71-Year-Old California Man Awarded Millions After 39 Years in Prison
In 1980, 31-year-old Craig Coley was sentenced to life in prison, without parole, for the murders of 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son Donald. In 2017, Coley was pardoned of the crime and declared innocent by former California governor Jerry Brown. In February 2019, he was granted an additional $21 million in a federal civil rights lawsuit, tacking on to the nearly $2 million he was awarded by the state of California at the time of pardoning.
Coley, a boyfriend of Wicht, “was in the process of breaking up with [her] at the time,” reports CNN. He was arrested for the murder of Wicht and her son when police found a child's shirt and bloody towel in Coley's apartment, and witness testimonies appeared to connect him to the crime. The victims' apartment was staged to appear as though a burglary had occurred, although there were no signs of a break-in and a key to the home was found inside. Coley testified to visiting coworkers in a restaurant where he was formerly employed at the time the murders were thought to have occurred (according to witness testimony), and maintained his innocence throughout his entire prison sentence. Coley's former coworkers testified in support of his account of being in the restaurant that morning.
Coley's first trial, in 1979, was declared a mistrial due to a hung jury, who ruled 10-2 against Coley after two weeks of deliberation. He was convicted in his second trial in 1980, found guilty of multiple murder and murder in conjunction with rape. However, he was able to avoid the prosecutor's original wish of a death penalty sentence.
Coley was found innocent partly thanks to presumed-lost DNA evidence found on Wicht's sheets and the T-shirt police took from his apartment. Uncovering the DNA, which was thought to be destroyed in 1980 but instead was found in a private lab in 2017, led to the conclusion that the DNA discovered at the crime scene did not belong to Coley.
Further investigation also disproved the witness testimonies of the time. A neighbor reported seeing a truck at the victim's home with a driver who matched Coley's physical description, however, investigators entered the witness's apartment and saw it would be impossible to see the supposed driver from their window.
Reopening Coley's case was spearheaded by retired detective Mike Bender of Simi Valley, California. An original petition for clemency in 2013 was denied at the time by the Ventura County District Attorney's Office and the victim's family, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. Bender worked with the office of Governor Jerry Brown and Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone, along with Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten, to recheck the evidence against Coley and reanalyze the murders, resulting in Coley's pardoning in 2017. The true killer(s) of Rhonda Wicht and her son have yet to be found.
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A member of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, attorney Howard Stein is dedicated to advocacy for those who have been wrongfully accused. Stein — along with Stephen Lotzkar, Cara Starr, Pat Kozu, Douglas Wacker, Terra Clendenin, and Andrew Rice — are available to fight for you in the face of miscarriages of justice.
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