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The Man Who Returned: Trying to Build a Life After 20 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment 

Wednesday, Oct 16 2013
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Cover photo by Kimberly Sandie.


Maurice Caldwell looked out the door of the San Francisco County Jail toward Bryant Street, to a city he hadn't walked as a free man for 20 years, six months and eight days. He wanted to run.

It was Monday, March 28, 2011. Caldwell's conviction had been overturned in December and the city's plan to retry him had finally fallen apart the previous Friday. It had been an agonizing weekend, waiting for the California Department of Corrections to process his release. Today he was getting out.

His attorneys, Linda Starr and Paige Kaneb from the Northern California Innocence Project, paced nervously outside 850 Bryant, joined by a small group of Caldwell's family and friends as well as a gathering pack of journalists. For 7,494 days of a life sentence, Caldwell centered his world on the idea that one day his innocence would be known and he would get to come home. But now that it was happening, he couldn't quite believe it.

He wasn't shackled as he was led out of his cell at the San Bruno County Jail that morning — given the Hannibal Lecter treatment, as he joked. He was driven to 850 Bryant. He was given street clothes to change into. It still didn't feel real. He was paid the money he had on his books. The guards opened the door to the final hallway, the visitor's entrance, and dropped back. He saw light.

He hadn't been free since just after his 23rd birthday, a kid from Alemany Projects in San Francisco with a Jheri Curl and a chip on his shoulder. He was 43 now, a little heavier set, his short hair and beard now tinged with gray.

Out on the street, the first person he saw was his sister. There was a blur of hugs. A camera was thrust into his face and Caldwell was asked how he felt toward the family of the murdered man, Judy Acosta, for whom he'd spent two decades in prison. He expressed sympathy, for they'd been wronged too.

"After all these years, they thought they had justice, but it wasn't. It was un-served justice and it's still un-served justice," Caldwell said to the assembled media.

Caldwell's friend Rick Walker, a fellow exoneree, said he'd take him anywhere in town he wanted to eat, no matter the price. Caldwell chose McDonald's. He'd seen countless new restaurants on TV in prison, but he knew what that Big Mac tasted like. He'd been thinking about it.

It was the start of a brief period of Caldwell's life he would think of as "Tony the Tiger" great.

But the elation was short-lived. Caldwell had lost his youth. Twenty years of hard labor had left him with serious back problems. He walked out with no more than he'd walked in with. Less. Born to an incarcerated father, in a part of the city much of San Francisco chooses to forget about, subject to a murder charge that there was now good proof he had nothing do with, he would have to fight the same people to get his life back who had put him away.

In 1990, he was innocent until proven guilty, but now that the city could no longer establish that guilt, he remained guilty until proven innocent.

Caldwell never did finish that Big Mac. The surprise of it all ­— lawyers, family, friends, sitting in a McDonald's in Potrero Hill — was too overwhelming.

Sitting in a small one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Sacramento in the summer of 2013, memories haunt Maurice Caldwell — both his own and the misremembered recollections that cost him two decades of his life.

Telling his life story, and talking about the people he sees as having wronged him, Caldwell is prone to pace about. He is animated because things have happened to him that no one could walk off. But it's also because following 20 years in prison, he's carrying old injuries; sitting can hurt.

In 1990, a man was shot dead following a drug deal in the Alemany Projects. Caldwell went to jail for murder. When he was released from prison in 2011, he was a man thrust into an unfamiliar world.

Commuting to one of the jobs he's had since his release, Caldwell remembers having to have his sister teach him how to pay for parking at a BART station. But once inside, he didn't know how much money to put in the machine for his ticket or how to work it. He says that the people he asked for help thought he was going to scam them.

Caldwell has a lot of stories like that.

The first half of his life, in the Alemany Projects, imperfect and flawed as it may seem in retrospect, forms the majority of his memories as a free man.

"Me growing up in there, them are the memories I still have. Them memories are vivid," Caldwell says, his AC blaring to keep out the scorching Sacramento heat.

Known simply as Lil' Twone, Maurice Antoine Caldwell was born on Aug. 17, 1967, and before his first birthday his father was in prison, having killed a police officer following a gas station robbery. Alemany Projects were a small city housing development sandwiched between the I-280 freeway and a hill. There was not much there but a community center, a small park, and a basketball court.

Members of Caldwell's father's extended family would pick him and his older sister Debbie up for prison visits. These trips made an indelible impression on him as a kid: He remembers the atmosphere as a free-for-all, people having sex in full view. "You got everything going on in their visiting room and the police are there and the police are with it," he says.

Growing up in Alemany, Caldwell says, was good. He was happy. He could stand in one spot and point to where both friends and family lived. When his mother moved to Oakland in 1976 with a boyfriend Caldwell didn't like, he stayed in Alemany and lived with his grandmother.

About The Author

James Robinson

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