After Decades Behind Bars, One Man Receives the Gift of Justice

Craig Coley, right, with Mike and Cindy Bender.

The last time Craig Coley celebrated Christmas as a free man, in 1977, the first Atari systems had just hit the market, Star Wars fever had just hit the nation, and Saturday Night Fever was a new box office hit.

He was arrested in November 1978, suspected of murdering his girlfriend and her 4-year-old son in Simi Valley, California. He steadfastly maintained his innocence the entire time, but was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Thanks to the relentless efforts of a former Simi Valley detective and a police chief whose curiosity was piqued by the case, DNA testing was performed on a key piece of evidence this year and Craig was cleared. Gov. Jerry Brown granted him a full and unconditional pardon, and Craig was released from prison November 24.

If Craig was bitter and angry over what he lost – which was essentially his entire adult life – it would be understandable. Instead, he is celebrating this Christmas with an attitude of gratitude, faith, and hope. In an exclusive interview with RedState, Craig shared the faith that got him through nearly 40 years of incarceration and which sustains him today.

“[At Christmas, my emotions are] all stirring around at times. It’s a lot to take in.

But my message to people is to keep the faith, be hopeful, be truthful, be tenacious, and don’t give up.  I never gave up.”

Craig is celebrating this first Christmas with the family of Mike Bender, the former detective who spent 30 years attempting to clear Craig’s name and find the actual murderer. During Craig’s imprisonment both of his parents died, but the Benders have adopted him into the family. Bender’s extended family from New York flew in to join the celebration. Bender explains, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. They’ve heard his name this whole time and feel like he’s family.”

Craig Coley, right, with Mike and Cindy Bender.

The Benders are not just taking Craig in for Christmas; they’re giving him a roof over his head  while he faces the daunting task of building a life as a 70-year-old man entering a foreign world. His driver’s license was long expired, and without a photo ID he was unable to do things like rent an apartment or open a bank account. He needed a birth certificate to get a driver’s license, but needed a photo ID to get his birth certificate. All of these tasks require transportation, of course, which the Benders are providing.

Administrative challenges and hoops are just part of the rebuilding process. There’s also a large psychological component to rebuilding his life, including mourning the loss of both of his parents, who didn’t live to see him exonerated.

When I’m alone, I think about the changes. It’s been a long road. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. I have to stay positive…I have my moments when I cry like a baby sometimes.

Shortly after his release, Craig visited his parents’ resting place at Forest Lawn.

It all hit me, [realizing] that they weren’t there with me. That was a rough day for me, but it was a day that I needed.

Credit: GoFundMe/Craig Coley Free at Last

While Craig was in prison his positive, faithful, truthful attitude allowed him to make the best of a horrific situation. He took advantage of educational opportunities and earned an associate’s degree and a certificate in Biblical counseling, and worked with fellow Vietnam veterans who were behind bars themselves.

Through this selfless work, Craig met Sgt. Major Jesse Acosta, who is helping him acclimate to life outside of prison. Acosta runs the nonprofit Thank-A-Vet, which helps veterans re-enter civilian life. When he heard that Craig was having difficulty obtaining medical care through the VA, he stepped in and helped him navigate the bureaucracy.

Because he’s seen up close the difficulties people face when re-entering civilian life, Craig said one of the things he wants to do with his freedom is to “personally help some veterans” and their families. “Nobody understands a veteran like another veteran,” he says. First, though, he needs to find a place to live and a way to support himself. (Mike Bender set up a GoFundMe campaign to tell the story of Craig’s wrongful conviction and allow people to help him get back on his feet – donate here.)

On Christmas Day, though, Craig said his focus was on two things – “the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior,” and “spending time with loved ones.”

Which is exactly how it should be.