A wrongfully convicted California man received $21 million after spending 39 years in jail for being accused of killing an ex-girlfriend and her son nearly four decades ago.
Craig Coley, 71, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1978 murder of his former partner, Rhonda Wicht, and her 4-year-old son, Donald, at their apartment. However Coley has always maintained his innocence, and was pardoned in 2017 by California’s then-governor, Jerry Brown, based on exculpatory DNA evidence found by investigators. The 39 years Coley spent behind bars was the longest prison term ever overturned in California, the statement said.
Coley has spoken to law enforcement officials about evidence collection, and has met with parents of prisoners who maintain their innocence, according to Mike Bender, a close friend and former police detective in Simi Valley, a community just outside Los Angeles. Bender had pushed for Coley’s release for nearly three decades after he became troubled by aspects of the case.
California authorities awarded Coley $1.95 million last year — $140 for each day he spent in prison. At the time, it was the largest payout for a wrongful conviction by the state’s Victim Compensation Board.
Coley then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit some months later, and on Saturday 23 February, Simi Valley announced it would settle the lawsuit and give Coley $21m for his 39 years behind bars.
“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,” City Manager Eric Levitt said in a statement. The city will pay about $4.9 million and the rest is expected to be paid by insurance and other sources.
The city’s police chief and Ventura County’s district attorney asked Brown to pardon him because forensic tests showed Coley’s DNA was not on the victim’s bedsheet, which contained DNA from an unknown man. Coley had an alibi for the time of the slayings and investigators later disproved testimony from an eyewitness who placed him at the scene.
His parents died while he was in prison after mortgaging their home to pay his legal bills.
Ron Kaye, an attorney representing Coley, said the settlement offers some closure and vindication for his client, though no amount of money can compensate him for the life he missed while imprisoned.
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