Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

‘I could be killed at any time’: The anguish of being wrongfully convicted of murder

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

Maurice Caldwell. Photo credit: David Greenwald/The People’s Vanguard of Davis

By Stuart Wolpert

Maurice Caldwell spent 20 years in prison before his wrongful conviction for a 1990 murder in San Francisco was finally overturned.

Paul Abramson, a UCLA professor of psychology who was hired as an expert by Caldwell’s legal team to assess the psychological harm Caldwell suffered, conducted 20 extensive interviews with Caldwell between 2015 and 2020, in addition to interviewing prison correctional officers and reviewing court hearings and decisions, depositions, psychological testing results and experts’ reports.

In a paper published in the peer-reviewed Wrongful Conviction Law Review, Abramson provides an overview of the case and a comprehensive psychological analysis detailing the devastating and ongoing effects of Caldwell’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment. He also examines the historically contentious relations between police and communities of color and asks why corrupt and abusive officers rarely face punishment for their actions.

Caldwell’s 1991 conviction was overturned on March 28, 2010. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case, and Caldwell was released from prison in 2011. He settled his decade-long civil suit against the county and city of San Francisco, the police department and one SFPD officer just weeks before the scheduled start of the trial, and this month, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved an $8 million payout to Caldwell, who was 23 at the time of his conviction.

‘Appalling injustice’: The wrongful conviction of Caldwell

In January 1990, San Francisco Police Sgt. Kitt Crenshaw was among several officers who chased a group of young Black men who had allegedly been firing weapons at streetlights in the city’s Alemany public housing project. Caldwell was apprehended but not arrested. Caldwell alleged that Crenshaw physically abused him and threatened to kill him, and he filed a complaint against the officer with the city’s police watchdog agency.

About five months later, a man was shot to death in the Alemany projects. Crenshaw, who was not assigned to the homicide division, volunteered to search the projects for offenders and made Caldwell his primary subject, write Abramson and his co-author, Sienna Bland-Abramson, a UCLA undergraduate psychology major (and Abramson’s daughter) who worked on the case as a senior research analyst at two civil rights law firms.

On the strength of a dubious eyewitness claim and Crenshaw’s investigation notes, Caldwell was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and two other charges and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. Another man eventually confessed to the murder. Bland-Abramson concluded that San Francisco police officers had committed racial profiling, harassment and acts of corruption.

► Watch a video and read more on Caldwell’s case (Northern California Innocence Project)

Crenshaw, who retired from the San Francisco Police Department in 2011 with the rank of commander, had 67 civilian complaints lodged against him over the course of his career but never faced repercussions for purportedly fabricating his notes to frame Caldwell for murder, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

Catastrophic suffering and profound distress

Caldwell endured catastrophic suffering, profound and overwhelming stress throughout his incarceration in various prisons, Abramson writes. How did Caldwell’s experiences affect him?

About 2 1/2 years after Caldwell entered the California prison system, he was brutally stabbed in the head, shoulder and chest by another inmate who used an improvised 6-inch-long knife made from a metal rod filed to a sharp point. At the time, he was an inmate at California State Prison, Sacramento, also known as New Folsom’s Level 4 Prison.

Caldwell said the stabbing changed his life. “I knew at that very moment I could be killed at any time, on any day,” he told Abramson.

Photo of Paul Abramson

Psychology professor Paul Abramson, who conducted 20 interviews with Caldwell over a five-year period, said the former inmate is suffering from complex PTSD.

A retired correctional officer, Chris Buckley, who knew and had supervised Caldwell while he was incarcerated in a Northern California maximum-security prison, told Abramson last year, “A Level 4 prison is like the worst neighborhood you could imagine. Something terrible always might happen. Besides all of the stabbings, there are so many sexual assaults. Fear of dying in prison is a legitimate concern.”

