71-year-old Craig Coley spent 39 years in prison, almost four decades, for two murders that he did not commit.
Simi Valley announced on Saturday, February 23rd, 2019 that they will settle with Coley, giving him $21 million for spending the last nearly four decades wrongfully incarcerated for the 1978 murders of Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son, Donald. Coley’s case represents that longest prison term overturned in California.
City Manager Eric Levitt said “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.”
On November 11th, 1978, Rhonda Wicht was found strangled and raped in her home and her son Donald was found smothered. At the time, neighbors alleged that they overheard a struggle and spotted Coley’s truck outside. Coley, then 31, a manager of a restaurant and son of a retired LA detective, was in the process of breaking up with Wicht at the time of her death.
Coley continued to tell police that he was at the restaurant until 4:30AM, dropped off a friend at 4:45AM, and then proceeded to his own home. Police searched his home, where they found a child’s t-shirt and bloody towel. He was charged with first-degree murder. In his initial trial, the jury was hung and the judge declared a mistrial, but he was found guilty in a second trial and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The California Court of Appeal upheld his conviction ten years later.
It wasn’t until 2013 when a detective examined the case file and was convinced of Coley’s innocence. He wrote in his petition for clemency that another detective had destroyed evidence that would have vindicated Coley. Luckily, boxes of evidence were found in a storage unit and the company that tested Coley’s initial biological samples still retained them.
It turned out that Wicht’s sheet did not contain Coley’s DNA, but sperm and saliva from an unidentified man and Donald’s T-shirt also did not contain Coley’s DNA.
Coley was pardoned in 2017 by Governor Jerry Brown and the Ventura County Superior Court not only vacated his convictions but declared him innocent. Last year the California Victim Compensation Board awarded him $2 million in compensation, $140 for each day Coley spent behind bars. Months later, Coley filed a civil rights lawsuit and the city is compensating him with millions more.