Craig Coley, 71, will be compensated with $21 million after he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime he didn’t commit.
Coley spent 39 years in prison after Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son, Donald were found murdered on November 11, 1978. Donald had been smothered, Wicht had been strangled with a macrame cord and it appeared someone had staged the scene to look like a burglary. Wicht, 24, had also been raped.
Neighbours told police they’d been woken by the sound of a struggle about 5:30 a.m. that morning, and one neighbour said she looked outside and saw Coley’s truck. Coley, a restaurant manager and son of a retired Los Angeles detective, was in the process of breaking up with Wicht at the time, according to the registry’s synopsis.
Coley, 31 at the time, kept insisting he was innocent. He told police he had been socializing at a restaurant until 4:30 a.m., had dropped off a friend at about 4:45 and gone home himself. Police searched Coley’s home and found a child’s T-shirt and a bloody towel, which they believed had been used in the murders. A doctor also told jurors Coley had numerous injuries, including an abrasion on his penis.
At trial, police testified that there were no signs of forced entry at Wicht’s home and that a key to an inside door lock had been found on the floor of her apartment.
Coley denied committing the crimes and continued to maintain his innocence as he would for the next four decades. Coworkers backed his story that he was at the restaurant until the early morning of the murder.
But Coley was charged with first-degree murder and prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty. The jury was hung 10-2, and the judge declared a mistrial. Coley was found guilty in a second trial and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The California Court of Appeal upheld his conviction a decade later.
Simi Valley police detective Michael Bender eventually examined the case file and became convinced of Coley’s innocence, CNN reports. In his 2013 petition for clemency, Bender said that another detective had destroyed evidence that may have vindicated Coley, the registry said.
Bender told CNN last year: “There was nobody else there to fight for the guy, so I just continued the fight. It was the right thing to do.”
Boxes of evidence once thought destroyed were found in a storage unit, and the company that had tested Coley’s biological samples had been bought by a private company, which retained the samples.
The sheet on which Wicht’s body was found did not contain Coley’s DNA, but it contained sperm and possibly saliva from an unidentified man, and the child’s T-shirt did not contain Coley’s DNA, the registry said.
A statement from the district attorney’s office said: “A key piece of evidence used to convict (the) defendant was found to not contain his DNA, but to instead contain the DNA of other individuals.”
As part of the new investigation, police also went to the apartment building where the neighbours lived and determined it would’ve been difficult to make out any details of a vehicle and impossible to identify anyone inside.
Former governor Jerry Brown pardoned the Navy veteran in 2017. When Brown officially exonerated Coley, he flatly stated, “I grant this pardon because Mr. Coley did not commit these crimes.”
After Coley was pardoned, California Victim Compensation Board last year awarded him almost $2 million in compensation — $140 for each of the 13,991 days Coley was held “illegally behind bars, away from society, employment, and (his) loved ones.”
Months later, Coley filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, and now the city is handing over millions more.
Simi Valley announced Saturday it would settle a federal lawsuit, giving Coley $21 million for his almost four decades of wrongful incarceration. The city will pay about $4.9 million, with the rest coming from insurance and other sources, according to a news release.
City Manager Eric Levitt said in a statement:
While no amount of money can make up for what happened to Mr. Coley, settling this case is the right thing to do for Mr. Coley and our community.
While the settlement brings some sense of justice to Coley and his family, it also means that Rhonda and Donald Wicht’s killer or killers escaped arrest. Police said last year they were hoping the Golden State Killer might help them solve the case, but he, too, was cleared by DNA, the Ventura County Star reported.
Social media users, reacting to the news, say $21 million is not nearly enough to compensate Coley for the years spent in prison.