Caldwell routinely observed violent struggles and riots throughout his incarceration, and repeatedly saw lethal weapons in the possession of inmates. He never felt safe any time he walked outside his cell, always fearing for his life. His closest family members — his grandmother, mother and brother — all died while he was in prison. He was prohibited from attending their funerals and became suicidal, feeling he had nothing, and no one, to live for, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

“Being in prison was like going to war every day,” Caldwell told Abramson. “It’s only when I was in my cell at night that I felt I was safe. I was depressed every day in prison. I don’t sleep. I suffer every day. I can understand how someone would go postal. I wouldn’t do something like that, for my kids, for all kinds of reasons. But I can understand.”

Caldwell suffers from what is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder — a form of deeply entrenched severe psychological distress also experienced by Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war and victims of childhood abuse, domestic abuse and torture — the result of having experienced sustained and repetitive agonizing events, Abramson said. Complex PTSD is often marked by rage and an unyielding depression, as in Caldwell’s case, according to Abramson.

“Mr. Caldwell could very well be an archetype for complex PTSD,” Abramson writes. “Maximum-security prisons maintain complete coercive control through 24-hour armed surveillance, locked cell blocks, 24-hour visibility of every aspect of a prisoner’s life, routine strip searches and thoroughly structured daily routines; all of which is encompassed within a fortress that is distinguished by outside perimeter barriers, and surrounded by razor wire with lethal electric fences designed to eliminate the possibility of escape.”

The many traumas Caldwell, now 54, experienced while in captivity imposed such an emotional burden on him that he disintegrated psychologically, Abramson writes, and the recent civil settlement provides no measure of relief from the deep and lasting anguish and rage that consume him — and likely will for the rest of his life.

Caldwell and Buckley, the former correctional officer, spoke with UCLA undergraduates in late September in an “Art and Trauma” honors collegium course that Abramson co-teaches.

Abramson and Bland-Abramson conclude that Caldwell was a victim of appalling injustice, which continues to disproportionately affect people of color in the United States. Recent research has shown that Black people in the U.S. are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder.

“Our hope,” the authors write, “is that by presenting this material, we can facilitate an understanding for, and empathy with, the trials and tribulations of victims of color who have suffered tremendously from police corruption and wrongful convictions. Until equal protection under the law is sustained unequivocally, restorative justice for people of color will be grievously foreshortened.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Reconstructing What Was

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

By Jonathan Riggs

Founded early in the sixth century, rebuilt in the twelfth and dismantled in the nineteenth after the French Revolution, the glorious Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture, but exists now only in legend.

In her dissertation, UCLA art history doctoral student Tori Schmitt hopes to shed more light on this medieval church, named after the patron saint of Paris and originally located where the neoclassical Panthèon now stands on the Left Bank.

“There’s not a building to work with, just sculptural fragments, drawings, watercolors and accounts by people. So that mystery intrigued me the more I read and learned about it,” says Tori Schmitt, a UCLA doctoral student in art history. “I’ve always loved 3-D modeling, drafting and trying to imagine what might have been, so I found it an exciting puzzle.”

Photo of Tori Schmitt

Tori Schmitt

Schmitt’s interest in historical reconstructions was first piqued when she served as an undergraduate research assistant to Professor Meredith Cohen on the digital humanities project Paris Past & Present. After earning her master’s at Columbia University, Schmitt returned to UCLA to once again work closely with her mentor, earning the inaugural Diane C. Brouillette Graduate Fellowship in Art History along the way.

“Diane C. Brouillette also worked on early Gothic architecture and sculpture; she wrote her dissertation on Senlis Cathedral,” says Schmitt. “I am honored to hold a fellowship in her name and add to the field.”

The fellowship will allow Schmitt to conduct research abroad in France, scouring Parisian archives and libraries in addition to viewing sculptural fragments of the abbey in the collections of Musée de Cluny, Musée Carnavalet and the Louvre. Crucially, she will be able to travel to other significant French sites of early Gothic architecture and sculpture, such as Chartres, Sens and Senlis, as well as museum collections throughout the country, and to gain a deeper understanding of the abbey’s enduring power across French culture and history.

