Man wrongfully convicted of killing ex-girlfriend and her son in 1978 gets $21 million settlement after nearly 4 decades in jail
A man in California will be receiving $21 million in settlement after he spent almost 40 years behind bars following his wrongful conviction of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her four-year-old toddler son. Craig Richard Coley, who was finally released from prison in November 2017 at the age of 70, agreed to the enormous payout on February 23. Coley was convicted in 1978 of murdering 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht and her toddler son Donald at her home in Simi Valley.
After he spent almost four decades in prison, the then-California Governor Jerry Brown, finally granted Coley a pardon towards the end of 2017. The city of Simi Valley finally announced on February 23 that they had reached the $21 million settlement with the wrongfully convicted man, Daily Mail reported.
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. The monetary cost of going to trial would be astronomical and it would be irresponsible for us to move forward in that direction."
Coley was separately given $2 million right after he was released, which is reportedly the largest payout ever from the Victim's Compensation Government Claim Board. In the payout, he was given $140 for each of the 13,991 days that he spent in prison. The almost four-decade-old conviction was overturned because of advances in DNA technology and faulty evidence.
Authorities found the young mother beaten and strangled with a rope inside her apartment on November 11, 1978. Little Donald was found smothered to death in his bed. Coley, who had broken up with Wicht only a few days before, was arrested on the same day that authorities discovered the bodies. The authorities on the case also maintained that Coley, who is the son of a retired police officer, had been angry and upset after finding out that Wicht was breaking up with him.
Coley's first trial ended in a hung jury with the jurors being split 10-2 in favor of the conviction. He was then tried again in 1980 and found guilty.
Coley was sentenced to life without parole and spent the next 39 years behind bars maintaining that he was innocent. While he was in prison, Coley was reportedly a model inmate and avoided gangs for religion.
In an application that Coley himself filed from prison a few years ago, he said that a former detective had been the one who framed him by destroying vital evidence. He said: "The crimes were not committed by me and had the detective not destroyed the exonerating evidence (including semen and hair), the real suspect(s) could have been apprehended." Coley named a retired Simi Valley police detective who he said could verify his story.
Authorities started reviewing his case again in 2016 after a retired detective said that Coley's conviction was unnecessary and that he was either wrongfully convicted or had been framed. The trial judge subsequently ordered that evidence be destroyed after he exhausted all his appeals, but investigators were determined and got records from Coley's relatives. They were then able to locate biological samples at a private lab.
Using all the new techniques that were not available to the police at the time of Coley's trial, technicians were able to confirm that his DNA was not on a key piece of evidence that had been used to convict him.
They found, instead, DNA from an unknown man. Coley also had an alibi for the time of the murders and detectives were able to disprove a sworn testimony from a witness who had placed Coley in Wicht's apartment when she and her son were killed.
The wrongfully convicted man had previously said that money would not be able to make up for what he described as the "worst nightmare" of spending 13,991 days in prison. Out of the $21 million that Coley will be awarded as part of the settlement, Simi Valley city said that they will give him about $4.9 million and the remaining amount will be made up by other sources which include insurance.