A San Francisco Superior Court judge Thursday overturned the murder conviction of a man serving a life sentence in prison for the 1990 shooting of another man during a drug deal in the Alemany public housing projects.
Maurice Caldwell, now 43, is serving a sentence of 27 years to life at Folsom State Prison after being mistakenly identified as one of two men who shot Judy Acosta when the deal turned sour, according to his current attorney, Paige Kaneb of the Northern California Innocence Project.
Prosecutors must now decide whether to appeal the ruling, retry the case, or dismiss the charges. A hearing is set for Monday.
“We have to review the decision, and then make a determination as to how we will proceed, and we’re in the process of doing that,” District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Erica Derryck said today.
Caldwell’s trial in 1991 relied on a single eyewitness, Mary Cobbs, who was Caldwell’s neighbor in the projects, according to Kaneb.
After initially telling police that she didn’t recognize the shooters, Cobbs was shown a photo spread by police two weeks later and picked out Caldwell as one of the two suspects.
Caldwell was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder.
On Thursday, Judge Charles Haines found that Caldwell’s trial attorney had been ineffective and overturned the conviction, Kaneb said.
According to Kaneb, Caldwell’s trial attorney never hired an investigator and never tried to interview other witnesses who said Caldwell was not involved.
In 2008 and 2009, Kaneb said, two men signed declarations to that effect. One of the men, Marritte Funches, confessed to being one of the shooters.
Funches, 39, is serving a life sentence in prison in Nevada for a murder that took place there after the Acosta murder, according to Kaneb.
Caldwell claimed that he was never involved in the shooting, but that he heard the gunshots and went out of his apartment to see what had happened, Kaneb said.
Kaneb said that Caldwell maintained his innocence “from the beginning” and thanked her by phone from prison Thursday.
“He was very, very happy,” Kaneb said. “He kept saying that it was a blessing … he’s been fighting for this for a long time.”
It’s unclear why Cobbs changed her initial story to police, though witnesses to crimes are often reluctant to come forward out of fear of retribution.
“She may have been just trying to protect her family, but in the process, she got an innocent guy incarcerated,” Kaneb said.
Cobbs died in 1998, according to Kaneb.
Should prosecutors decline to retry the case, Caldwell could be released from prison within days.
“He’s always wanted a family,” Kaneb said. “He would really like to spend some time with his sisters and nieces [in Sacramento] and maybe start his own family.”
Caldwell’s case is the second murder conviction this week to be overturned by a San Francisco judge.
On Tuesday, Judge Marla Miller found that San Francisco police withheld evidence that would have impeached a key witness to a 1989 gang shooting in the Bayview District that left two men dead and 11 others wounded.
Caramad Conley, now 40, who was convicted of the crime in 1994, has been serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors have also not yet decided whether they will appeal that decision or retry the case.