One man’s life just changed forever. In 1978, he was convicted of a brutal double murder. Today, he’ll spend his first Thanksgiving in 39 years as a free man, reported Reuters.
Craig Coley, 70, was convicted of the double-murder of a woman and her child. New DNA evidence undermined his conviction, and he was pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown.
Brown pardoned Coley on Wednesday. According to prosecutors and police in Simi Valley where the murder took place, prison officials quickly set him free. Local authorities said they supported the governor’s decision.
“The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured his lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary,” Brown wrote in the two-page document ordering Coley’s release. “I grant this pardon because Mr. Coley did not commit these crimes.”
According to the New York-based Innocence Project, more than 350 people have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989 in the United States alone. The Innocence Project helps people who were wrongfully convicted.
On average, convicts who were freed had served 14 years in prison when exonerated. Coley served more than twice that amount of time.
Coley was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Rhonda Wicht, and her 4-year-old son, Donald. The murder took place at the apartment where the mother and child lived.
Wicht was beaten and strangled. The boy was smothered to death. Coley had recently broken up with Wicht, and he was arrested the day the bodies were discovered.
Coley had no prior criminal history. In his pardon, Brown said the 70-year-old may have been framed.
In 1980, Coley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. During his time in prison, Coley maintained his innocence. To help himself live through his unjust sentence, Coley turned to religion.
He appeared before Brown in 2015 to ask for clemency. A review was ordered at the time.
Shortly after, biological samples once thought to have been lost or destroyed were discovered at a private laboratory, reported the Simi Valley police.
Investigators analyzed a key piece of evidence, and they did not find Coley’s DNA. Instead, it bore traces of other people’s DNA.
“Reviewing the case in light of the new evidence, we no longer have confidence in the weight of the evidence used to convict Mr. Coley,” Simi Valley police and Ventura County prosecutors said in a joint statement earlier this week.
The two also called the case tragic. They pledged to continue reviewing the case—using new technology—to determine if they can establish who killed the mother and child 39 years ago.