A Numbers Game: CA Victim Compensation Board Denies Man Falsely Convicted for Decades $1 Million Claim

Maurice Caldwell speaking at the Capitol last year asking for California to change the laws on compensating exonerees

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Capitol Bureau

SACRAMENTO – In the end, it appears Maurice Caldwell is, and always has been, just a number. A bunch of them really.

$1,049,160. That would be what the State of California would owe him for unjustly imprisoning him for nearly 21 years, or 7,494 days. He was arrested on September 21, 1990, released on March 28, 2011.

But ultimately, the number that means the most to Maurice Caldwell is the claim number he was assigned when he attempted to get what he – and many others – believe is his just due after being falsely held behind bars for more than two decades.

That claim number is 13-ECO-01. And the State Victim Compensation Fund used it Monday when they officially denied Caldwell’s claim for compensation.

Although Caldwell can appeal, he’s been fighting for compensation pretty much since he was released from prison nearly nine years ago.

When the VCB tentatively voted 2-0 a week ago to deny Caldwell’s claim – it became official Monday – the former inmate’s only official comment in the hearing chamber was, “No Justice.” Caldwell had an initial hearing in May of 2017, but the board decided to wait for a Court of Appeals decision in his murder conviction case.

According to both sides, four men drove to the Alemany Projects (project district) in San Francisco in June 1990 to buy drugs. After a dispute, one of the four men was killed, and another sent to the hospital with gunshot wounds.

Caldwell was charged with murder nearly six months later, and found guilty on March 20, 1991, of second degree murder, attempted murder and firing a weapon at an occupied vehicle. He was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison – but, on December 16, 2010, the court granted Caldwell’s petition for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel.

Caldwell turned down a plea deal for time-served, and insisted on a trial – the court then excluded testimony from the main eyewitness, who had died, and Caldwell walked on March 28, 2011.

Court documents show that on April 16, 2012, Caldwell filed a federal lawsuit against the City of San Francisco and various police officers involved in the murder investigation. He alleged his civil rights were violated when police conspired to frame him by fabricating evidence and utilizing unlawfully suggestive identification procedures. Federal court tossed the case in March of 2016, and Caldwell lost on appeal.

Caldwell filed his original claim with the Board under Penal Code section 4900 on March 21, 2013. Caldwell subsequently filed a motion in the San Francisco Superior Court for factual innocence pursuant to Penal Code section 1485.55. On May 13, 2016, the superior court denied Caldwell’s motion for a finding of factual innocence because it did not find that Caldwell had proven his innocence.

The CA DOJ maintains the DA in the original case was correct in determining Caldwell is guilty of firing a shotgun at Domingo Bobila, who was with friends in the “projects” to buy drugs.

But Paige Kaneb, supervising attorney with the Northern California Innocence Project, disagreed vehemently during her presentation at the hearing, noting that police “failed to investigate and only one person (Caldwell) was charged.

“He said from the beginning he didn’t do this,” asserted Kaneb, who said that Caldwell had just had sex with a 16-year-old girl when shots rang out. He ran downstairs but other witnesses said no shots were heard after Caldwell left the building.

This and other alibis were confirmed by other witnesses who were never interviewed by police and never called as witnesses in the original trial, said Kaneb.

Additionally, added Kaneb, another man – serving life in prison on a separate charge but a shooter in the incident – confessed in 2016 that Caldwell was not the shooter.

Mary Cobbs, the one eyewitness to the shooting, initially told police she didn’t know the shooters and “they don’t live around here,” according to Kaneb. But after police pushed Caldwell as the suspect, Cobbs changed her mind and fingered Caldwell, whom she knew as a neighbor.

Maurice Caldwell, left, hangs his head and Innocence Project attorney Paige Kaneb runs hand through hair after VCB rules against $1 million claim.

Kaneb strongly suggested that Cobbs changed her mind and named Caldwell only after an officer, not involved in the investigation but who had a history with Caldwell, intervened. That officer had been a subject of a complaint by Caldwell after the officer threatened to “blow your f___ head off.”

Additionally, said Kaneb, Cobbs, a single mother living in “terrible” conditions, was offered, by police, a chance to live in a nicer place.

