SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A man who spent 20 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit can sue a retired police commander who allegedly falsified evidence to frame him for murder, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled Friday.
In 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte ruled Maurice “Twone” Caldwell could not put three San Francisco police officers on trial for his wrongful conviction, despite strong evidence of one officer’s motive to frame him for murder.
Laporte found a prosecutor “broke the chain of causation” by independently reviewing evidence before charging Caldwell with murder.
On Friday, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel reversed that ruling, finding a prosecutor can’t break the chain of causation when relying on falsified evidence to make a charging decision.
“A prosecutor’s judgment cannot be said to be independent where the prosecutor considers potentially fabricated evidence without knowing that the evidence might be fundamentally compromised and misleading,” U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote for the panel.
In 1991, Caldwell was found guilty of the 1990 murder of Judy Acosta on Ellsworth Street in the Alemany Projects of San Francisco.
Caldwell claims former Police Sgt. Kitt Crenshaw, who was later promoted to commander, tainted a witness and falsified interview notes to frame him for murder. The panel found Crenshaw had a motive to doctor evidence because Caldwell had filed a complaint against him with the city’s police watchdog agency, the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC). During the OCC investigation, Crenshaw admitted that he threatened to kill Caldwell during a previous interaction with the suspect.
Caldwell says Crenshaw handcuffed him and presented him to a key witness before a photo lineup to influence the witness’s identification of him as a suspect. The witness initially described the suspect as not precisely matching Caldwell’s appearance and said the suspect was someone she did not know, unlike Caldwell, who was a neighbor she knew as “Twone.”
Caldwell also claims Crenshaw fabricated notes saying Caldwell admitted he was dealing drugs and present during the shooting, even though Caldwell actually said he was at his uncle’s house during the shooting.
Even if the police sergeant’s notes were wrong, the city of San Francisco argued it was likely the result of human error, not an intentional effort to frame Caldwell for murder.
The panel disagreed.
“There is a wide gulf between telling someone you were at your uncle’s house nearby when a shooting occurred and telling someone you were ‘present’ for a shooting and were ‘with the suspects dealing drugs,'” Tashima wrote for the panel. “We conclude that the potential ‘errors’ are not obviously the product of carelessness and that there is a triable issue as to whether Crenshaw intentionally fabricated his notes.”
However, the panel found Caldwell lacks evidence to pursue claims against two other officers, Arthur Gerrans and James Crowley, who he also accused of coercing a witness.
Caldwell claimed the two officers told a witness that the suspect was in a photo lineup and reinforced her identification of Caldwell as the murder suspect. The panel found the officers never confirmed the witness picked the “correct suspect,” apart from stating Caldwell’s name after he was identified.
The panel also found the fact that the witness was offered protection and a trip to Disneyland in exchange for testifying was not enough to establish witness coercion.
U.S. Circuit Judge Jay Bybee and U.S. District Judge Frederick Leitman of the Eastern District of Michigan joined Tashima on the panel.
Caldwell was released from prison in March 2011, a few months after a San Francisco Superior Court judge overturned his conviction on a finding that Caldwell’s counsel had been ineffective at trial.
According to his lawsuit, Caldwell suffered “unimaginable horrors of life in maximum-security prisons,” including being assaulted by inmates, suffering permanent injuries from poor working conditions in the jail’s kitchen, delayed medical treatment and the inability to pursue a career or start a family for 20 years. Caldwell was 22 years old when he was jailed and convicted of murder.
Caldwell’s attorney, Monique Alonso of Gross Belsky Alonso in San Francisco, said the fact that her client was robbed of his freedom for 20 years is reason enough to take this case to trial and hold Crenshaw accountable for his “egregious” misconduct.
“He lost his entire youth, and all the things that youth entails: the chance to make something of his life, to have a family, to experience life as all of us know and enjoy it,” Alonso said. “The fact that you were deprived of your liberty for something you didn’t do is reason enough that we would want to prevent that type of police misconduct.”
Crenshaw retired from the San Francisco Police Department as a commander of operations in 2011 and now works as private security consultant, according to his public LinkedIn profile.
San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said, “We’re reviewing the court’s decision and evaluating all of our options.”