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Man Wrongfully Convicted In 1978 Double Murder Says He Never Lost Hope Of Freedom

Craig Coley
Craig Coley poses with former Simi Valley Police detective Michael Bender.

CARLSBAD (CBSLA) — A man who served almost 40 years for a double murder he did not commit is free this week after DNA evidence exonerated him, but he says he never lost hope that he would find justice.

"I always had hope," Craig Coley told CBS2 News Friday. "Sometimes it was stronger than others."

Coley, now 70, was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son who were found dead at their Simi Valley apartment on November 11, 1978.

Nearly four decades later and after multiple investigations, Simi Valley Police and the Ventura County District Attorney's office said they cannot stand by the evidence used to convict Coley all those years ago.

Technicians said they could not find Coley's DNA on one key piece of evidence used in the case, though the DNA of unknown persons was discovered.

Former Simi Valley detective Michael Bender had, since 1989, done everything he could to set Coley free. This week, he got to hug the man for whom he'd spent decades fighting.

Coley said he was immediately made a suspect because he had broken up with Wicht shortly before she was found strangled to death.

Coley's father had been an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, and his family hired a private attorney to defend him in court.

After the first trial resulted in a hung jury, Coley was represented by a public defender who had never tried a murder case. He was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole in state prison.

However, he's claimed his innocence ever since.

"From the day one when they arrested me, I told them, 'Look, do what you wanna do to me, but keep looking,'" Coley said. "Don't stop. You have the wrong man."

Coley received a full and unconditional pardon from California Gov. Jerry Brown, who commended Coley, saying, "The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary."

That might be an understatement for Coley, who is taking the 40-year-ordeal in stride.

"People need to realize that these things occur out there," Coley told CBS2. "Police are human. They make mistakes."

Though it's likely Coley will receive money to compensate him for all his years in prison, he didn't seem to care much about that prospect.

Asked how he would feel about a hypothetical payout of $10 million, he simply said, "OK."

A deeply religious man, Coley said that when he found out he would be going home, he prayed out loud, on his knees.

Asked what he said, he told CBS2, "That's between me and God."

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