Time is money, as the saying goes. The phrase doesn’t usually refer to nearly 40 years spent behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit, but a California man will receive $21 million, or just over $2 million a year, for the time he unjustly spent behind bars.
Craig Coley is now 71 and has been incarcerated since his early 30s. He was wrongfully convicted of killing a former girlfriend and her young son. In this case, no amount of money can make up for spending virtually his entire adult life in prison and having the criminal justice system, and most of the world, believe that he was a killer.
Tireless Advocacy by Supporters
From the beginning, many did not believe Coley could have committed such a crime against the 24-year-old mother and her young son. That included police officers, among them Mike Bender, a good friend of Coley’s who is a former Simi Valley police detective.
For more than 30 years, Bender and others have been working to have Coley cleared. Coley had no criminal record prior to his arrest and was apparently a model inmate for all of the years spent behind bars. According to a statement by the Governor’s office, Coley is very religious and never got involved with violence or gangs during his decades in prison.
Coley was arrested in November 1978, after the bodies of his former girlfriend and her son were found in their apartment. The woman was strangled with a macramé rope, while the little boy was smothered. Although his initial trial ended in a hung jury, the district attorney elected to retry the case and a second trial in 1980 sent him to life in prison.
Exculpatory DNA Evidence
Coley always maintained his innocence in the deaths of his ex-girlfriend and her four-year-old son. After his erroneous conviction, he was sentenced to life without parole.
Dogged perseverance by investigators uncovered biological samples connected to the crime in a private laboratory. These samples had previously been thought missing or thrown out. The DNA found on a key piece of evidence did not match Coley’s. When this exculpatory evidence proving Coley did not commit the murders was uncovered in 2017, then-Governor Jerry Brown pardoned him.
His was the longest prison sentence ever overturned in the state of California. Now, Coley has reached a $21 settlement with the city of Simi Valley.
According to a statement released by the city, the settlement was made to avoid “the long and costly process of unnecessary litigation.” The New York Times reports that the city may have had to pay out as much as $80 million if it lost the case at trial.
A New Life
So, what does an elderly man who spent most of his life in prison do, now that he’s free and rich? Coley has purchased a home and has a bucket list of places he wants to visit. Despite his new-found freedom, he has not forgotten how the criminal justice system failed him. As his friend Bender puts it, “No one would want to trade places with him.” Coley knows that he isn’t the only one who has been convicted for a crime he didn’t commit and will continue to work towards the release of others wrongfully convicted.