21 MILLION DOLLAR PAYOUT To Wrongfully Convicted California Man
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.
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.
Simi Valley, California, released a statement Saturday afternoon saying it had come to an agreement with Coley to pay him $21 million.
“The tireless advocacy by those who believed he was innocent, and the Simi Valley Police Department’s initiative to reopen the case, led to the discovery of DNA evidence, which ultimately led to the determination that Mr. Coley was factually innocent and he was later pardoned by Governor Brown,” the town said in a release.
“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. “The monetary cost of going to trial would be astronomical and it would be irresponsible for us to move forward in that direction.”
The $21 million payout is the second million-dollar settlement given to Coley since his release. Brown agreed to pay the wrongfully convicted man almost $2 million from the state’s Victim’s Compensation Government Claim Board — the largest payout since the board was established in 1965.
The board called him “unequivocally innocent” of the crime.
The city will pay about $4.9 million of the $21 million settlement, with the rest coming from other sources, including insurance, the city said.
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