Innocent inmate says $2m can’t make up for lost years

Coley spent 39 years behind bars after he was wrongly convicted of killing his former girlfriend

SACRAMENTO, California

A former California inmate wrongly imprisoned for nearly 40 years says it was the “worst nightmare” and that even nearly $2 million (Dh7.34 million) in state compensation granted on Thursday can’t make up for his lost time.

The California Victims Compensation Board granted 70-year-old Craig Richard Coley $140 for each of the 13,991 days he spent in prison before he was pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown before Thanksgiving.

Coley spent 39 years behind bars after he was wrongly convicted of killing his former girlfriend, 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht of Simi Valley, and her 4-year-old son in 1978.

Simi Valley’s police chief and Ventura County’s district attorney asked Brown to pardon him because forensic tests showed Coley’s DNA was not on the victim’s bedsheet, which did contain DNA from an unknown man. Coley had an alibi for the time of the slayings and investigators later disproved testimony from an eyewitness who placed him at the scene.

“It’s probably the worst nightmare I can ever think of,” Coley said of his false imprisonment at age 31.

His parents died while he was in prison after mortgaging their home to pay his legal bills and he missed out on marrying or rearing children.

“It’s going to make my life comfortable for the rest of my life,” Coley said after the board approved his claim for $1,958,740. “How much would you say would be the right amount of money to pay for 40 years they take of your life? … You can’t put a price on your freedom.”

Coley, who spent three tours in Vietnam aboard an aircraft carrier, said he now plans to help homeless veterans.

The payment must still be approved by state lawmakers, but the amount of compensation and the award to those who are found to be factually innocent are both automatic under state law. It’s the largest payment ever for a claim filed under the state’s Erroneous Conviction Program, said board spokeswoman Janice Mackey.

There have been larger awards to crime victims through other programmes, notably the $20 million paid to Jaycee Dugard after she was kidnapped and held as a sex slave for 18 years despite frequent federal and state parole checks on her abductor.

Brown pardoned Coley the day before Thanksgiving, in time for him to celebrate the holiday with retired Simi Valley police detective Mike Bender, who had worked since 1989 to clear Coley’s name.

Coley said he never lost hope and forgives those who put him in prison.

“I can’t be bitter. They’ve already taken 40 years of my life,” he said. “I’m not going to let them spoil what I have left.”

Coley said he wants an investigation into how he was falsely convicted. He and his attorneys, Nick Brustin and Ron Kaye, said they believe he was framed by the original investigator, but they wouldn’t name the detective nor say if they plan to sue.

Coley said he was devastated by the death of his former girlfriend, who had been beaten, raped, and strangled, and of her son, who was smothered in his bed.

“I’d like to see them catch who did this,” he said. “How many crimes have they committed because they focused on me?”


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