This opportunity means everything to the Southern California native, who has long drawn inspiration from the architecture of Los Angeles and of UCLA’s campus. During the pandemic, Schmitt took up amateur photography, snapping images of interesting and surprising buildings she encountered on her bike rides, including quite a few L.A. Gothic-inspired, 1930s-era ‘storybook’ bungalows. For Schmitt, it’s a reminder that architecture doesn’t just belong to history or scholarship, but to everyone.

“Whenever I’m teaching undergrads, I try to remind them that they shouldn’t be intimidated by the study of architecture, because they’ve been interacting with it their entire lives,” she says. “They don’t have to become Gothic art historians like me, but I want them to be interested and engaged and to have open eyes for all the spaces they’ll enter throughout their lives. Ultimately, architecture is about people.”

Looking at history through this hands-on lens of wonder and curiosity is key to Schmitt’s approach in both her research and her teaching. After all, it’s one thing to ask a question of Google and receive thousands of results; it’s quite another to travel in person to a historical site and view a single document preserved for thousands of years. It helps bring the past—and most importantly its people—alive, and in a broader, more vivid context that connects us all. This is something Schmitt thinks about frequently, especially when she’s in the physical presence of the architectural creations that deserve to be thought of as much more than just buildings.

“When I went to Notre-Dame for the first time and climbed to the top, I was overwhelmed. It was so big, so beautiful it blew my mind,” Schmitt says. “They built it with no power tools—it was all relational math, highly complex geometry—and the skill on display is beyond belief. Gothic cathedrals were constructed to be awe-inspiring, and when you think about the people behind the place, that power is multiplied.”

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

A decade after gene therapy, children born with deadly immune disorder remain healthy

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

By Sarah C.P. Williams

Over a decade ago, UCLA physician-scientists began using a pioneering gene therapy they developed to treat children born with a rare and deadly immune system disorder. They now report that the effects of the therapy appear to be long-lasting, with 90% of patients who received the treatment eight to 11 years ago still disease-free.

ADA-SCID, or adenosine deaminase–deficient severe combined immunodeficiency, is caused by mutations in the gene that creates the ADA enzyme, which is essential to a functioning immune system. For babies with the disease, exposure to everyday germs can be fatal, and if untreated, most will die within the first two years of life.

In the gene therapy approach detailed in the new paper, Dr. Donald Kohn of UCLA and his colleagues removed blood-forming stem cells from each child’s bone marrow, then used a specially modified virus, originally isolated from mice, to guide healthy copies of the ADA gene into the stem cells’ DNA. Finally, they transplanted the cells back into the children’s bone marrow. The therapy, when successful, prompts the body to produce a continuous supply of healthy immune cells capable of fighting infections. Because the transplanted stem cells are the baby’s own, there is no risk of rejection.

Kohn and his team report in the journal Blood that of the 10 children who received the one-time treatment between 2009 and 2012 as part of a phase 2 clinical trial, nine have continued to remain stable. The study follows a 2017 paper, also published in Blood, on the initial success of the treatment in those nine children.

“What we saw in the first few years was that this therapy worked, and now we’re able to say that it not only works, but it works for more than 10 years,” said Kohn, senior author of the study and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “We hope someday we’ll be able to say that these results last for 80 years.”

While not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, gene therapy for ADA-SCID represents a potentially life-changing option for children who otherwise must undergo twice-weekly injections of the ADA enzyme — an expensive and time-consuming treatment — or find a matched bone marrow donor who can provide a transplant of healthy stem cells.

10 years after: Assessing and refining gene therapy for ADA-SCID

Of the 10 children who received the therapy between 2009 and 2012, most were babies; the one older child, who was 15 at the time, was the only participant whose immune function was not restored by the treatment, suggesting the therapy is most effective in younger children, Kohn said.

The other nine children were successfully treated and have remained healthy enough that none have needed enzyme replacement or a bone marrow transplant to support their immune systems in the years since.

