Maurice Caldwell illustration
Illustration by Molly Oleson

The City of San Francisco has reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount in a case brought by Maurice Caldwell, who sued the San Francisco Police Department and a retired SFPD commander more than eight years ago for their part in Caldwell’s 1991 wrongful murder conviction. 

As the settlement was apparently reached in the last several days, the amount has not yet been disclosed. It must first be approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

“We have reached a mutually agreeable settlement,” said Terry Gross, Caldwell’s lawyer, who declined to state the settlement amount. The City Attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Previous awards in San Francisco wrongful conviction cases have ranged from $2.9 million to $10 million. 

A trial date was set for April 29, and figured to be a tense showdown almost a decade in the making. 

In a federal civil rights lawsuit originally filed in 2012, Caldwell accused former San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Kitt Crenshaw of fabricating evidence that led to Caldwell being convicted of murdering a man named Judy Acosta during a botched drug buy in the Alemany Projects in June 1990. 

Caldwell alleged that, as police investigated Acosta’s murder weeks after the incident, Crenshaw found Caldwell, put him in handcuffs, and showed up at the home of Mary Cobbs, a witness being interviewed by investigators. This “suggestive show-up,” Caldwell argued, prompted Cobbs to identify Caldwell as one of the murderers.

Caldwell also alleged that Crenshaw was driven by animus. The two men had encountered each other numerous times in the Alemany Projects before Acosta’s murder. 

Only five months before, Caldwell had filed a complaint against Crenshaw, then a narcotics sergeant, for allegedly choking and beating Caldwell and promising to “kill” him and “get the drop on” him. Crenshaw had admitted to making the statements. 

In the two years leading up to the interaction in which he threatened Caldwell, Crenshaw had received 25 citizen complaints, none of which were sustained. (When he retired as a commander in 2011, Crenshaw had accumulated 66 citizen complaints.) 

In 1991, a jury convicted Caldwell of second-degree murder, attempted murder, and felony discharge of a firearm. He spent 20 years in prison. 

But in 2010, that conviction was overturned after the Northern California Innocence Project presented nearly a dozen witnesses to a judge. One of them, Marritte Funches, confessed to the murder and identified another man as his accomplice. 

The innocence project also debunked the testimony of Cobbs, the prosecution’s central witness. Caldwell’s conviction was ultimately overturned because the innocence project proved that Caldwell’s defense at the time of his trial was ineffective. 

Despite being released from prison, Caldwell for years has been caught in a legal limbo in which he is neither guilty nor “factually innocent.” The latter is a designation that an exoneree must obtain by proving their innocence to a state board — a task that legal experts describe as exceedingly difficult and unfair. 

Over the years, Caldwell has failed to prove his “factual innocence,” and that has denied him state victim compensation for the decades he wrongfully spent in prison. 

Caldwell’s legal limbo has also allowed the San Francisco City Attorney to freely and unambiguously maintain that Caldwell is still a murderer, even though his conviction was overturned. 

Such aggressive litigation in police misconduct and wrongful conviction cases is commonplace in San Francisco. The City Attorney maintained the guilt of all five men who were wrongfully convicted of murder in San Francisco in recent decades  — including Caldwell — who pursued their civil cases against the San Francisco Police Department for its alleged role in their wrongful convictions. 

All of the men were Black and from the projects, and all of them, in brutally-fought federal cases, won millions in settlements or judgments from the city.

Caldwell’s civil case has seen numerous hurdles — the biggest coming in March 2016, when a judge granted the city’s request that the case not proceed to trial. But Caldwell appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2018, remanded the case back to the lower court to address only Crenshaw’s alleged actions and, potentially, the city’s role in allowing them to happen. 

And, this January, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu ruled that the city would indeed also be on trial, as it may have been “indifferent” to the numerous misconduct complaints against Crenshaw before the officer became involved in Caldwell’s case. 

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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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  1. Can’t recall a story where The City has shown such resolve, commitment, sticktoitiveness, efficiency and dedication in the pursuit of bureaucratic professionalism – all in an effort to screw over a black man. Well done and a proud reflection upon the successful ghettoization of our African American populace as I am sure the settlement is a small fraction of what the victim actually deserves.

    We’re a very, very long way from even the thought of reparations in this, the wealthiest city on the planet. Even the display of Black Lives Matter posters hanging in the windows of multi-million dollar homes is suspect. Hung a sign – what more can we do? Or the football team bearing the name of San Francisco deciding a few culturally expropriated slogans will placate the aggrieved – years after the villainous conviction and permanent expulsion of Colin Kaepernick.

    Justice delayed is justice denied.

  2. Crenshaw should go to prison! Do all sf cops have BLUNTED intellect? They have diminished sf and themselves and policing …could sf go any DUMBER? Most useless genetically defective thugs sfpd has them all !

  3. So many black people and Hispanics are horribly treated in the ‘ justice’s system.although they are financially compensated they have lost so much.I am happy about this.It was along time coming.

  4. I hope the settlement comes out of Crenshaw’s pension. Can you report on what he’s been collecting? We need to know the full cost of corruption. This includes all cops that enabled him throughout his career. Their pensions should be taken too.

  5. and yet Alison Collins thinks her “pain and suffering” is worth more than this man’s 20 years in jail.

  6. Absolutely sickening and shameful! I bet this poor man lost all insanity being locked up for no apparent reason. No amount of money could ever make up for the time that he’s lost. I pray his parents are still alive. This is insanity, the police officer should be sentenced to death for putting anyone through situations like these. I’ve lost any kind of in police officers. We need police reform immediately.

  7. I had the pleasure of meeting Maurice Caldwell several years ago. He’ll never get those years back, and he’ll suffer with the physical abuse he received in prison…but I’m happy to hear that he’s finally won this suit against SF.

  8. I am a private investigator who has specialized in working criminal and indigent defense cases for over twenty-five years. I knew Kitt Crenshaw as one of the dirtiest and most violent cops on the SFPD. However, I knew other cops just as bad or worse. We can rightfully point the finger at the despicable Crenshaw, but a great deal of responsibility lies with the Office of Citizen Complaints. I investigated complaints against cops for years, and I could tell you horror story after horror story, but the office charged with investigating and sustaining complaints, the OCC, was a dismal failure. There was a complete kabuki dance that went on between the SFPD and the OCC. Crybaby cops were forever complaining about being investigated by the OCC for their violence and actual crimes, but the truth is that the investigators at the OCC always pissed their pants when it came to holding a bad cop responsible and sustaining a complaint against him or her, which might have been a restraining factor against any future bad behavior. Cops knew they could get away with murder, and they did without any consequences. Indeed, Crenshaw and cops like him are hideous, but until you create an agency with the will and the power to restrain and punish such cops, this kind of disgusting behavior will continue.

  9. I am very thankful that Mr. Caldwell was released from bonds. People do not know that once you get in it’s almost impossible to get out. My cousin has been there falsely accused for a crime, 25 years and he didn’t kill anyone. His conviction was very similar. Merrick Moore-H82249,CA.

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