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Calif. Innocence Project director may have established romance with murderer to free another alleged murderer
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Calif. Innocence Project director may have established romance with murderer to free another alleged murderer

'It was the art of seduction at its finest.'

The director of a California organization that attempts to help the supposedly wrongfully convicted is now accused of establishing a romantic relationship with one convicted murderer to help free another, according to the San Francisco Standard.

The case

The complicated case relates to two friends who grew up in the projects of San Francisco as well as a woman who died because of a drug deal gone wrong. In 1991, a jury found Maurice Caldwell, a local drug dealer, guilty of fatally shooting the woman, and he was soon afterward locked away in prison.

That same year, Caldwell's childhood friend Marritte Funches, who was allegedly present at the time of the shooting, was convicted of a separate murder in Reno. Funches was then sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

During that time, city attorneys in San Francisco began reinterviewing some of the witnesses identified by Funches and found inconsistencies in their stories. In court documents, they even accused Kaneb of 'manipulating the facts.'

In 2007, 16 years after Caldwell and Funches were convicted of those respective murders, Paige Kaneb joined the Northern California Innocence Project — an organization that is based out of Santa Clara University and is independent of the more widely known Innocence Project established in New York City in 1992 — to advocate on behalf of Caldwell.

Three years later, Kaneb met Funches in the Nevada prison where he was then incarcerated. The two developed a friendship of sorts, and Funches eventually began making suggestive comments to Kaneb in letters and in some of their phone conversations. Kaneb reciprocated some of his romantic overtures, the Standard said, though whether she ever used explicit language with him at that time is unclear.

In 2010, the NCIP was ready to take Caldwell's case to a judge after Kaneb secured statements from several witnesses, including Funches and others identified by him. At the time, Kaneb and Funches reportedly made an agreement that these witnesses could remain anonymous. However, Kaneb then released their names to the public, prompting Funches to end his relationship with her.

The legal ploy worked, though. Funches claimed that he and another associate had killed the woman during the drug deal and that Caldwell was innocent. As a result, a judge granted Caldwell a new trial, determining that he had received inadequate counsel in the original.

In March 2010, Caldwell walked out of prison after serving nearly 19 years. A city attorney later declined to retry him.

Several years later, Caldwell unsuccessfully attempted to have the courts declare him factually innocent. During that time, city attorneys in San Francisco began reinterviewing some of the witnesses identified by Funches and found inconsistencies in their stories. In court documents, they even accused Kaneb of "manipulating the facts."

They also discovered the previous infatuation between Kaneb and Funches and found that Kaneb may have offered Funches legal and medical aid or even passed along money to his daughter. Kaneb later denied rendering him legal aid. She also reportedly insisted that her efforts to help Funches did not cross any ethical lines.

In 2021, even with the inconsistencies in the witnesses' stories and Caldwell's failed attempts to secure legal innocence, San Francisco agreed to pay Caldwell an $8 million settlement.

The flame burns hot once again

In 2023, two years after Caldwell reached the settlement with the city, Kaneb and Funches reconnected, and their romantic relationship rekindled in earnest. Between March and December 2023, the two exchanged nearly 9,000 messages that included videos and pictures.

'I love you too. Always have, always will.'

In one message, Kaneb admitted to Funches that on their first meeting, she was jealous that he seemed to pay more attention to her female colleague. "I wanted you to look at me — I’ve never admitted that before ... I remember when she left for a few minutes. It was like my chest would explode. And we began talking ... ❤" she reportedly wrote.

In his messages, Funches frequently described Kaneb as "beautiful" and claimed he wanted to "protect" her.

"I love you. I always have. Never stopped. Always will," he apparently wrote last July.

"I love you too. Always have, always will," she reportedly replied.

Several weeks later, she sent him a few racy photos. In one, she is wearing a thin wrap. She wrote in the attending message that she had "nothing" on "underneath." He assured her in his reply that his "imagination was going crazy."

Kaneb sent at least one other selfie that suggested she was wearing minimal clothing. She also sent multiple videos that included a virtual kiss, the Standard report shows.

The Standard reviewed many of the former couple's messages as well as many of their recorded phone calls. The outlet claimed these messages and phone calls "corroborate many aspects of Funches’ relationship with Kaneb and the aid he claims Caldwell promised him."

'Your career is done': Apparent blackmail leads to another break-up

Last December, their relationship soured once again after Funches began hinting that Caldwell was actually guilty. "Maurice isn’t everything you think he is," he told Kaneb. Kaneb insisted she believed the case involved "an innocent person."

Funches also allegedly began blackmailing Kaneb, demanding $2 million in exchange for his silence about their relationship. "I recorded every phone call, kept every text. And copies of every video," he allegedly warned her in an email.

"You can try to clean it up. But you'll never practice law again. Your career is done."

Funches then went to the Standard. In statements with the outlet, Funches claimed that he and Caldwell "shot two people" in 1990. He also added that Kaneb engaged with him only so that he would help her on Caldwell's case.

"She pretended to take a personal interest in me. We began a romantic relationship," he wrote to the Standard. "It was the art of seduction at its finest. All to get me to finally help Mr. Caldwell."

Response to the accusations

California law does not expressly prohibit romantic relationships between lawyers and witnesses, but the experts whom the Standard consulted indicated that the courts would've disregarded much of the evidence brought to assist Caldwell, had they known about Kaneb and Funches' communications.

'It’s the most compelling case for innocence that I’ve ever seen.'

An NCIP spokesperson from Santa Clara University countered that Kaneb, who is now the legal director of the NCIP, began sexting Funches only last August, more than a decade after Caldwell was released from prison.

"As with any unit of the university, when we receive any allegations of inappropriate conduct by an employee, we refer the matter to the university for investigation," the spokesperson said. He also claimed that Caldwell's exoneration remains safe.

However, a statement from city prosecutors indicates they are "looking into the matter" as it relates to Caldwell's settlement. "We take this information seriously," the statement said.

Neither Kaneb nor Caldwell responded to the Standard's "repeated" requests for comment.

"Maurice has always proclaimed his innocence," Kaneb said of Caldwell in 2021. "It’s the most compelling case for innocence that I’ve ever seen."

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Cortney Weil

Cortney Weil

Sr. Editor, News

Cortney Weil is a senior editor for Blaze News.
@cortneyweil →