A California man who spent 39 years in prison for two murders he didn’t commit is free – and rich. Craig Coley, now 71, received a $21 million settlement from the city of Simi Valley for the time spent behind bars after his wrongful 1980 conviction in the deaths of his former girlfriend and her 4-year-old son. He now holds the record as having the longest prison sentence the state of California has ever overturned.
An Investigation Mishandled
The bodies of Coley’s former girlfriend and her little boy were found in their apartment in November 1978. She had been strangled, and he had been smothered. Coley, who had never been in trouble with the law before and was a Vietnam veteran, was arrested immediately and charged with the two killings. His 1979 trial ended in a hung jury, but in his 1980 trial Coley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
From the beginning, many in the law enforcement community believed Coley did not commit the crime and that the investigation was mishandled. Coley’s father was a retired police officer, and his close friend Mike Bender was an investigator with the Simi Valley Police Department. When Coley was finally released, he was able to head to Bender’s home to celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time in nearly 40 years as a free man.
Judge Orders Evidence Destroyed
Over the years, Coley submitted appeals and habeas corpus petitions, but his conviction was always upheld. Chillingly, after his final appeal was rejected, the judge ordered the evidence destroyed. That might have ended the matter, had not investigators discovered uncovered biological samples connected to the crime in a private laboratory. These samples were thought to have been destroyed, but the DNA in the samples did not match Coley’s.
Governor Brown Issues Pardon
After Ventura County law enforcement officials notified then-Governor Jerry Brown that the DNA samples showed Coley did not commit the murders, Brown pardoned Coley. Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten said that Coley was “factually innocent,” the first time in recent history in the county in which a conviction was vacated on such grounds.
According to a statement released by Brown’s office, during an investigation by the Board of Parole Hearing into Coley’s innocence, a former police officer, police detective and police captain said they believed Coley was wrongfully convicted and that the original detective investigating the case either framed Coley or mishandled the investigation.
The $21 Million Settlement
What’s a fair settlement for an innocent man who spent the bull of his life behind bars? The city of Simi Valley agreed to a $21 million figure, which experts say is far less than the city may have paid out had they gone to trial and lost. Had that occurred, the amount Coley would have received might have reached $80 million or more. Of course, no amount of money can ever replace the 40 years – the prime of his life – he spent incarcerated. Coley has purchased a house with his money and intends to take some bucket list trips, but his passion remains advocating for others wrongfully accused and still in prison.
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