California town to pay $21 million to wrongly convicted man

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A California man who spent 39 years behind bars after wrongfully being convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her four-year-old son has reached a $21 million settlement in the case, authorities said.

Craig Coley, 71, was convicted of the 1978 murder of Rhonda Wicht, 24, and her son Donald and was sentenced in 1980 to life in prison without parole.

He was released nearly four decades later and was pardoned by then-governor Jerry Brown thanks to new DNA evidence that proved his innocence.

In announcing the settlement on Saturday, the city of Simi Valley said it had agreed to the payout to avoid costly litigation.

“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.”

Last year, Coley was also awarded nearly $2 million dollars -- representing $140 dollars for each day of his erroneous incarceration -- by the California Victim Compensation Board.

The Navy veteran, who had consistently maintained his innocence, was convicted in the case partly based on the testimony of a neighbor who reported seeing his truck leave the scene of the crime.

Both victims were found murdered in their beds. Wicht had been beaten, raped and strangled to death while her son had been smothered.

In 2016, police and prosecutors reopened the investigation that uncovered new DNA evidence.

Specifically, sperm found on Wicht’s bedsheets did not match Coley’s.
Investigators also identified other potential suspects and determined that the neighbor who reported seeing his truck leave the scene through a window could not have spotted his vehicle because of insufficient light.

Coley’s attorney Ron Kaye said he hoped the settlement agreement will help his client find some closure.

“He now can live the rest of his life, which we hope will be really well into the future, with the security he deserves,” he told the Los Angeles Times.