Living With Freedom | Maurice Caldwell's innocence was a secret everyone knew, and yet he spent 20 years behind bars
Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated after they are exonerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over
Exoneree Maurice Atwone Caldwell did not really need the judge and jury to tell him that he was going to prison for a long time—he already knew.
Right from when the cops cuffed him and in the moments leading up to his conviction and sentencing, he knew that, this time, the police were going to get him.
Not because he was guilty, but because of his last name.
Little Twone, as he was nicknamed, Maurice was the son of Donald Ray Caldwell, a man convicted of killing a San Francisco police officer during a robbery.
The police had been rooting for a death penalty for Caldwell but he served nineteen years before being released in 1988.
However, that just wasn't enough punishment—Maurice had to pay the price too.
Maurice was arrested, convicted and sentenced in a shooting incident that took place on June 30, 1990, in the Alemany public housing project in San Francisco.
A drug sale had gone wrong and had resulted in a gun being fired.
After an initial investigation, a woman named Mary Cobb said that she saw two men shoot at a car and that she did not know the names of the gunmen and that neither of them lived in the area.
Maurice was in bed at home when he heard a gunshot outside. Cobb was his neighbor.
Soon, however, Cobb identified Maurice as one of the shooters and, ever since then, Maurice's life has been stuck in a loop of endlessly asking why.
He was given a 27 to life sentence and spent the majority of those years, two decades to be exact, behind bars knowing that he was innocent.
Everyone around him knew it, too, especially the officer who made the arrest, Police Sgt. Kitt Crenshaw.
Before the arrest, Maurice 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. "He threatened to blow my brains out," Caldwell tells us, "but it was his word over mine."
Meanwhile, Cobb became the local hero for testifying.
She was given a key to the city of San Francisco as well as a trip to Disney World, a $1,000, a new job and was relocated.
That is why she had done it, after all, says Maurice. It was to escape.
"She did it to be moved out of the drug-infested area of the project. She didn't want to be near it," he says.
By the time the truth came out, she had died and he seems to have learned to live with the apology that he will never get.
Maurice had already lost a lot while he was locked away when he shouldn't have been. Most of his family passed away without his goodbyes, he lost his health from working in the kitchens has insufferable back pain and he struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Everything he saw in prison changed him and although he is the happy father of three, that habit of packing life away into boxes and always watching his back hasn't gone away. "I try to keep to myself. I don't have many friends," he says.
When he stepped out a free man in 2011, a lot had changed since for the 43-year-old Maurice. Phones were different, there were iPods, job applications were done on the internet.
He had wanted to own a business when he was younger-than-prison and had a job at a daycare—but those dreams were gone now.
His lawyer and friend from the Northern California Innocence Project who helped him get exonerated, Paige Kaneb, sat with him and helped him fill up the forms.
He landed two jobs finally. Still, working was tough with his body.
"I got hurt and had to be at home for a year," he says recalling. He had a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome in both his hands. He couldn't work anymore.
He filed for Social Security benefits, which was stuck for four and a half years.
When his turn came around, he was denied. He waited around for another two, scraping by. "I just got granted Social Security," he says.
His state compensation for those 20 years of wrongful incarceration, however, is still pending in litigation. "I haven't heard a thing—I haven't received a thing," he says.
Since his days of being in prison, he has survived homelessness, heartache and the lukewarm platter on which justice was served.
But despite the constant buzz of questions in his head, he has had the immense courage to reach out to those like him.
He's on the Board of Directors for Life Beyond Freedom and he's a mentor and first point of contact for the newly exonerated. He used to be one of them at some point, he says cheering up slightly.
Soft-spoken, Maurice's voice remains very emotional throughout the interview. One wonders if he's moved on. He assures us that he has. He's much kinder, smarter and stronger than he used to be—and even though it's taken a toll, he thinks it is worth still pushing forward.
"I'm broken, a broken person but that keeps me motivated to be better each day," he says. His fight is with himself and the anger that keeps burning the fire in him to make a change keeps him going.
"I'm a survivor, that's all."
Cover image by David M Greenwald/Northern California Innocence Project