By Jackie Botts
(Reuters) – A California man who was wrongfully convicted for killing an ex-girlfriend and her son four decades ago has reached a $21 million settlement with the city of Simi Valley, officials said.
Craig Coley, 71, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1978 murder of his former partner, Rhonda Wicht, and her 4-year-old son, Donald, at their apartment.
He had always maintained his innocence, and was pardoned in 2017 by California’s then-governor, Jerry Brown, based on exculpatory DNA evidence found by investigators.
“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,” Simi Valley City Manager Eric Levitt said on Saturday in a statement.
The 39 years Coley spent behind bars was the longest prison term ever overturned in California, the statement said.
Since his release, Coley has spoken to law enforcement officials about evidence collection, and has met with parents of prisoners who maintain their innocence, according to Mike Bender, a close friend and former police detective in Simi Valley, a community just outside Los Angeles.
Bender had pushed for Coley’s release for nearly three decades after he became troubled by aspects of the case.
“Craig’s message is always don’t give up,” Bender told Reuters by telephone on Sunday.
More than 350 U.S. inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, according to New York-based the Innocence Project, which helps people who were wrongfully convicted. On average, convicts who were freed had served 14 years in prison when exonerated.
California authorities awarded Coley $1.95 million last year — $140 for each day he spent in prison. At the time, it was the largest payout for a wrongful conviction by the state’s Victim Compensation Board.
That money allowed Coley to buy a home. With the new settlement money, he will also be able visit places on his bucket list and continue to help the wrongfully convicted, Bender said.
“He’s looking forward to being able to live his life,” Bender said, “No one would want to trade places with him.”
(Reporting by Jackie Botts in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)