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San Francisco approves $8 million settlement for man wrongly imprisoned for 20 years

Maurice Caldwell had sought more than $21 million in damages for claims that a former police officer, who had been the subject of a complaint for previously threatening to kill Caldwell, used false evidence to frame the suspect for murder.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The city of San Francisco gave final approval Tuesday to an $8 million settlement for a man who claims he spent 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit after a police officer framed him with false evidence.

Maurice Caldwell was released from prison on March 28, 2010, a few months before San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Charles Haines overturned his conviction in December 2010 based on a finding that his trial lawyer had been ineffective.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously gave a second and final vote of approval to the $8 million deal first announced in April after nine years of litigation.

In 1991, Caldwell was found guilty of the 1990 murder of Judy Acosta on Ellsworth Street in the Alemany Projects in San Francisco. The main evidence presented at trial was testimony by an eyewitness who, Caldwell claims, was tainted by "suggestive" police tactics.

Throughout his 20 years in prison, Caldwell refused multiple plea deals to secure his immediate release. According to his federal lawsuit, he insisted on his innocence despite serving more time behind bars.

Caldwell said the now-deceased key witness who identified him as the shooter was manipulated by improper police procedures and promised financial incentives, including a trip to Disneyland, in exchange for her testimony.

His lawsuit claims now-retired police commander Kitt Crenshaw, who was a sergeant at the time, handcuffed him and presented him to the key witness before a photo lineup to influence her 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 stating Caldwell admitted he was dealing drugs and present during the 1990 shooting, even though Caldwell said he was at his uncle's house at that time.

According to Caldwell's lawsuit, 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), now known as the Department of Police Accountability. Caldwell claimed Crenshaw, who was a narcotics officer at the time, had assaulted him. During the OCC investigation, Crenshaw admitted that he threatened to kill Caldwell during a previous interaction.

In an emailed statement, San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Coté emphasized that Crenshaw played no role in Caldwell’s murder trial, and his involvement in the investigation was limited to a single day in the summer of 1990.

“This settlement reflects the difficulties involved in re-creating a murder investigation from events that took place over 30 years ago,” Coté said. “Many witnesses – including the key eyewitness – are now deceased, and others are many years removed from the events.”

Although Caldwell’s conviction was reversed for ineffective counsel, Coté noted that courts rejected Caldwell's other claims that he was convicted with false testimony, that newly discovered evidence undermined the prosecution’s case and that cumulative errors denied him due process.

“Two courts rejected Mr. Caldwell’s petition for a finding of actual innocence,” Coté said.

A federal judge ruled in 2016 that while Caldwell had raised legitimate questions about Crenshaw’s motive to frame him, a prosecutor “broke the chain of causation” by reviewing all the evidence before independently deciding to press charges against Caldwell.

But that ruling was overturned two years later by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that a prosecutor can't break the chain of causation when relying on falsified evidence to make a charging decision. The appeals court concluded that a jury should decide if there was fabricated evidence and whether the prosecutor relied on alleged falsehoods to charge Caldwell.

According to Caldwell's lawsuit, how police first presented him to the trial's key witness was highly prejudicial. While another officer was interviewing the witness on July 13, 1990, Crenshaw allegedly found Caldwell outside, handcuffed him and "dragged him up" to the witness’s front door. While presenting a handcuffed Caldwell to the trial's future star witness, Crenshaw said something to the effect of, "This is Maurice Caldwell, Twone, the guy I've been telling you about. I need the keys to put him in the patrol car,” according to the complaint.

Caldwell had also accused two other officers, Arthur Gerrans and James Crowley, of improperly prejudicing the witness during a photo lineup, but the Ninth Circuit found the officers could not be sued because they never confirmed the witness picked the "correct suspect," apart from stating Caldwell's name after he was identified.

The city previously offered Caldwell $2.5 million to settle the lawsuit, an offer that he and his attorneys rejected.

Caldwell’s lawyers announced the settlement during a court hearing this past April, nearly nine years after the suit was filed on April 16, 2012.

Caldwell’s attorney Terry Gross, of the firm Gross & Belsky, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but he previously told Courthouse News that he and his client were pleased with the deal.

“We are very happy to reach this excellent settlement with the city for our client, but we’re not at liberty to speak about it until it becomes final,” Gross said in a phone interview this past July.

Coté, of the City Attorney's Office, framed the settlement as a good deal for the city. He said Caldwell was seeking more than $21 million in damages.

"Settling this for a fraction of that avoids the cost of further litigation in a case about police practices from the 1980s where evidence and witnesses are no longer available more than 30 years later," Coté said. "Nothing about this settlement should be read as an admission that the officer did anything other than his job when he stopped and took a statement from Caldwell during the investigation."

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