By Talia Gilbert, NFTY-CWR Social Action Vice-President
At NFTY-CWR’s final event of the year, Spring Conclave, the social action program was a Q&A with a representative from the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), Maurice Caldwell. The NCIP works to free innocent people who are serving time in prison after being wrongly convicted. The organization receives thousands of letters a year from inmates claiming that they are innocent. NCIP goes through a very thorough and lengthy process to determine which cases they actually believe in and, furthermore, which cases are strong enough for them to represent.
Maurice was wrongly convicted of a first degree murder case in San Francisco, and he served twenty years in prison until he was finally released with the help of the NCIP. Although there were a number of factors that contributed to Maurice’s false conviction, he was essentially set up by a district attorney who manipulated key witnesses to claim he was guilty. While in prison, Maurice wrote multiple letters to innocence projects in the Bay Area. The NCIP felt confident in Maurice’s case after finding new evidence that cleared him, including a confession from the man who did commit the murder.
One of the most pivotal moments in Maurice’s case was during his retrial when the district attorney offered him a deal: he pleads guilty and they let him walk away, no parole, no more jail, guaranteed. Maurice responded, “Your Honor, if I had 1% involvement in this case, I’d take this deal, but being that I don’t have no involvement… I can’t see myself taking it, it’s too much pride and too many people that hope and believe.” Even though this was a risky move to make, Maurice was eventually ruled an innocent man and rightfully set free.
Listening to Maurice speak about his experience was a truly inspiring and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Our region asked insightful questions about how Maurice coped for so long being surrounded by criminals, how he felt having twenty years of his life taken away and how he is getting by after being released. Maurice’s answers were often surprising; he talked about how he constantly had to focus on getting out of prison and wouldn’t let himself relate to the other inmates, even though it was tempting at times to just accept his “position” in jail. When asked what his biggest difficulty was, he spoke about missing out on his family member’s lives and being in prison while his mother and other close family members passed away.
Maurice also spoke about the difficulty adjusting to regular life. In prison, he was provided with medical care, but he was released with only the clothes on his back. He has received no apology or compensation from the government, and in some ways is provided with less care than when he was in prison. Additionally, Maurice felt that once he was freed, he was in some ways intruding on his family’s lives, as they had grown accustomed to life without him.
Despite these difficulties, Maurice maintains a positive attitude and did not appear to have any animosity when he spoke to us. The theme of our event was “Fruit of our Labors: What is Your Legacy?” and NFTYites learned that working towards social justice can be one’s life work. It is extremely tragic that Maurice lost half his life for something he didn’t do, but his focus and outlook were inspiring. The lead lawyer on Maurice’s case, who was also crucial in organizing his visit to our event, Paige Kaneb, stated, “I can’t fully right the wrong that’s been done to [those wrongly convicted] … but I can give them long-deserved freedom. And that is an incredible privilege.” Through learning about Maurice’s story and hearing him speak, I hope NFTYites in CWR took away what a huge impact dedicating your life to fighting injustices can have, because I definitely did.