California man wins $21m settlement after being wrongly imprisoned for nearly 40 years

California man wins $21m settlement after being wrongly imprisoned for nearly 40 years

A man who was imprisoned for nearly 40 years for two murders he didn't commit has been awarded $21 million as compensation.

Craig Coley, 71, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 1980 for the 1978 killing of his ex-girlfriend, 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht, and her four-year-old son Donald.

The Vietnam War veteran was released 38 years later in November 2017 after another investigation produced DNA evidence that proved his innocence. His prison term is reportedly the longest ever overturned in California history.

As well as acting as compensation, the large-sum settlement agreement will cover the long, costly and unnecessary legal proceedings, Simi Valley officials told the Los Angeles Times. Officials claimed that Simi Valley will pay roughly $4.9 million of the out-of-court settlement, while the rest is expected to be given by insurance and other sources.

"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," City Manager Eric Levitt said in a statement. "The monetary cost of going to trial would be astronomical and it would be irresponsible for us to move forward in that direction."

The state agreed on a separate, smaller payout for Coley last year; then-Governor Jerry Brown approved a $1.95-million payment that gave the wrongly incarcerated Coley $140 for each day he was wrongfully in jail. This marked the largest payout by the state’s Victim Compensation Board for an erroneous conviction.

On November 11, 1978, Wicht was found dead in her apartment in Simi Valley, Los Angeles, raped, beaten and strangled with an 11-foot macrame rope, while her son Donald had been suffocated in his bed.

Police suspected Coley as the murderer as he and Wicht had recently broken up and a neighbour said she saw him and his truck at the apartment after hearing a commotion.

The former restaurant night manager, who had no previous convictions at the time, was arrested the same day and charged with the double murder. A first trial resulted in a hung jury, while a second trial led to his conviction.

However, Coley always maintained his innocence and in 1989, Michael Bender, a serving Detective with Simi Valley Police Department, started to re-investigate the veteran's case.

A stream of inconsistencies was then found with the case, and when a new investigation located missing evidence, DNA testing - not available at the original trial - showed there was no trace of Coley's DNA on the evidence and the DNA of an unknown suspect was discovered.

Speaking to the LA Times about his experience, Coley, who was described as a "model inmate" by state governor Brown, said: "It's not something you can describe other than it's painful. I went four decades not being able to grieve the woman and child I loved."

Police have yet to identify the Wicht family's killer.