However, the researchers did find significant immune system differences among the successfully treated children roughly a decade on. In particular, they observed that some had a nearly hundred times more blood-forming stem cells containing the corrected ADA gene than others, as well as more copies of the gene in each cell.

Those with more copies of the ADA gene in more cells had the best immune function, Kohn noted, while some of those with lower levels of the gene replacement required regular infusions of immunoglobulins, a type of immune protein, to keep their systems fully functional. More work is needed, he said, to understand the best way of achieving high levels of the gene in all patients.

“What these results tell us is that there’s a formula for optimal success for ADA-SCID, and it involves correcting more than 5 to 10% of each patient’s blood-forming stem cells,” said Kohn, who is also a distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “The relationship between the levels of gene-corrected cells and immune system function has never been shown so clearly before.”

The researchers also found that in some children’s stem cells, the treatment disturbed genes involved in cell growth — a phenomenon seen in other studies of similar gene therapies. While over time this could potentially lead to the improper activation of the growth genes, turning the cells cancerous, Kohn noted that none of the patients in the clinical trial had this problem.

Still, that safety concern is one of the reasons Kohn and his colleagues are developing a new ADA-SCID gene therapy using a different type of virus to deliver the corrected ADA gene that is much less likely to affect growth genes. This newer approach successfully treated 48 of 50 babies who received the therapy in clinical trials at UCLA, University College London and the National Institutes of Health. And while the approach used a decade ago may no longer remain the top candidate for FDA approval going forward, Kohn says its enduring success is encouraging for the field in general.

“Knowing that a gene therapy can have this lasting effect in ADA-SCID for more than a decade is important for our path forward as we develop new gene therapies for this and other diseases,” he said.

The research was supported by an FDA Office of Orphan Products Development award, the National Gene Vector Biorepository, the National Human Genome Research Institute intramural program, the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

TV shows with diverse writers rooms, casts resonated with pandemic audiences

By Jessica Wolf

The latest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, published today, reveals that television viewers during the COVID-19 pandemic leaned into content that came out of diverse writers rooms and that featured diverse casts.

“We have seen this appetite for diverse content repeated over the history of our analyses,” said Darnell Hunt, co-author of the report and UCLA’s dean of social sciences. “The fact that shows with diverse writers rooms did well last year also illustrates that audiences are looking for authentic portrayals.”

The report, which covers statistics for the 2019–20 TV season, tracks racial and gender diversity among key job categories, as well as ratings and social media engagement for 461 scripted shows across 50 broadcast, cable and streaming providers.

The new study found a continued correlation between the racial makeup of shows’ writers and TV ratings. For example, among households of all races in 2019–20, the scripted broadcast shows that earned the highest ratings were those in which people of color made up between 31% and 40% of the credited writers.

Overall, racial diversity improved in almost every job category tracked by the report, and representation among women improved in about half of the job titles.

And for the first time in the report’s history, people of color had a higher percentage of scripted broadcast TV acting roles, 43.4%, than their overall percentage of the U.S. population.

Across all three platform types, there were more people of color credited as writers than in the previous report. Overall, people of color made up 26.4% of the credited writers for broadcast series last season (up from 23.4%), 28.6% of credited writers for cable (up from 25.8%) and 24.2% of credited writers for streaming (up from 22.8%). Most of those modest gains were recorded by women, according to the study.

But people of color are still largely underrepresented among TV writers, given that 42.7% of Americans are nonwhite.

Lagging representation among Latino actors, directors

Latino representation in all job categories remained flat from the previous year, and Latinos hold far fewer TV jobs than their share of the U.S. population overall would predict. Latino actors held just 6.3% of broadcast TV roles, 5.7% in cable and 5.5% in streaming. Meanwhile, Latino directors were responsible for only 5.4% of broadcast TV episodes, 3.5% of cable episodes and 3.0% of streaming episodes.

