Last Christmas we brought you the story of Craig Coley, a California man who was imprisoned for 38 years for a double murder he didn’t commit. After DNA testing was performed on key pieces of evidence – and Coley’s DNA was nowhere to be found – he was granted a full and unconditional pardon from Gov. Jerry Brown and was released from Folsom State Prison in November, 2017.
After his release, Coley filed a claim with the California Victim Compensation Board. In their decision after a hearing last week the board said they “unequivocally accept that he is factually innocent” and awarded him nearly $2 million, which is $140 a day for each of the 13,991 days he was wrongfully behind bars. The Legislature still has to sign off on the award, but Coley’s attorneys are asking that the process be expedited.
He’s been living with retired detective Mike Bender’s family since his release, but Coley plans to use part of the payout to purchase a home and a dog, and do a few other things.
“I don’t have that many years left. I want to travel a little bit, I want to see some friends that I haven’t seen in a long time. There’s a lot of things that I want to do.”
The money will give him some financial stability but can never make up for the time he lost with his parents, friends, and loved ones. Coley’s attorney Ron Kaye said:
“Nothing can make up for that lost time. He’s been robbed of the opportunity to have a family. He’s been robbed of the opportunity to have a career.”
Coley was convicted of the murders of his ex-girlfriend and her four-year-old son, but even at the time of trial many in the community questioned whether police had the right man. The case was largely circumstantial, relying on the fact that Coley had a key to Ronda Wicht’s apartment and there wasn’t a sign of forced entry, and on testimony from witnesses whose stories changed or were otherwise unreliable.
Defense attorneys criticized Simi Valley police for failing to investigate three other possible suspects, according to news accounts at the time. And the Simi Valley Mirror, a weekly tabloid, published reports asserting that investigators had focused on an innocent man.
More details about the “key evidence” that was re-tested was revealed during the hearing and in filings with the Commission.
A piece of Wicht’s bedsheet the night she was found dead contained another man’s sperm, along with a man’s epithelial cells. It’s unclear whether they belong to the same person, but Coley’s DNA was not found on the sheet.
Investigators also tested stains, blood and semen on a child’s Mickey Mouse T-shirt that police at the time said they discovered in a pile of dirty clothes during a search of Coley’s apartment after the murders. New tests on the shirt revealed the boy’s DNA, as well as the sperm of several individuals. None of them matched Coley.
In addition, Gov. Brown stated that “three current and former police officers” had contacted his office saying that the original investigating detective “mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley.” Coley is also filing a lawsuit for his damages, and hopefully those three officers will provide testimony in that effort.
Back in Simi Valley, Detective Dan Swanson is actively pursuing leads to find the real killer.