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Craig Coley

Other Ventura County CIU Exonerations
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On November 11, 1978, 24-year old Rhonda Wicht and her four-year-old son, Donnie, were found murdered in their apartment in Simi Valley, California. Wicht was on her bed and had been strangled with a macramé cord. Donnie was lying in his bed where he had been smothered. The apartment appeared to have been staged to look like a burglary had occurred.

A physician who examined Wicht said she had been raped.

A next-door neighbor told police she was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by banging noises and the sound of a struggle coming from Wicht’s apartment. The neighbor said she looked out the window and recognized the truck of Wicht’s boyfriend, 31-year-old Craig Coley. She said she heard someone leave Wicht’s apartment and then saw a person with medium hair in the truck. She could not identify the person, however.

A neighbor who lived in an apartment below Wicht’s apartment initially told police he heard noises at 4:30 a.m., though he later changed the time to 5:30 a.m., which coincided with the other neighbor’s account.

Coley had been Wicht’s boyfriend for some time, but a few weeks earlier after an argument, Coley left the apartment, slamming the door as he departed. The couple was in the process of breaking up when the crime occurred.

Coley, who was the son of a retired Los Angeles police officer and worked as a restaurant manager, told police he was at a restaurant socializing with friends until about 4:30 a.m. and then dropped one of them off at home at 4:45 a.m. before going home.

Police obtained a search warrant for Coley’s home and recovered a bloodstained towel and a child’s T-shirt. Police believed that the towel contained Wicht’s blood and the T-shirt had been used to smother Donnie.

Coley was arrested within hours of the discovery of the bodies. He was charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances of multiple murder and murder during the commission of a rape.

In the spring of 1979, Coley went to trial in Ventura County Superior Court. The prosecution presented the witnesses who testified they heard a struggle at 5:30 a.m. One witness said she recognized Coley’s truck by a distinctive pattern on the side of the vehicle.

Police testified that there were no signs of forced entry and Coley had a key to the apartment. A key to an inside door lock was found on the floor of Wicht’s apartment.

A physician testified that Wicht had suffered vaginal trauma, which indicated she had been raped, although no semen was recovered from her body. The physician said he had examined Coley after he was arrested and that Coley had a small cut on his upper lip, a swollen lower lip, scratches on his right forearm, a five-inch scratch on his chest, an abrasion on his back as well as his penis.

Coley testified in his own defense and denied committing the crime. He said that he and Wicht had consensual sex in his apartment on the morning before she was found murdered in her apartment. He said he was socializing with former co-workers until 4:30 a.m. and then dropped one of them off at home at 4:45 a.m. and then went to his apartment.

Several witnesses testified that they were with Coley at the restaurant and confirmed his account of the night and early morning. The defense argued that there were no visible injuries to Coley except for a slight redness on the right side of his chest.

On April 12, 1979, the judge declared a mistrial when, after two weeks of deliberation, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Jurors later reported they had voted 10-2 to convict Coley.

Coley went to trial a second time and on January 3, 1980, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and found both enhancements—multiple murder and murder during a rape—were true. Coley was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Ten years later, after the California Court of Appeal upheld Coley’s conviction, Simi Valley police detective Michael Bender examined the case file and became convinced that Coley was innocent. Bender believed that police at the time had ignored or overlooked evidence pointing to other suspects.

Bender pleaded on Coley’s behalf to numerous law enforcement agencies, including the California Attorney General’s office and the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, as well as Simi Valley city attorneys, legislators and the Innocence Project. His efforts were unsuccessful.

In 2013, Bender helped Coley assemble a petition for clemency, which was submitted to Gov. Jerry Brown. The petition said in part that a Simi Valley detective had destroyed biological evidence that could have exonerated Coley. Family members of the victims and the Ventura County District Attorney’s office opposed the petition.

In 2016, Simi Valley Police Chief Dave Livingstone was reviewing old news articles about the department and came upon numerous articles about Coley’s case. Some of the articles were critical of the department for charging Coley with the crime and ignoring other suspects. Livingstone recalled that Bender had sought a review of the case and so he allowed cold-case detective Dan Swanson to take a fresh look at the case.

Although a judge had long ago signed an order allowing for the destruction of the evidence in the case, the boxes containing the evidence in the case were eventually found in storage. Biological samples thought to have been lost were located at a private testing company, which had bought out the testing company that performed tests prior to Coley’s trial.

A swatch of material from the sheet upon which Wicht’s body was found was sent for DNA testing, which revealed the presence of sperm and epithelial cells (likely from saliva) that was not from Coley, but an unidentified male. Coley’s DNA was not found on Donnie’s T-shirt.

The Ventura County District Attorney’s conviction integrity unit, headed by Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Schwartz, began reviewing the case and ultimately would examine thousands of pages of records and conduct numerous interviews.

On November 11, 2017—the 39th anniversary of the crime—investigators went back to the apartment building where the crime occurred. They went to the apartment where the neighbor said she saw Coley’s truck and looked out the window at 5:30 a.m.—as she said she did. The investigators determined that the lighting conditions made it difficult to see any details on vehicles below and that it was impossible to see inside any vehicle.

On November 20, 2017, Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten and Simi Valley police chief Livingstone announced that they had concluded that Coley was innocent and they would support Coley’s petition for a pardon based on innocence.

Totten and Livingstone issued a joint statement that said: “Reviewing the case in light of the new evidence, we no longer have confidence in the weight of the evidence used to convict Mr. Coley. We also believe that the evidence, as we now know it, would meet the legal standard for a finding of factual innocence.”

On November 22, 2017, Governor Brown granted Coley a pardon based on innocence. The pardon said, “Mr. Coley had no criminal history before being arrested for these crimes and he has been a model inmate for nearly four decades. In prison, he has avoided gangs and violence. Instead, he has dedicated himself to religion. The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.”

Coley, 70, was released later that day and spent the following day at a Thanksgiving dinner with his long-time advocate, Michael Bender and Bender’s family.

On November 29, an attorney for Coley asked that Coley’s conviction be vacated. That motion was granted and the judge issued a finding of actual innocence, which ultimately will entitle Coley to nearly $2 million in compensation from the state of California.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/3/2017
Last Updated: 12/4/2017
State:California
County:Ventura
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1978
Convicted:1980
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:31
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*