Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Two Men Set Free After 20 Years
Imagine being punished for something that you never did, and almost no one believed you were innocent. What if you had twenty years taken away from you, and you could never get it back? Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens often in the criminal justice system. Many cases are treated as “guilty until proven innocent,” rather than, “innocent until proven guilty.” Maurice Caldwell and Francisco Carrillo learned this fact the hard way, facing serious time in prison for crimes they never committed. Justice eventually prevailed, and these two men were recently released from prison after being wrongly convicted of murder years ago.
Local non-profit, the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), is behind the freedom of these men. Established in 2001, NCIP operates through grants and donations, with full-time staff attorneys and students from Santa Clara University Law School. NCIP embodies Santa Clara University’s mission to create a more just and humane world through working to exonerate innocent prisoners and pursue legal reforms that address the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions. Paige Kaneb, NCIP Supervising Attorney, and Linda Star, NCIP Legal Director, led the efforts in the overturning of Caldwell and Carrillo’s convictions.
Francisco Carrillo, age 16 when arrested, was sentenced to multiple life sentences after being convicted of murder twenty years ago. After being falsely identified in a 1992 drive-by, Carrillo had spent a majority of his life behind bars for a crime he never committed. Missing the birth and growing-up of his son, Theo, Carrillo tried to make the best of his devastating circumstance. During his time in prison, Carrillo obtained his GED, became a certified optician, and a Braille transcriber. In addition, Carrillo chose art as a method of expression, using his extraordinary talent to create elaborate sketches. Even with the odds stacked against him, Carrillo never lost hope. “I lost sight of barbed wire and ball and chain and just lived my life,” Carrillo said. “I was alive longer inside prison than out. I had a great support system and my belief in God. I’m just grateful for my amazing legal team.” Moving forward, Carrillo is going back to school to become a psychologist, spending time with his son, and learning to have a normal life again.
Twenty-one years ago, Maurice Caldwell was wrongly convicted of the murder of Judy Acosta. The homicide occurred in the Alemany housing projects during a botched drug deal. Since Caldwell’s 1991 trial, another man had admitted to Acosta’s murder. In addition, several witnesses identified the real shooters and said Caldwell was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Caldwell could have been free weeks before his actual release. In an earlier hearing, Caldwell had been offered a deal for his freedom. If he plead guilty to the charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempted murder, and shooting into an occupied vehicle, he would have been released right away, since he’d already served the sentence for those crimes. Caldwell refused to take the deal. According to attorney Kaneb, “He told the judge and the district attorney in open court that he’s been fighting this case for 20 years, and if he were 1 percent involved he would have taken this deal and walked, but he was 100 percent innocent and wouldn’t take any deal.” Upon his release, Caldwell’s first question from the press asked how Caldwell felt about the victim’s family. Caldwell responded that he felt sorry for the family; all these years they thought they had justice, but never did. Like Carrillo, Caldwell is trying to start all over.
Having lost over twenty years of their lives, Maurice and Frankie are each finding their own way back into society. However, the transition has been far from easy. Neither have any extensive job history or education, and Frankie is just getting his driver’s license. What Maurice and Frankie have endured is truly a tragedy, but their attitudes toward the situation are nothing short of remarkable. While they cannot completely make up for lost time, both have made the choice not to waste any more by being angry. I recently had the opportunity of meeting Maurice and Frankie, and was moved to tears by their stories. What impacted me the most was their gratefulness to be free, and the complete absence of anger. I was inspired by the hope they held all of those years, and their decision to never give up, regardless of the injustice they had faced.
What I ask of each of you reading this to place yourself into the shoes of Maurice and Frankie. What if, like Frankie, you missed your child grow up? Or like Maurice, you weren’t there for the final moments of those closest to you? You would think something was owed to you–and rightfully so. However, these two men are only grateful for their freedom. But starting all over is not easy, and these men are in need of help from the community. Frankie and Maurice are in need of the basics–clothing, a job, monetary support, and any other donations and assistance.
If there is any way that you can help Maurice and Frankie, please email Attorney Paige Kaneb, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know of anyone that can help, we ask that you share Maurice and Frankie’s story. Any help you can provide these two men as they fight to rebuild their lives once again is appreciated.
To read more about Frankie’s case, please visit http://www.aolnews.com/2011/03/26/francisco-franky-carrillo-freed-19-years-after-wrongful-convic/.
To read more about Maurice’s case, please visit http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/03/maurice_caldwell_free_district.php.
For more information about The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), please visit http://law.scu.edu/ncip/.