“She took her shot. She got keys to the city, a job, a place to live, money, a trip to Disneyland,” said Kaneb, who also cast doubt that Cobbs could even see what happened that night from her bedroom window 75 feet away.

Kaneb offered a series of reasons why Caldwell was not guilty of the shooting, including that his hair didn’t match the description, and a bevy of alibi witnesses who “were waiting to testify” but were never called.

“The hearing officer didn’t know what happened after Maurice left the room. Five people on the street, including two people in the nearby building, said there were no more shots after Caldwell left the building to go to the scene of the crime…the court believed Cobbs over 11 other people,” said Kaneb

“You have to weigh the totality of the evidence over (29 years),” said Kaneb to the members of the VCB. “(Caldwell) didn’t get justice. He can’t get back 20 years, but he can be compensated. (His trial) was fundamentally unfair…but you can give him justice.

“He’s fighting a ghost. He’s met his burden of proof. It’s tragic that Mary Cobbs (the eyewitness) passed away (but) eyewitness IDs are the biggest cause of wrongful convictions,” Kaneb said.

But, CA Dept of Justice Deputy Attorney General Sharon Loughner maintained, “He (Caldwell) has not proven he is innocent.”

She said that Caldwell changed his story and didn’t cooperate with police, and also was “known as a violent drug dealer.” She said his witnesses had credibility problems.

Loughner said there was even a plan, confirmed by the man in jail for life, to kill the primary witness, Cobbs, and that “Caldwell was aware of it.”

And Loughner disputed what Kaneb said about Cobbs’ first response that the shooter was not from the neighborhood.

“Caldwell was not her neighbor…the real neighbor said Caldwell was a squatter (and) the real neighbor got beaten up,” said Loughner, who added that all the courts agreed Cobbs was credible in naming Caldwell as the shooter.

Kaneb shot back that the VCB “isn’t supposed to consider what courts said…the courts failed him in the first place.”

In the end, according to the hearing officer, Kevin Kwong in a 2017 report, recommended that Caldwell had not met the burden of proof of his innocence. It all came down to Cobbs, even though Kaneb repeatedly cast doubt on what Cobbs could see from 75 feet away, and how Cobbs profited from helping police, especially an officer who “hated” Caldwell.

“Law enforcement noted Cobbs’ description of the events included details that only an eyewitness would know, including the position of the victims in the vehicle. Cobbs participated in a photo lineup. She picked out Caldwell’s photo as the person who fired the shotgun and said she was positive that he was the shotgun shooter. Cobbs also later identified Caldwell as the perpetrator when viewing a live lineup at the police station after his arrest,” said Kwong.

“As the investigation progressed, Cobbs told law enforcement and testified that she had been threatened by Caldwell and his associates because she had been cooperating in the investigation. She stated that Caldwell threatened her multiple times and once said ‘Bitch, if you talk, we going to kill you and your family.’ Cobbs’ children were told their heads would be played with like baseballs. Due to law enforcement fearing that the threat to Cobbs and her family was real, it relocated Cobbs to a new housing area away from the projects,” Kwong wrote in his report.

Kwong concluded, “Caldwell has failed to meet his burden of proof. The factual innocence court reviewed all the same evidence and determined that Caldwell did not meet his burden. It did not find the declarations on behalf of Caldwell to be reliable proof of his innocence. Caldwell did not present any new substantive evidence at this hearing.

“(W)itness statements evaluated on their own merit contain inconsistencies and do not present enough evidence showing that Caldwell is innocent of the crimes with which he was charged. Accordingly, Caldwell has not met his burden of proving his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence and his claim for compensation is denied.”

The three-person state Victims Compensation Board includes Betty T. Yee, State Controller, Richard Chivaro, Deputy State Controller and Chief Counsel, and Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton.

Yee was absent, and Tubbs and Chivaro voted to deny Caldwell’s claim last Wednesday. While Chivaro was silent, Tubbs showed some hesitation, but noted, “I can’t say (Caldwell) is a feather more guilty or not guilty so I’ll go with the staff recommendation.”

Caldwell can appeal the board’s finding.

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