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Man Freed after Decades in Prison for Wrongful Conviction

A man freed earlier this week after 39 years in prison for a murder he did not commit was home for Thanksgiving dinner this week. Craig Coley, convicted for a double murder in Simi Valley in 1978, was exonerated of all charges after it was discovered Coley was convicted on a key piece of evidence that did not contain any of his DNA. 

On November 11, 1978, a relative came across the bodies of 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son Donald after Rhonda failed to attend a family get-together. Police determined she had been beaten, raped, and strangled with a rope while Donald was smothered in his bed. At the time of her death, Wicht was in the process of breaking up with Coley, who she had dated for two years. Coley was held for questioning, and ultimately charged with both murders.

Coley maintained his innocence throughout the entire investigation. His defense attorneys criticized Simi Valley police for failing to investigate three other potential suspects, and the Simi Valley Mirror, a weekly tabloid, published articles at the time claiming the investigation had charged an innocent main. 

Coley's first trial resulted in a hopelessly deadlocked jury, 10 to 2 in favor of guilt, after four weeks of deliberation. A second jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder in 1980. Coley was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Last year, Chief David Livingstone of the Simi Valley Police Department came across the Wicht murders and wondered about Coley's claims of innocence. Livingstone reached out to a retired detective who had expressed belief in Coley's innocence in the past. Ultimately, Livingstone reopened the case. 

Ventura County prosecutor Michael Schwartz explained that the recent investigation determined that the original detectives suffered from "tunnel vision" in deciding that Coley was the correct suspect, and did not fully investigate other possible suspects. Schwartz does not believe Coley was framed, but continues to investigate whether the original detectives committed any misconduct. 

At the time of the murders, Wicht's upstairs neighbors had reported seeing Coley's truck parked outside her apartment around the time of the murder and saw it drive away shortly after. The witness noted that the driver had medium length hair and the truck had pinstripes on its side, matching Coley's description. According to Schwartz, it would have been very difficult to identify a vehicle in such a way from this particular neighbor's vantage point. This testimony was key to Coley's conviction.

Another neighbor told police the murder was committed around 4:30 a.m., at which time Coley had been carpooling home with a coworker from his restaurant job as a manager. That same neighbor then testified the murder had occurred at 5:30 a.m., and changed the time yet again years later.

When the police reopened the case earlier this year, they discovered a judge had issued an order permitting the destruction of the crime scene evidence following Coley's final appeal. But, when detectives contacted the two labs that performed preliminary tests on the crime scene evidence in the 1970's, it was discovered that both had gone out of business and a Northern California lab had obtained their contents. The evidence boxes were never destroyed, but were sitting intact in storage.

New testing revealed Coley's DNA was not found on a key piece of evidence used to convict him. California Governor Jerry Brown pardoned Coley on Wednesday, explaining that the DNA evidence and the reinvestigation into his case proved his innocence. Coley was 31 when he was arrested. He is now 70.

According to prison records, Coley was a model inmate during his 38 years and 10 months of incarceration. He did not participate in gang or drug activity and earned his bachelor's degree while incarcerated. A detective has set up a GoFundMe page to help Coley acclimate to life outside bars and settle in the San Diego area. 

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