015 for an innocence finding. Haines denied his request in May 2016. The judge sided with the District Attorney, then George Gascón, whose prosecutors argued against Caldwell’s claim. The judge cited inconsistencies in evidence presented by Caldwell.  

Caldwell’s attorneys appealed that decision.

Relying heavily on the testimony that Caldwell alleges in his current civil lawsuit was coerced by police, a panel of appellate judges in December 2018 upheld Haines’ denial of the factual innocence motion. They found that Caldwell failed to prove that he did not shoot the shotgun that contributed to the death of Acosta and injured Bobila.

“The post-conviction evidence does not refute compelling evidence that Caldwell fired the shotgun,” stated the appellate decision. The “post-conviction evidence” being the 10 witnesses Caldwell presented during the proceeding to overturn his conviction, including the confession by Funches. 

The “compelling evidence” that Caldwell fired the shotgun rests on the following scenario: that Caldwell ran out of a house where he was staying after Funches fired the first shots, that another man who first fired the shotgun then passed it to Caldwell, who then also fired at Acosta and Bobila’s car. 

The judges said this was supported by two of Caldwell’s alibi witnesses telling investigators that they saw Caldwell run out of their house, shirtless, after the shots were fired. 

Cobbs, the eyewitness whose testimony was debunked in the hearing overturning Caldwell’s conviction, as well as the man whom Funches alleges fired the shotgun — Henry Martin — both said the shotgun shooter was not wearing a shirt. Another witness, Maurice Tolliver, said he saw Martin pass the shotgun to a taller, unidentified man. 

The judges concluded, “The evidence supporting Caldwell’s contention that he was not the shotgun shooter is eclipsed by the evidence of his role in the murder. … Caldwell did not prove his innocence by a preponderance of evidence.” 

Caldwell’s lawyers disagree. 

The evidence initially presented to free Caldwell suggests that Mary Cobbs’ testimony is, essentially, worthless. The Innocence Project cited numerous inconsistencies in Cobbs’ testimony: in how many shots she saw and heard the night of the crime; in where the shooters had been standing, and from which directions the bullets hit the car. The diagram that Cobbs drew of the incident was inconsistent with the diagrams drawn by the other onlookers at the scene, which all matched.  

Although she knew Caldwell had been her next-door neighbor, she initially told police that the shooters were not from the area and she didn’t know their names. 

Moreover, Caldwell alleges that Cobbs’ testimony was coerced by police. One officer showed up at Cobbs’ door with Caldwell in handcuffs as another detective interviewed Cobbs, an allegedly “suggestive” ploy for an identification. Nevertheless, Cobbs initially failed to identify Caldwell as a participant in the shooting. 

The detectives told Cobbs they’d move her out of the projects if she identified a killer and felt threatened by doing so. They also asked her leading questions during an interview and photo lineup two weeks later. And several months after she identified Caldwell at trial, the SFPD’s witness program gave her and her children a round-trip to Disneyland. 

Moreover, 10 witnesses have since stated under oath that Caldwell is innocent. Although some saw Caldwell run toward the shooting to see what happened, they said this happened after the gunfire had stopped. Others present for the shooting said Caldwell did not fire a gun. 

And Tolliver, the witness who said that he saw the shotgun passed to another, taller man, emphasized that man was not Caldwell. Caldwell, incidentally, stands 5-foot-5.

I don’t know how anyone can say the evidence of innocence doesn’t outweigh the evidence of” guilt, said Kaneb of the Innocence Project. 

Nevertheless, the appellate ruling reyling on Cobbs’ testimony effectively barred Caldwell from collecting more than $1 million from the state’s Victim Compensation Board last October — $140 for each of the 7,494 days he was wrongfully in prison. 

Caldwell, the board concluded, did not meet the “burden of proving his innocence.” The compensation board, however, was careful not to call Caldwell guilty, as the City Attorney has done.

“None of these pieces of evidence show guilt but they raise further hurdles for Caldwell to show his innocence,” Kevin Kwong, a California Victim Compensation Board hearing officer wrote in his conclusion.

Caldwell is appealing the decision.

The need to prove one’s innocence “ignores all of the reasons for the presumption of innocence, including the most fundamental one that the vast majority of innocent people cannot prove their innocence,” Kaneb said. 

“The police could have framed any San Franciscan for this murder” by having a person like Mary Cobbs falsely identify them, “and the vast majority of San Franciscans would not be able to present evidence of innocence that would have been found to outweigh that.”

As of publication, 46 claims of California exonerees have been granted while 76 have been denied, according to state records.  

Caldwell’s main redress is now the civil lawsuit scheduled for a new pre-trial hearing on Aug. 27.  

In that hearing, the City Attorney will fight to maintain that Caldwell is guilty of murder. 

Part 2: The civil lawsuit and the case against the San Francisco Police Department that the City Attorney is fighting. 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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