San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors gave the final approval today for an $8 million settlement with Maurice Caldwell, a man who sued the city nine years ago for wrongfully putting him in prison for two decades.
Caldwell, who was released from prison and had his charges dismissed in 2011, filed a federal lawsuit in 2012 against the city, the SFPD, and three specific officers. He alleged that the police had interfered with his civil rights and fabricated evidence by convincing a witness to identify him as the suspect.
Nearly 10 years later, he will finally be compensated for the two decades he wrongfully spent in prison.
“I’m overjoyed that the city has finally stepped up to the plate,” said Caldwell’s attorney, Terry Gross, “and taken this step to right the wrong and the injustice that they did to Mr. Caldwell.”
Gross added that this case highlighted a “tremendous amount of evidence” of systemic racism within the San Francisco Police Department, which enabled the injustice Caldwell faced for so many years. “We’re hopeful this case and its resolution is one of the first steps that the city is taking to eradicate racism in the police department.”
Mission Local first wrote about the case in August, 2020, in a two-part series about the city’s hardball tactics. It insisted that Caldwell was a murderer, even after a judge ordered his release: “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 (Judy) Acosta and wounded (Domingo) Bobila.”
In 1990, a 22-year-old Caldwell was arrested for the murder of Judy Acosta during a drug deal gone wrong in the Alemany Projects. Throughout his imprisonment, Caldwell maintained his innocence, even rejecting offers to take plea bargains that would have allowed him to be released.
Twenty years after his arrest, in December, 2010, Caldwell appealed his conviction with evidence of his innocence and that the witness was unreliable. All charges were dismissed against Caldwell and he was released from prison in 2011.
Despite the charges being dismissed, however, Caldwell’s road to closure was long and drawn out.
In July, Gross expressed his frustration to Mission Local that while a settlement had been reached months before, “they leave the victim … hanging for months.”
The settlement was first reached in April, but was followed by a long wait for final approval by the Police Commission in July, and then by city supervisors, who initially passed the settlement last week — nearly 10 years after Caldwell filed his lawsuit.
Gross’ co-counsel, Jim Quadra, noted that Caldwell’s story was a tragic but not uncommon one faced by African Americans across the country.
Quadra celebrated “some measure of victory in a system that was so clearly stacked against [Caldwell].” However, he added, “the fact that it has taken a decade is indicative of a broken system.”
Caldwell believed SFPD officers were targeting him because of his and his family’s history of run-ins with law enforcement. According to the lawsuit, Caldwell had no adult convictions, but had been arrested by SFPD officers seven times in the 14 months leading up to the murder arrest, and each time the District Attorney declined to file charges or dismissed any charges.
The two attorneys said the settlement amount was “within the range” of what they had asked for, but emphasized that no amount of money could give Caldwell back the 20 years he spent imprisoned.
Moving forward, Quadra said, Caldwell, who is now in his fifties, will be fighting for those who are wrongfully imprisoned like he was. “He wants to make it his mission,” Quadra said.