California man, 70, who wrongfully spent 39 years in prison for murder celebrates Thanksgiving as a free man with the cop who fought for his release

A 70-year-old California man who wrongfully spent nearly four decades in jail for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her 4-year-old son celebrated his first Thanksgiving as a free man with the cop who helped secure his release.

Craig Richard Coley was jailed for the murders of 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son, Donald Wicht, who were found dead in her Simi Valley apartment on Nov. 11, 1978, and had always maintained his innocence.

After his pardon on Wednesday, Coley celebrated Thanksgiving with  Mike Bender, a former Simi Valley police detective who spent 28 years trying to prove his innocence. 

Truly thankful: Craig Richard Coley, second from left, celebrated Thanksgiving with Mike Bender, far left, the detective who spent 28 years trying to prove his innocence

Truly thankful: Craig Richard Coley, second from left, celebrated Thanksgiving with Mike Bender, far left, the detective who spent 28 years trying to prove his innocence

‘This is the most thankful Thanksgiving that I’ve ever spent, you know?’ Coley told NBC News. ‘And I’m truly thankful for it. I’m not just saying that.’

Mr Bender began looking into Coley’s case in 1989 after Coley’s father Wilson, himself a retired Los Angeles Police Office, died while fighting to free him.

He spent 28 years investigating the Coley case and was the person who brought forward the evidence which eventually led to last week’s pardon. 

Mr Bender has now set up a GoFundMe page to support Coley’s new life in freedom. 

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley and ordered his immediate release from a state prison in Lancaster following the release of advanced DNA tests.

Donald Wicht
Rhonda Wicht

Coley maintained innocence since his arrest in November 1978 after Rhonda Wicht (right) and Donald Wicht (left) were found dead

Friends for life: Mr Bender began looking into Coley's case in 1989 after Coley's father Wilson, himself a retired Los Angeles Police Office, died while fighting to free him

Friends for life: Mr Bender began looking into Coley’s case in 1989 after Coley’s father Wilson, himself a retired Los Angeles Police Office, died while fighting to free him

Brown wrote in his pardon that Coley has been a model inmate for 38 years, avoided gangs and violence, and dedicated himself to religion.

‘The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary,’ Brown wrote.

Coley’s request for clemency was supported by Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone and Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten, who said they cannot stand by the evidence used to convict Coley.

‘As district attorney, I must tell you I look forward to the day when I can shake Mr. Coley’s hand, apologize to him for the injustice he suffered,’ Totten said at a news conference Monday, a video of which was posted online by the Ventura County Star.

‘I am also hopeful that one day soon we will bring to justice the violent man responsible for this most horrific crime,’ Totten said.

Craig Richard Coley. Gov. Jerry Brown is pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. He was pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown after advanced DNA testing proved his wrongful murder conviction

Craig Richard Coley. Gov. Jerry Brown is pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. He was pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown after advanced DNA testing proved his wrongful murder conviction

Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone addresses the press regarding the Craig Coley request for clemency this week

Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone addresses the press regarding the Craig Coley request for clemency this week

Rhonda Wicht was strangled, apparently with a macrame rope – and her son was suffocated. 

Investigators quickly zeroed in on Coley, who had broken up with Wicht shortly before she was killed.

Coley’s first trial in 1979 resulted in a hung jury, with jurors unable to resolve an impasse that left them 10-2 in favor of guilt, according to a news release issued by the police chief and district attorney.

He was tried again in 1980, found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.

Brown wrote in his pardon that Coley (shown) has been a model inmate during his sentence, avoided gangs and violence and dedicated himself to religion

Brown wrote in his pardon that Coley (shown) has been a model inmate during his sentence, avoided gangs and violence and dedicated himself to religion

California Governor Jerry Brown is shown at movie screening earlier this year in Hollywood. Brown pardoned Coley this week and said the grace he 'endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary'

California Governor Jerry Brown is shown at movie screening earlier this year in Hollywood. Brown pardoned Coley this week and said the grace he ‘endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary’

Brown said he asked the state parole board to look into Coley’s conviction more than two years ago, and former law-enforcement officials said they believed he was wrongfully convicted or framed.

Livingstone and Totten said they began reviewing the case last year after a retired detective raised concerns about Coley’s guilt. 

The trial court had ordered evidence destroyed after Coley exhausted his appeals, but investigators retrieved records from Coley’s relatives and located biological samples at a private lab.

Using advanced techniques not available at the time of his trial, technicians did not find Coley’s DNA on one key piece of evidence used in the conviction.

However, they did find DNA from other people – whom authorities have not publicly identified.

‘This case is tragic. An innocent woman and small child were murdered,’ Livingstone and Totten wrote in their news release.

‘Craig Coley has spent 39 years in custody for a crime he likely did not commit.’