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Freed prisoner wrongly convicted of murder nearly 40 years ago spends Thanksgiving with detective who worked for his release

A man who was wrongfully convicted of two murders and incarcerated for almost forty years spent his first day free at Thanksgiving dinner with the retired detective who worked to secure his release.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, 70-year-old Craig Coley was pardoned on Wednesday by Governor Jerry Brown for the 1978 murders of 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son, Donald. The grisly double murder, during which Rhonda was beaten, raped and strangled, and her young son was smothered in his bed, shocked the community of Simi Valley, California, which is about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Coley, aged 31 at the time of the murders, was Wicht’s former boyfriend. At his second trial in 1980, he was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder during and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Coley’s first trial ended in a hung jury.

But 39 years after he was first taken into custody, Coley is a free man — thanks in large part to Mike Bender, a retired Simi Valley Police Department detective who was instrumental in Coley’s exoneration.

Last week, Coley celebrated his first Thanksgiving dinner since his release at Bender’s Carlsbad, California, home.

According to a GoFundMe page set up on Coley’s behalf, the newly freed man is living with Bender and his family for the time being as he adjusts to life outside of prison. On the site, Bender posted photos of Coley visiting the graves of his parents on Saturday. His mother died in 2011 and his father, a retired Los Angeles police officer, passed away in 1988. Both had stood by their son, certain of his innocence, until their deaths.

Bender, who first learned of the case in 1989, told the Los Angeles Times that Coley’s father was distraught that he was unable to free his son from his wrongful conviction.

“Can you imagine as a cop, your son is arrested and you know it’s false?” Bender said.

“You don’t even have to be a detective to read this case and know it stunk.”

Bender told the Los Angeles Times that he had heard concerns about how the investigation was handled in the Coley case, and over the years he pressed the issue to anyone who thought might listen, including city attorneys, congressmen, the district attorney’s office and the Innocence Project.

As reported earlier by the Los Angeles Times, questions surrounded the veracity of the conviction even during the 1980 trial. The weekly tabloid the Simi Valley Mirror published a large front page headline during the trial that read, “Coley Truly Appears to be Wrong Man.”

Bender submitted a clemency petition in 2015 on Coley’s behalf, and in October 2016 Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone reopened the case. According to the pardon published in a VC Star report, both the Simi Valley Police Department and the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office concluded, based on DNA testing, that Coley is in fact innocent.

Governor Brown wrote in the pardon that “the grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.”

Coley, who had no previous criminal record before his 1978 arrest, was reportedly a model prisoner, avoiding gangs and violence and instead focusing on religion. According to the GoFundMe page, Coley was also a United States Navy veteran, and volunteered with the Veterans Affairs association while in prison.

Prosecutors have not yet named any suspects in the double murder.

“I am also hopeful that one day soon we will bring to justice the violent man responsible for this most horrific crime,” Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten said at a news conference announcing Coley’s release.

[Feature image: GoFundMe/Craig Coley in 1978 and in 2017]