craig coley

Craig Coley spent 39 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The man was finally acquitted after it was proven that he is innocent for the murders of his former girlfriend and her 4 years old son.

The $21 million in damages for the years he spent in jail for a crime he did not commit will ensure the 71 years old man will live a comfortable life.

The city of Simi Valley announced on Saturday they Craig Coley has been offered $21 million in damages because he spent 39 years in jail being innocent of the murders of Rhonda Wicht and her 4 years old son, Donald, which happened in 1978.

“Although no sum of money can compensate what happened to Mr. Coley, this is a good thing for our community” Eric Levitt said. He also said that a lawsuit against the state would be long, expensive and irresponsible.

Many times, inmates that turn out to be innocent face long legal battles in getting compensation for the years they spend in prison, while local administrations pass the blame to previous administrations and they often don’t reach a settlement out of court.

In the case of Craig Coley, the Government was involved at every legal. The Simi Valley Police Department reopened the case at the initiative of Ventura county lawyer Gregory Totten.

rhonda wicht and her son donald
Rhonda Wicht and her son, Donald.

Governor Jerry Brown pardoned Craig Coley, who also got back his status as Navy Veteran and the California Victim Compensation  Board won almost $2 million last year in damages, $140 for each of the 13,991 days Coley spent in prison while being innocent. Later, Craig Coley filed a federal lawsuit and now the city has to pay millions in damages.

According to a press release from the local administration, the city will pay $4.9 million, the rest being paid by insurance companies and other sources.

In 2017, Gregory Totten’s office announced that the prosecutor and chief of police of Simi Valley, David Livingstone, backed Coley’s request for acquittal. Simi Valley investigators found biological evidence, which the court ordered to be destroyed after Coley was sentenced in January of 1980. The evidence was analyzed by a private laboratory.

“It was found that an essential piece of evidence used to convict Coley does not contain his DNA, but the DNA of other people” David Livingstone said.

The investigation made Totten to consider the “evidence as they were rediscovered after so many years” should be considered to prove Coley’s innocence.

On November 22, 2017, Coley became a free man because he was pardoned by the Governor and one week later, the Supreme Court of Ventura not only acquitted Craig Coley but also ruled he is innocent, thus opening the legal pathways towards state compensation.

When the pardon came through, Brown said t hat in 2015 he asked the case to be reopened. Craig Coley did had a criminal record before the murders, he was a model inmate and he dedicated himself to religion.

While the acquittal brings a sense of justice to Craig Coley and his family, this also means that the real killer or killers of Rhonda and Donald Wicht have been walking free all these years.

Rhonda Wicht and her son, Donald, were found murdered on November 11, 1978. Donald was chocked to death while his mother, Rhonda, was strangled and the police said the murder scene was staged to look like a robbery. Rhonda Wicht, who was 24 years at the time of the murder, was also raped, according to the findings of the medical examiner.

The neighbors said they were waken up by noises around 5:30 in the morning and one person said that looking through the window he was able to spot Coley’s truck. Craig Coley was a restaurant manager and son of a LAPD detective and he was about to break up with Rhonda Wicht.

Craig Coley, who was 31 years old at the time of the murders, told the police that when the murders happened he was with his friends in a restaurant until 4:30 in the morning. He spent another 15 minutes with a friend and later went home. The police searched Craig Coley’s home and found a children’s T-Shirt and a towel covered in blood, which made them believe they came from the crime scene. Coley was charged with first degree murder and the prosecutor’s office said they will seek the death penalty.

At the trial the police said there were no signs of forced entry into the home of Rhonda Wicht and that a key was found on the floor of the apartment. A doctor told the jury that Craig Coley had wounds on his body, including on his penis.

For 40 years Craig Coley insisted that he is innocent and he continues to seek justice. His coworkers and friends confessed that Craig was with them at the restaurant until the early hours of the morning while the murders happened and Craig Coley’s lawyer contested the wounds found on Coley’s body.

Despite receiving a good defense, Craig Coley was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Simi Valley Police Detective Michael Bender re-examined the case and became convinced that Craig Coley is innocent. In a request for clemency filed in 2013, Michael Bender claimed that another detective destroyed evidence in order to get Coley convicted.

Boxes of evidence that were believed to be destroyed were found in a storage unit, and the lab that tested Coley’s biological samples was bought by a private company who kept the samples in their archives.

The evidence found on the scene of the murders do not contain Craig Coley’s DNA, but the DNA of an unidentified man. During the new investigation, the police reached the conclusion that it would have been very difficult for someone to identify a vehicle as well as to identify someone inside the apartment.

When the Governor pardoned Craig Coley he said without reservations: ” I grant this pardon for Craig Coley because he has not committed these murders”.

Craig Coley celebrated his first “Thanksgiving” as a free man with Michael Bender and his family.

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