A 71-year-old man who spent nearly 39 years behind bars for a double murder conviction before being exonerated and let out of prison has reached a $21 million settlement agreement with the city of Simi Valley. [Ventura County Star]
Craig Coley was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Ronda Wicht, 24, and her son Donald Wicht, 4, at their Simi Valley home on Nov. 11, 1978. The two victims were found dead in their beds at their apartment on Buyers Street.
Ronda Wicht was strangled by a macrame rope and her son was smothered to death. Officers arrested Coley later that day.
First, Coley was tried for the crime, and a jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of conviction. A second jury convicted Coley on Jan. 3, 1980, and he was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ultimately, DNA evidence, which was thought to be destroyed but in actuality was not, indicated someone else was the killer, exonerating Coley. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley in Nov. 2017.
Unlike in many wrongful conviction cases, it was police, rather than advocacy groups, who initiated the effort to reopen the case. A Simi Valley police detective saw red flags and pursued the issue for 28 years, taking the case to state and federal authorities when nothing was being done within the police department.
The efforts of Mike Bender, a now-retired detective, and others who championed for justice in the Coley case are a source of pride for the department, Simi Valley City Manager Eric Levitt said. Levitt announced the settlement on Saturday, saying it allows the city to avoid a potentially long and costly court trial.
If the case went to trial, Simi Valley faced exposure of up to $80 million in the worst-case scenario, Levitt said. Now, the city will pay approximately $4.9 million of the $21 million settlement, while insurance and other sources will cover the remainder of the funds.
Coley served the longest prison term in California of any person whose conviction has been overturned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Coley’s prison term was the 10th longest nationwide for a proven wrongful conviction case.