A California man who spent 39 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit was awarded a $21 million settlement.
Craig Coley, 71, was released from prison after being pardoned by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 in connection with the murders of Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son in 1978.
The City of Simi Valley announced Saturday that it would pay $4.9 million of the $21 million and the rest would be paid by insurance and “other sources,” authorities 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,” City Manager Eric Levitt said in a statement. “The monetary cost of going to trial would be astronomical and it would be irresponsible for us to move forward in that direction.”
Coley, who had been working as a patrol officer at the time of the murders, had dated Wicht and still had the key to her apartment when she died, and after going through two trials, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Retired Simi Valley Det. Mike Bender played a major role in getting Coley’s case re-examined, having pushed to have his conviction reconsidered for three decades. Bender quit the force in 1991 after becoming convinced that Coley was innocent.
Authorities finally agreed to revisit the case in 2015. That's when authorities found that the witness accounts in the case had many inconsistencies. Among them? A neighbor who said she’d seen a man matching Coley’s description driving away from Wicht’s home the morning of the murders couldn’t have seen what she said she did based on the location of the window she said she was looking out of, authorities discovered.
Eventually, DNA evidence from a bed sheet in Wicht’s home turned out to have another man’s sperm on it. Coley was then released from prison in 2017 and a judge officially declared him innocent.
Coley was also awarded $2 million by the state of California after his release. It was the longest prison term ever overturned in the state.
Bender told Reuters that the new settlement will help Coley with his bucket list.
“He’s looking forward to being able to live his life,” Bender said, “No one would want to trade places with him.”