20 Years Later, "Killers" Cleared

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Frankie Carrillo sits with his attorneys in a courtroom.

    Maurice Caldwell knows exactly when his birthday is.

    Ask him how long he has been a free man and he struggles to tell you. But if you ask the soon to be 43-year-old San Francisco native how much time he served for a crime he didn't commit, he won't even hesitate.

    "I was held for 20 years, three months and four days," he says in one quick breath.

    Caldwell was released from prison on March 28, 2011 after a judge threw out a murder he was convicted for that he didn't commit.

    Like Caldwell, Francisco "Franky" Carrillo served more than 20 years for a murder he did not commit.

    And the two also share something else in common: they are free men thanks to the help of the Santa Clara-based Northern California Innocence Project, a non-profit organization where practicing attorneys and law students work to free innocent men and women from prison.

    According to some reports, California has a higher than national average of inmates freed who were shown to be innocent.

    Between 2006 and 2008, the state exonerated at least 200 prisoners and finding they were unjustly convicted.

    Carrillo was just 16 when he was sentenced to multiple life sentences for murder.

    He was identified out of a photo line up as the gunman in a drive by shooting of an innocent bystander.

    Problem was Carrillo had an entire family who could swear that he was at home sleeping when the shooting took place.

    Caldwell was living in the notorious Alemany Housing Project in San Francisco in the late 1980s when he was convicted of second degree murder, attempted murder and discharging a fire arm into an occupied vehicle. He was 22 at the time.

    Both men served more than 20 years at different prisons, which included stints at maximum security Folsom State Prison, before they were finally cleared of the charges against them.

    "I say 20 years in a single breath but 20 years is a lifetime," Carrillo says. "There I was innocent in a tough environment where guys want to showcase how tough they are."

    Instead of cowering and giving into their situations -- both men were given the opportunity to reduce prison terms for admitting to lesser roles in the crime but refused-- Carrillo and Caldwell focused on proving their innocence to get them through the difficult times.

    "That was my main focus," Caldwell said. "When a person gets accused of something, there is something at the bottom of your core that you cannot accept."

    After experiencing "a merry go round" of prison tours, both Carrillo and Caldwell were connected with NCIP through a stroke of luck or karma.

    Carrillo first met with an NCIP attorney when he was 32. It took almost five years of research, filings and legal arguments to win his freedom.

    Several pieces of evidence were brought forward to prove Carrillo was not a killer, including each and every person who testified against him in his original trial recanted their accounts.

    But perhaps the most important event that won secured his freedom was the son of the victim Carrillo was accused of killing, testified on behalf of him at his new trial.

    Now at 37, and after two months of freedom, Carrillo is free and living in Manhattan Beach, volunteering at Loyola Law School as a consultant who shares his experiences.

    "People use the analogy of the tunnel and the light for a large part of it it was total darkness," he said. "The large part of my incarceration there was no tunnel."

    For Caldwell the road to freedom was equally arduous. He began working with NCIP in 2005. After conducting a new investigation and unearthing several pieces of evidence -- including the resurfacing of a confession letter from a man who claimed to be the real killer -- a judge finally freed Caldwell on insufficient evidence.

    Malcolm Caldwell is all smiles after serving more than 20 years for a crime he did not commit.

    The adjustment period back into the real world has not been easy for either man.

    In the 20 years since he lasted tasted freedom, Caldwell's mother and grandmother have passed away and a whole world around him has changed.

    He says he doesn't know how to do things that many take for granted nowadays. Sending an email with an attachment is understandably a foreign language to him. Downloading a picture from Facebook? Caldwell needs to consult his "rock," his brother-in-law for that.

    "I'm like a little kid," he said. "When I was in there I knew I could go to a dentist. But out here I won't eat anything that harms me because I wouldn't even know how to go to a dentist."

    Caldwell now lives in the "East Bay" with his sister and her husband and while he is not angry and feels sympathy for the victim's family, the injustice he suffered is not lost on him.

    "Me and my family is a victim," he said. "Now I've lost more than they've lost. They lost a son and that's bad but I lost my mom and grandmother and all these years of my life.

    "Don't get me wrong. I feel bad for the people's family. No one should lose a loved one but for all these years they thought they had justice."

    Neither man has met with the families of the victims who were killed in the crime they were accused of but they would like to.

    Carrillo says he plans on setting up a meeting with the victim's family and Caldwell has a letter he would like to read to the victim's family.

    "What comes up over and over is am I angry?" Carrillo said. "And the truth is that I am not. What I say is I shouldn't be burdened with carrying the responsibility of what happened to me. But let those who hear my story to be angry. The politicians the people with a voice, let them do something about it."

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