For 20 years, Maurice Caldwell fought to prove his innocence while serving a 27-years-to-life sentence for a 1990 murder he did not commit.Last December, with the help of the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) at SCU’s School of Law, the courts concurred that Caldwell was right. Judge Charles Haines found that, had Caldwell’s trial attorney adequately investigated the case, he would have disclosed a confession by the actual murderer. So on Monday, March 28, 43-year-old Caldwell walked out of the San Francisco County Jail a free man.
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Law professor and NCIP executive director Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi and her staff partner with Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Maurice Possley to peer into cases like Caldwell’s, whereby persons are jailed due to what they call “preventable errors.”
Both outside and inside the criminal justice system, most of us believe that eyewitness testimony is compelling proof of the truth. Yet in case after case, as NCIP research shows, eyewitness identification errors send innocent people to jail.
Caldwell was convicted based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, now deceased. A press release announcing the overturning of Caldwell’s conviction said, “The eyewitness originally told police that the shooters did not live in the area and that she did not know their names or nicknames. During that interview police brought Caldwell, who had been the witness’ neighbor, to her door. She did not identify him at the time, but two weeks later [she] picked him out of a photo lineup.”
“Those who choose the blind pursuit of conviction over the pursuit of justice can do so with little regard for the consequences.”
Digging deeper, the NCIP team found crucial evidence. The most exculpatory piece? A statement from another man admitting he was the real killer. Two other witnesses to the killing also swore Caldwell was not the culprit.
Bad lawyering is part of the problem, too. Ridolfi and Possley examined 4,000 cases dating back to 1997 and last year produced Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California: 1997–2009—a book-length report that they call “the most comprehensive, statewide review of prosecutorial misconduct ever done in the United States.” It was a fitting project for an organization just marking its 10th anniversary. And it shows that, during the years the report covers, misconduct occurred in 707 cases.
“Here, in the most populated state in the country, we have a legal system that does not hold prosecutors accountable who have abused the public trust,” Ridolfi said. “While the majority of prosecutors uphold the law and serve the public admirably and with integrity, those who choose the blind pursuit of conviction over the pursuit of justice can do so with little regard for the consequences.”
These alarms raised in the report have been heard: Preventable Error grabbed headlines and got the attention of the California State Bar. Remarkably, though hundreds of judges identified misconduct by county and federal prosecutors, only six prosecutors were ever reprimanded by the State Bar of California. Sixty-seven prosecutors committed misconduct multiple times—even up to five times—and yet the majority were never publicly disciplined. A California State Bar review into allegations of misconduct by 130 county and federal prosecutors is now under way.
State bar chief in trial counsel Jim Towery told the Los Angeles Times in April, “We need to improve the reporting of misconduct … by both lawyers and courts. … It is beneficial that the Northern California Innocence Project is focusing public attention on a very significant issue.”
Locally, newly appointed Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen formed a “Conviction Integrity Unit” in January. The unit will keep a wary eye on arrest procedures and prosecutions so that the tragedy of wrongful convictions like the one that kept Caldwell imprisoned 20 years is not repeated.
Some prosecutors beg to differ with the notionthat misconduct is rampant. Scott Thorpe, chief executive officer of the California District Attorneys Association, told the American Bar Association Journal that injustices are “few and far between … Millions of criminal cases have been prosecuted in California during the past 30 years. That should put the numbers from this study into more perspective.” Further, much prosecutorial error is unintentional, Thorpe said, demonstrated by the fact that in 548 of the report’s 707 cases, “the conduct by the prosecutor was harmless … the error was small and unintentional and did not impact the outcome of the trial.”
Besides their shocking injustice, wrongful convictions come with huge costs. Count what these NCIP exonerees have had taken from them: Albert Johnson: wrongfully incarcerated for more than 11 years. Kenneth Foley: 12 years. Armando Ortiz: jailed at age 16 for nearly six years after his lawyer, a judge later ruled, offered “ineffective assistance” (essentially, he did nothing). Ron Reno: six years. Jeffrey Rodriguez: five. Peter Rose: a decade—until NCIP’s DNA testing conclusively demonstrated he was innocent of committing the rape for which he was convicted. John Stoll: like Caldwell, two decades lost to wrongful conviction. Mark Sodersten fared worst of all. After he died in prison, NCIP convinced a judge that those last 22 years of life should have been lived as a free man. That’s 112 years of accumulative prison time.
In many of these cases, NCIP helped exonerees receive financial compensation from the state. Preventing those errors isn’t merely just; it would save taxpayers money.
California, of course, is not alone with this problem. Before beginning work with NCIP, Possley investigated wrongful convictions in Chicago. His writing shaped the decision by then-Governor George Ryan to institute a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in 2000.
Along with its research and advocacy work, NCIP runs a pro bono legal clinic so law students, attorneys, pro bono counsel, and volunteers can identify wrongfully convicted prisoners and represent them. NCIP also educates future attorneys and raises public awareness about how wrongful conviction can happen.
In the wake of the first Preventable Error report, in March, Ridolfi was named a 2011 Attorney of the Year by California Lawyer magazine for her “outstanding work [that] had a significant impact in 2010.”
Maurice Caldwell couldn’t agree more.
“All the things I dreamed about when I was young, I can now bring to life,” Caldwell told NCIP. “I can’t find a way to say what this means to me and what the Project means to me.”