Camarillo, California: The city of Simi Valley has reached a $21 million settlement with Craig Coley, who was wrongly convicted of a 1978 double murder and eventually exonerated after spending nearly four decades behind bars.
Simi Valley City Manager Eric Levitt announced the settlement Saturday.
Coley was accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend Rhonda Wicht, 24, and her son Donald Wicht, 4, at their home in Simi Valley on Nov. 11, 1978. The two were found dead in their beds at their apartment on Buyers Street. She was apparently strangled by a macrame rope and her son was smothered. Coley was arrested later that day.
He was tried twice for the crime after a jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of conviction on April 12, 1979. A second jury found Coley guilty on Jan. 3, 1980. He was sentenced on Feb. 26, 1980, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Although many wrongful convictions are overturned with help of advocacy groups such as the Innocence Project, Coley’s case is unusual because the impetus to reopen the case came from within the Simi Valley Police Department. A detective who saw red flags doggedly pursued the issue for 28 years.
“We believe the police department did the right thing,” Levitt said Saturday. The efforts of Mike Bender, the now-retired detective, and others who championed for justice in the Coley case are “a source of pride” for the department, Levitt added.
While the city can’t make up for the decades Coley spent behind bars, Levitt said, the settlement is the “right thing to do” for Coley, the community and the city.
In a statement released by the city, Levitt credited the “tireless advocacy by those who believed” Coley was innocent, along with the Simi Valley Police Department’s initiative to reopen the case, for leading to the discovery of DNA evidence that exonerated Coley. The evidence led to a determination of factual innocence, with Coley being pardoned by the-Gov. Jerry Brown in November 2017.
The settlement allows the city to avoid a potentially long and costly court trial, Levitt said.
“Based on an analysis given to the city, this could have meant exposure of up to $80 million, in a worst-case scenario, if it went to full litigation,” Levitt told The Star.
Of the $21 million, the city will pay approximately $4.9 million, with the remainder to be paid by insurance and other sources.
Levitt said the city’s share will come from a liability reserve fund that has enough cash on hand to cover the $4.9 million. But the city will have to replenish those reserves over time, he said.
“This is obviously a larger case than we would normally see,” Levitt said.
Coley’s prison term, at nearly 39 years, is the longest in California for someone whose conviction has been overturned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project involving UC Irvine and the law schools of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Coley’s time behind bars is the 10th-longest nationwide for a proven wrongful conviction case, according to the registry’s extensive database.
Another Ventura County murder case in which a conviction was overturned also involved a lengthy incarceration. Michael Hanline was released from prison in November 2014 after about 36 years behind bars, which at the time was the longest time served in California for a wrongful conviction. DNA evidence led prosecutors to vacate Hanline’s conviction and ultimately drop charges, but they did not determine he was factually innocent, as happened with Coley.
Coley was released from prison at Thanksgiving in 2017 after being exonerated by DNA evidence that pointed to someone else as the killer. That evidence was initially thought to have been destroyed, but was later discovered.
Brown signed a bill in May 2018 allowing for the distribution of nearly $2 million to the pardoned man. It was then the largest single payment issued by the state for a wrongful conviction.
At the time, Coley, then 70, said the money would help him restart his life outside of custody.
“I’m 70 years old, but it’s a head start,” Coley said at the time.
What led to his release?
Coley’s exoneration was made possible by onetime Simi Valley police detective Mike Bender.
A reopened investigation by the Simi Valley Police Department found that a key piece of evidence did not have Coley’s DNA on it. That prompted Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten to declare Coley “factually innocent” at a news conference in November 2017.
Totten and Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone sent a letter to Brown voicing their support for Coley’s clemency petition, which was submitted by Bender on Coley’s behalf in 2015.
Bender’s interest in the case began in 1989 when he was a Simi Valley police detective. After coming across information on the Wicht murders and taking a closer look at the case, he started to doubt the conviction.
“There were lots of red flags,” Bender told The Star in 2017.
At the Simi Valley Police Department, Bender spoke up about his concerns, but nothing was done.
Over the next 28 years, he took Coley’s case to the California Attorney General’s Office, the FBI, city attorneys and grand juries.
There was a court order that the physical evidence in the Wicht murders be destroyed, but Livingstone assigned a cold case detective to take another look at the case in October 2016.
It turned out that the evidence hadn’t been destroyed, after all.
Prosecutors signed off on Coley’s release once the police investigation turned up new DNA evidence that exonerated the imprisoned man.
Once the 2015 filing was submitted, Brown stated in the pardon that he directed the parole board to conduct an investigation.
“During that investigation, a former police detective, police captain, and police officer reported that they believed Mr. Coley was wrongfully convicted and opined that the detective who originally investigated the matter mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley,” the pardon letter states.