“This UCLA report clearly demonstrates that more work is necessary to achieve more accurate representation and truly authentic portrayals in American television,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas. ”I hope this report encourages entertainment executives to reevaluate their systems for recruiting, retaining, and promoting Latinx talent, work in earnest to make changes, and create a more inclusive culture.”

According to the report, a significant proportion of 2019–20 TV content — 35% of broadcast shows, 22.9% of cable and 25.7% of streaming — was made in Los Angeles, where census data shows that 48.6% of the population is Hispanic or Latino.

“Diversifying the workforce means bringing equity to the economy and ensuring inclusionary practices in Hollywood,” said California State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo. “As Latinos make up the largest population in the state of California, yet only a dismal percentage in Hollywood, I’m looking forward to ensuring the Latinx community is not subsidizing its own exclusion via California’s Film Tax Credit Program, which the legislature oversees.”

The Hollywood Diversity Report recently received funding from the state of California that will enable UCLA researchers to continue to support such progress.

Diversity in acting

Over the decade since the Hollywood Diversity Report began, diversity has improved the most among acting jobs, especially in TV, compared with all other TV and movie job types. In 2019–20, television shows with majority-nonwhite casts were more prevalent than ever.

For the first time since the researchers began tracking data, a plurality of shows on cable (28.1%) and streaming platforms (26.8%) featured casts in which the majority of actors were nonwhite. And 32.1% of broadcast shows had majority-nonwhite casts, up from just 2.0% in the first report, which covered the 2011–12 season.

Photo of Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón

Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón. Photo: Mike Baker

The new report provides further support for the fact that audiences favor shows with diverse casts. During 2019–20, among white households, ratings for scripted broadcast shows were highest for shows whose actors were 31% to 40% nonwhite. Among Black households, scripted broadcast shows with the highest ratings where those in which casts were more than 50% nonwhite.

For streaming programming, which is dominated by Netflix, ratings among white, Black and Asian households were highest for shows with casts that were from 31% to 40% nonwhite.

The report’s authors also analyze audiences’ interaction with TV programs on social media, and how those trends correspond with cast diversity. For scripted cable shows during 2019–20, for example, they found that programs with majority nonwhite casts had the highest engagement on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for streaming shows, audience engagement on Twitter specifically was highest for programs with majority nonwhite casts.

Mixed progress among show creators

Another area in which diversity improved was among show creators. That’s an important datapoint because show creators have influence over which stories are developed, whose stories they represent and how they’re told, said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the report and the director of research and civic engagement in the UCLA Division of Social Sciences.

Women made up 29.0% of the creators of scripted cable shows, up nearly 7 percentage points over the prior season, marking the largest one-year gain for women in that job category since the report began. And people of color made up 20.6% of scripted cable show creators in 2019–20, up from 14.5% the previous season and nearly triple the share (7.4%) from 2011–12.

However, women held creator positions for fewer broadcast shows in 2019–20 (24.1%) than they did the prior year (28.1%) — and even fewer than women held in 2011–12 (26.5%).

“We also see that when women and people of color hold high-level creative positions, there is greater diversity down the line in casting and likely for crew hiring,” Ramón said. “Women and people of color are still very underrepresented in these and other behind-the-camera jobs, which is why this report continues to exist.”

Other takeaways:

  • The number of acting roles for women in 2019–20 was nearly equal to those of men across all three platform types. Women made up 46.3% of total cast in scripted broadcast shows, 45.3% in cable and 46.9% in streaming.
  • Trans and nonbinary actors were virtually absent across all platforms.
  • Out of a total 2,932 credited actors, just 13 were Native people, including just three Native women.
  • People of color directed 25.8% of broadcast episodes, 27.2% of cable and 21.4% of streaming, up from 24.3% and, 22.9% and 18.2% in the 2018–19 season.
  • Women directed 30.6% of broadcast episodes, 31.3% of cable and 33.4% of streaming, up from 29.3%, 29.7% and 29.1% the prior season.
  • Latinos made up just 4.8% of the credited writers for broadcast programs, 4.7% in cable and 4.3% in streaming.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.