Man wrongfully jailed for 38 years for murder to get $28m

LOS ANGELES • The southern California city of Simi Valley has reached a US$21 million (S$28 million) settlement with a man who spent more than 38 years wrongfully incarcerated in the brutal 1978 murders of a woman and her four-year-old son.

Mr Craig Coley, 71, was released from prison in 2017 after he was pardoned by then Governor Jerry Brown, who said that DNA evidence and a painstaking reinvestigation of the Simi Valley murders proved his innocence.

The state approved a separate, much smaller payout last year.

Mr Brown approved a US$1.95 million payment for Mr Coley - US$140 for each day he was wrongfully behind bars - that marked the largest payout by the state for an erroneous conviction.

The victims were discovered by a relative who grew concerned when Ms Rhonda Wicht, then 24, did not show up for a family get-together.

She had been strangled with a 3m-long macrame rope; her son, Donald, was smothered in his bed.

Mr Coley, who was going through a break-up with Ms Wicht, was held for questioning that day and ultimately charged with the two murders. He did not have a prior criminal record.

A key witness against Mr Coley was Ms Wicht's next-door neighbour, who said she heard banging noises and saw Mr Coley's truck parked outside the apartment complex on the morning of the murders.

Mr Craig Coley, 71, was released from prison in 2017 after being wrongly convicted for the murders of a woman and her four-year-old son in 1978.
Mr Craig Coley, 71, was released from prison in 2017 after being wrongly convicted for the murders of a woman and her four-year-old son in 1978.

In 1980, Mr Coley was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But he always maintained his innocence.

In his claim for compensation and other court filings, his attorneys and prosecutors detailed troubling inconsistencies in the evidence against him.

Exactly 39 years after Ms Wicht's murder, detectives returned to the neighbour's apartment to peer out of her window.

There was no way, they concluded, that she could have seen from her window whoever was inside a truck parked outside.

But the most indisputable finding that officials said supported his innocence came when detectives located DNA evidence once thought destroyed.

A piece of Ms Wicht's bedsheet used on the night she died contained another man's sperm, along with a man's epithelial cells. Mr Coley's DNA was not found.

Mr Coley's attorney, Mr Ron Kaye, said the settlement offers some closure and vindication for his client, though no amount of money can compensate him for the life he missed while imprisoned.

DPA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2019, with the headline 'Man wrongfully jailed for 38 years for murder to get $28m'. Print Edition | Subscribe