Man pardoned after 39 years in prison for crime he didn't commit

By Allen Cone  |  Updated Nov. 25, 2017 at 8:01 AM
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Nov. 23 (UPI) -- California Gov. Jerry Brown has pardoned a man who served 39 years in prison for two murders he didn't commit.

Brown signed the pardon Wednesday, the same day Craig R. Coley, 70, walked out of the state prison in Lancaster.

Brown said in a statement announcing the pardon that Coley pursued religion and stayed away from gangs and violence.

"The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary," Brown said in a statement.

Coley has maintained he didn't kill Rhonda Wicht, 24, with whom he previously had a relationship, and her 4-year-old son at her apartment in Simi Valley, Calif., in 1978. Wicht was found beaten and strangled, and her son Daniel was smothered.

Coley was the son of a retired Los Angeles policeman who had dated her for nearly two years and worked as a night manager at a restaurant,

Coley's first trial ended with a hung jury in 1979. He was found guilty in a retrial the next year and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. On appeal, his conviction was affirmed.

On Monday, Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten and the Simi Valley police chief David Livingstone announced that they were supporting a clemency appeal by Craig. They said new DNA tests conducted during a yearlong investigation supported a "finding of factual innocence."

"This case is tragic," Totten and Livingstone wrote. "An innocent woman and small child were murdered. Craig Coley has spent 39 years in custody for a crime he likely did not commit."

They added, "The real murderer or murderers have not been brought to justice."

Brown asked the Board of Parole Hearings to conduct an investigation in 2015 after Coley sought clemency. In the investigation, police officials said they doubted Coley's guilt and that they believed he was framed or evidence was mishandled.

Livingstone then opened an investigation in October 2016.

DNA samples that supposedly were lost or discarded were found in a private laboratory. In new testing, DNA on a key piece of evidence matched the DNA of other individuals, the district attorney said.

"As district attorney, I must tell you I look forward to the day when I can shake Mr. Coley's hand, apologize to him for the injustice he suffered," Totten said at a news conference. "I am also hopeful that one day soon we will bring to justice the violent man responsible for this most horrific crime."

The case has been reopened.

Coley may apply to receive compensation of $140 for every day he spent behind bars, "which works out to about $1.9 million," Michael D. Schwartz, a special assistant district attorney, said in an email Thursday to The New York Times.

"My understanding is that he has a place to stay," Schwartz said.

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