Craig Richard Coley was twenty-three years old when he moved to Simi Valley, California. A Vietnam veteran and the son of a retired Los Angeles police officer, he was newly married with no criminal record.
Coley managed several restaurants over the years. After a divorce, he dated for a time Rhonda Wicht, a twenty-four-year-old waitress who shared an apartment with her four-year-old son, Donald.
On November 11, 1978, Wicht and her son were killed in their beds. Coley, who had broken up with her, was arrested and charged with their murders. After two trials, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Both of his parents died while he was imprisoned.
Talking to an innocent man
Meanwhile, Michael Bender had started a career as a police officer. In 1989, he looked into the Coley case and was shocked by what he found. Coley’s alibi seemed strong; there were viable suspects who were never pursued; and hair and fingerprint evidence was not analyzed properly and then went missing.
Two years later, Bender met Coley in prison and knew he was talking to an innocent man. “In dealing with a lot of bad guys over the years, there are mannerisms and body language you come to know. He didn’t have that,” Bender explained.
In 1991, his superiors ordered him to stop pursuing Coley’s case or face termination, so he quit his job and became a theft investigator. In 2003, he moved his family to Carlsbad, California, where he continued to pursue the case in his spare time.
In 2015, Gov. Brown’s office agreed to conduct an investigation. DNA evidence, previously thought destroyed, was found and tested. It showed another man’s DNA on sheets and clothing in the apartment. Witness testimony against Coley was largely discredited as well.
“Everything I get is a blessing.”
In November 2017, the governor’s office formally pardoned Craig Coley. Gov. Brown said of him, “The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.” Last Saturday, Simi Valley reached a $21 million settlement with him.
Coley has been staying with Mike Bender and his family since his release. Mike’s wife, Cynthia, says, “Now that he’s here, I can’t imagine him being anywhere else. He’s so courteous and kind and the best house guest anyone could ever ask for. He has always been a part of our family.”
How did Coley get through thirty-nine years of wrongful imprisonment? Around 2005, he began actively practicing his Christian faith. He started a prison Bible study group in 2011 and later earned degrees in theology, biblical studies, and biblical counseling.
“My way of looking at things changed,” he said. “I believed whatever happened was what God had in store for me, and everything I get is a blessing.”
“God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary.”
There are two ways of relating our circumstances to God’s character.
One is to judge the latter by the former. If life becomes difficult, many blame God. Atheist Sam Harris claims that in the face of catastrophe, “God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary.”
Of course, people in our biblically illiterate culture may not understand that the Fall explains our broken world and sinful behavior. Those who blame the Lord for allowing the Fall do not understand the role of free will and the redemptive providence of God.
In short, when life is hard, people ask God, “Why?”
When life is good, however, people tend to ask, “Why God?” We credit ourselves with what we have and have done. Atheist Richard Dawkins claims that “our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”
However, the fact that we were conceived through no action of our own literally gives the lie to the “self-made” person. A turtle atop a fencepost had help getting there. David warned of “the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction” (Psalm 52:7).
“I know that my Redeemer lives.”
The better approach is to judge our circumstances by God’s character.
Craig Coley came to believe in the providence and sovereignty of God, knowing that his Father was working to redeem his circumstances even in prison. As a result, he knew that “everything I get is a blessing.”
Skeptics might claim that such faith is naïve and masks the real suffering of this life. They would be wrong.
In the depths of unimaginable, innocent pain, Job “cursed the day of his birth” (Job 3:1) and “complain[ed] in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11). But he still proclaimed: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25).
Paul pled three times with God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). When God did not, the apostle learned to “boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9).
Jesus prayed for his Father to “let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). When his Father did not, his Son said, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (v. 42).
“God has a purpose behind every problem.”
The Bible claims and the cross proves that God loves us unconditionally and passionately. The next time circumstances seem to contradict his character, reverse the order: view suffering through the prism of grace.
Ask yourself, “Why would the God who loves me allow this?” Look for ways he is redeeming the present and trust him to redeem the future.
Such faith in the character of God is a compelling witness to a secular culture. It’s one thing for us to believe in our Creator when all in his creation is good. It’s another thing entirely for us to trust his heart when we cannot see his hand.
Rick Warren: “God has a purpose behind every problem. He uses circumstances to develop our character.” And then he uses our character to impact our culture.
Craig Coley is Exhibit A. Will you be Exhibit B today?