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.