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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wrongly convicted man fights to put SF on trial

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday weighed arguments over whether a man who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit should have his civil suit decided by a jury.
In 1991, Maurice Caldwell was found guilty of the 1990 murder of Judy Acosta on Ellsworth Street in the Alemany Projects in San Francisco. A guilty verdict was obtained primarily based on the testimony of one eyewitness, who was allegedly tainted by "suggestive" police tactics.
Throughout his 20 years in prison, Caldwell refused multiple plea deals that would have secured his immediate release. Instead, he unequivocally insisted on his innocence despite having to face further time in prison, he claims in his lawsuit.
Caldwell was released on March 28, 2010, a few months before San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Charles Haines overturned his conviction on a finding that Caldwell's counsel had been ineffective.
On Tuesday, Caldwell's attorney Terry Gross, faced off with City Attorney Sean Connolly over whether the judge should grant the city's motion for summary judgment, a move that would block the case from going to trial.
During the hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte identified two key factors that could weigh in Caldwell's favor - evidence of a police officer's motive to frame him for murder and the peculiar manner in which Caldwell was first presented to the trial's star witness.
Laporte called evidence of one officer's motive to frame Caldwell "unusually strong," especially since the officer admitted he threatened to kill Caldwell.
In 1990, Caldwell filed a complaint against then-narcotics Police Sergeant Kitt Crenshaw for assaulting him. The Office of Civilian Complaints was investigating the assault charge at the same time police were investigating the Acosta murder.
While Caldwell was detained in a holding cell on an unrelated charge before he being accused of the Acosta murder, Crenshaw told him "if he ever caught him with a gun in his hand, he would kill him," according to the lawsuit.
"He admitted to wanting to settle scores with or kill the plaintiff," Laporte said. "He said something along the lines of, 'One of these days we're going to have a confrontation, and you'll end up dead.' It certainly raises the issue of a motive to be out to get and to want to frame the plaintiff."
The manner in which police first presented Caldwell to the trial's key witness was also highly prejudicial, according to Caldwell's attorney.
During a canvassing of the neighborhood where the murder took place on July 13, 1990, homicide inspector Arthur Gerrans was interviewing Mary Cobbs, the only person willing to invite him inside and talk to him. As Gerrans interviewed Cobbs in a recorded conversation, Crenshaw found Caldwell outside, handcuffed him and "dragged him up" to Cobbs' front door, according to the lawsuit.
While presenting the handcuffed Caldwell to the trial's future key 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."
Those words were captured on a tape recording the conversation between Gerrans and Cobbs.
The city attorney argued that prejudicial prelude to the witness's identification of Caldwell as the murderer did not affect the trial's ultimate outcome.
"This idea about the subjective ID, it's problematic because it was never objected to," Connolly told the judge. "Every suggestive identification case you look at, there's no case that would suggest this type of show-up is the type of overly suggestive, deliberately engineered identification that a trial court would throw out."
Connolly added the fact that the jury heard the tape of Grerrans' interview with Cobbs and knew about Caldwell's questionable introduction to the witness proves that incident did not influence the verdict.
The city attorney further argued that Crenshaw's personal motives were not the reason Caldwell was singled as a murder suspect. The police department also received an anonymous tip the day before Caldwell was detained, he said.
The tip reportedly came from a female who called in and said, "Look into Maurice Caldwell because he had been shooting off guns in the projects for years."
"The tip is relevant to the investigation because it makes Caldwell a person of interest," Connolly said.
Gross said former police captain Diarmuid Philpott, who received the anonymous tip, could not remember getting that phone call decades later when he was deposed for Caldwell's lawsuit.
"It was pretty irregular," Gross said. "Here we have the police captain who supposedly gets this tip. He does not write it down. He does not follow the police procedures of creating an incident report. There's no record from him."
The judge harshly scolded both attorneys for accusing each other of trying to take advantage of the elderly former police captain when he was questioned during depositions decades after the murder investigation.
"If the two of you don't stop this sniping, I really don't want to have a hearing with you," Laporte said. "I cannot stand this. I don't want to hear any unnecessary sniping about who took advantage of who. It's completely unprofessional."
Laporte suggested the crux of Caldwell's case largely depends on whether the assistant district attorney "broke the chain of causation" by adequately investigating the legitimacy of the key witness's identification of Caldwell.
"What about the assistant district attorney rendering whatever happened not actionable because he independently determined Ms. Cobbs was not unduly influenced?" Laporte asked.
Gross maintained that the district attorney's diligence is a moot point because the police actively withheld information from the prosecutors.
The judge replied the only information that seems to have been withheld was Crenshaw's motives against Caldwell. Laporte also rejected Gross' argument that the witness was bribed with the promise of being relocated or getting "a trip to Disneyland" in exchange for testifying against Caldwell at trial.
"I think it all comes down to this show-up, which was, even if it was intentional, it wasn't as bad as what most cases do find actionable in terms of degree of suggestiveness and outright fabrication," Laporte said.
After about an hour of debate, the judge ended the hearing and said she would take the arguments under submission.
Caldwell is seeking multiple types of damages from the city for the 20 years he spent in jail.
According to his lawsuit, Caldwell suffered "unimaginable horrors of life in maximum-security prisons," including being assaulted by other 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 of his life. Caldwell was 22 years old when he was jailed and convicted of murder.

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