Pam Kragen Contact Reporter
On Nov. 11, 1978, Simi Valley police arrested restaurant manager Craig Coley for the murder of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old son.

Despite a solid alibi, no criminal record, questionable evidence and a public outcry over his innocence, Coley was convicted of the crimes. He spent 38 years and 10 months in prison before Governor Jerry Brown, citing DNA and other evidence, exonerated him on Thanksgiving Eve in 2017.

Regaining his freedom was one form of justice for Coley, who is now 71 and lives in Carlsbad. Another came on Saturday when the city of Simi Valley announced a $21 million settlement with Coley over a civil rights case he filed last year.

Coley’s award is the highest individual civil rights case payout to an exoneree in California history and the fifth highest in the U.S. since record-keeping began in 1989, according to Jeffrey S. Gutman, co-director of the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics at George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C.Gutman has tracked exoneree awards over the past 30 years in collaboration with the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the UC Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.

Gutman said the current national average payout in successful exoneree civil rights cases is $304,000 per year served in prison.Coley’s award is nearly twice that amount, and it’s possible he may receive more because he has filed a separate lawsuit against Ventura County, which prosecuted the case.

Coley said Monday he is grateful that he will now have financial security for the rest of his life and the ability to travel and support causes he’s passionate about. But the settlement doesn’t make up for everything he has lost.

“When I was in, I lost my whole family other than two cousins,” he said. “It’s a bitter thing to live with but it’s a reality. It’s been hard to accept but I’ve learned to live with it. You know, I’ll never have any children, or grandchildren for that matter. So there’s a lot more to life than just money.”

Simi Valley City Manager Eric Levitt said in a statement published on the city’s website that the city chose to settle the suit rather than face a long court battle.

“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,” Levitt said, in the statement. “The monetary cost of going to trial would be astronomical and it would be irresponsible for us to move forward in that direction.”

Coley said he’d like to use some of his settlement to co-sponsor seminars for law enforcement agencies to teach the importance of proper evidence handling. Much of the physical evidence in his case was initially mishandled and then, for many years, misplaced, he said.

Over the past several months, Coley has been speaking to groups of police officers about this subject alongside his best friend, Mike Bender, 63, of Carlsbad.

While working as a Simi Valley Police detective in 1989, Bender came across Coley’s case and realized a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Hounded by his superiors to drop the case, Bender instead quit his job in 1991, left town with 16 boxes of case evidence and spent the next 26 years fighting to get the case reopened.

Bender, who is now national director of special investigations for ICW Group Insurance Companies, said that he couldn’t be happier for Coley, who he described as “grateful and relieved” over the settlement.

“Now he can truly enjoy trying to make up for 40 years lost from his life,” Bender said. “It’s a lot of money but he can do a lot of good with it. He wants to make changes in laws and regulations so nobody ever has to go through what he went through again.”

 

Craig Coley, left, with Mike Bender at Bender's house in Carlsbad last year.

Craig Coley, left, with Mike Bender at Bender’s house in Carlsbad last year. (Bill Wechter / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coley’s parents passed away while he was in prison, so Bender, and his wife, Cyndi, became his new family. Today, the men live a few miles apart and are as close as brothers. Coley calls Bender “my rock” and said he’d still be in prison if not for Bender’s tireless efforts.

“He directed me. He guided me. He’s been my compass. He helped me reintegrate into some semblance of a home life, which has turned out much better than I ever dreamed of,” Coley said, in December.

The wheels of justice finally began turning in 2015, when Gov. Brown’s office agreed to investigate Coley’s case. Then in 2016, there was a changing of the guard at the Simi Valley Police Department. Incoming police chief David Livingstone met with Bender, who handed him the 16 boxes of files. Then Livingston launched his own investigation with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.

DNA evidence, previously thought destroyed, was found and tested, revealing another man’s sperm, blood and skin cells on sheets and clothing in the apartment. Witness testimony was also largely discredited. Livingstone and the Ventura DA filed a clemency petition in November 2017 and Brown signed the pardon two days later.

On a Facebook page maintained by Coley’s family, “Craig Coley — The Truth Set Him Free,” Coley said that despite the announcement of the settlement, no funds have been distributed. When the money is paid after attorney fees, he has a team of professionals who will help him manage his financial future.

A Navy veteran, Coley plans to do some charitable giving to veterans and children’s causes. But most important, he plans to use some of his money to push forward in his final fight for justice: the capture and conviction of the man, or men, who raped and strangled the woman he loved, 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht, and smothered her toddler son, Donald, in his bed.

Coley said he is hopeful that as swiftly as his case was resolved this past year, the killer or killers will be brought to justice.

“This money is not about me, it’s about two people that horribly lost their lives and I paid the price for it,” he said. “My hope is that this is solved as soon as possible for the sake of their family, if nothing else. They went through a lot to come to terms with their deaths and now it has opened up again. I would love for them to have some finality when this is all resolved.”

Readjusting to life on the outside took time for Coley, who had to learn to operate a cellphone and computer. For the first seven months of freedom, he stayed with the Benders. To help him get back on his feet, the Benders started a now-closed Gofundme account that raised $79,000.

Then in February 2018, the California Victims Compensation Board voted unanimously to award Coley $1.9 million, based on $140 for each of the 13,991 days he served behind bars. It’s the highest award ever paid to an exonerated California prisoner. In California, exonerees are eligible to collect both a state payout and file a separate civil rights case.

The highest-ever exoneree civil rights payout was $26 million, paid in 2007 to Peter Limone, who served 33 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Other awards of $25 million, $23.7 million and $22 million went to exonerated prisoners in Illinois and New York. Coley ranks fifth, according to Gutman.

The standard for proving a civil rights case is high. Of 2,065 exonerees recorded in the registry since 1989, just 824 filed civil rights cases and, of those, just over half received compensation, Gutman said.

Some of the reasons cited in these claims for wrongful conviction are mistaken witness identity, false confessions, perjury, misleading forensic evidence and inadequate legal defense. But the most important factor is proving official misconduct. This can include officials withholding exculpatory evidence, pressure on witnesses to provide false testimony and submitting false forensic evidence, Gutman said.