On June 30, 1990, Judy Acosta was shot to death during an apparent drug deal that went sour in the Alemany public housing project in San Francisco.
When police first canvassed for witnesses, a woman named Mary Cobb said that she saw two men shoot at a car. In her first interview, she said she did not know the names of the gunmen and that neither of them lived in the area.
Police soon focused on Maurice Caldwell, 23, a resident of the housing project and at one point brought him in handcuffs to the building where Cobb lived and allowed her to see him. She ultimately saw Caldwell on one other occasion with police.
Soon after that, police said Cobb identified Caldwell as one of the gunmen and that she saw him standing under a light pole.
Caldwell went on trial in March 1991 in San Francisco County Superior Court. He was convicted solely on the testimony of Cobb. No physical evidence connected him to the crime. Caldwell was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Cobb was heralded as a hero for defying alleged gang threats against testifying and given a key to the city of San Francisco as well as a trip to Disney World. She was also relocated, given a new job and $1,000.
Years later, Caldwell wrote to the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, which began investigating his case.
Lawyers, students and investigators at the project established that it was physically impossible for Cobb to have seen anyone under the light pole from her apartment.
The project also found two eyewitnesses who said the gunmen were Marritte Funches and Henry Martin. Funches was located in prison in Las Vegas where he was serving a life prison sentence for another murder, committed after Acosta was killed. Funches gave a sworn statement admitting that he committed the crime and that Caldwell was not involved. Other witnesses were located who said they saw Caldwell running toward the crime scene after the shots were fired.
The project filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in state court. While the writ was pending, prosecutors offered Caldwell a deal—plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, attempted murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle and be released immediately with credit for time served. Caldwell declined.
On December 16, 2010, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charles Haines granted a motion for new trial brought by the Innocence Project. Hanes ruled that Caldwell’s attorney was constitutionally ineffective for failing to investigate Caldwell’s innocence and that had he done his job properly, there was a reasonable probability that the jury would have acquitted Caldwell.
The prosecution said they would seek to retry Caldwell. Because Cobb had died in 1998, prosecutors ought to introduce her prior testimony, even though the exhibits related to her testimony were long since destroyed.
Haines ruled that without the exhibits or an opportunity to question Cobb, Caldwell would not get a fair trial, and he barred the evidence. The San Francisco District Attorney dismissed the case on March 28, 2011 and Caldwell was released.
– Maurice Possley