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$21 Million Settlement for Wrongfully Convicted Man Released After 39 Years in Prison

by Douglas Ankney

Simi Valley, California, and a wrongfully convicted man who spent nearly four decades in prison have reached a $21 million settlement.

Craig Coley was convicted of the 1978 murders of Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son Donald. Wicht had been raped. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but the then 31-year-old Coley was sentenced to life without parole.

Former California Governor Jerry Brown pardoned Coley in 2017 after at least three law enforcement officers opined that a detective had “mishandled” the case. Investigators in Simi Valley, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, discovered biological samples from the case in a laboratory. The trial court had ordered the samples destroyed, but a private firm purchased the laboratory and stored the samples. DNA testing of key pieces of evidence used at the trial — a bed sheet and one of Donald’s tee-shirts — revealed someone other than Coley committed the crimes.

This case was unusual in that all concerned government officials — including the police department and current prosecuting attorney — agreed that the now 71-year-old Coley was wrongfully convicted and deserved the $21 million in compensation.

“While no amount of money can make up for what happened to Mr. Coley,” said Simi Valley City Manager Eric Levitt, “settling this is the right thing to do for Mr. Coley and our community.”

The city said 39 years was the longest prison term overturned in California. 



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