A California man convicted of a double homicide in 1978 was pardoned after nearly 40 years behind bars.
California Gov. Jerry Brown announced Wednesday that Craig Richard Coley would immediately be freed from state prison in Lancaster after new DNA tests indicated he was likely not the murderer in the decades old case.
The 70-year-old had been serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the murders of his ex-girlfriend, Rhonda Wicht, and her 4-year-old son, Donald.
The 24-year-old mother was found strangled with a rope in her apartment in Simi Valley on Nov. 11, 1978. Donald had been suffocated.
Coley, who had just broken up with Wicht, was arrested the next day, with his first trial ending in a 10-2 hung jury. A second jury in 1980 found him guilty and handed him his life sentence, but Coley maintained his innocence throughout the four decades he spent behind bars.
Officials began reviewing the case last year after a retired detective pointed out that while there was DNA present on a key piece of evidence, it did not belong to Coley, the police chief and prosecutors said in a news release.
The former detective’s concerns prompted investigators to obtain evidence in the case they previously thought had been destroyed. They were able to perform testing with the use of DNA technology that was not yet available at the time of Coley’s trial.
“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,” Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten said. “We also believe that the evidence, as we know it, would meet the legal standard for a finding of factual innocence.”
He continued on to call the case and the conviction “tragic” and promised an investigation to find the true perpetrators of the violent crime.
“An innocent woman and small child were murdered,” Totten’s office said. “Craig Coley spent 39 years in custody for a crime he likely did not commit.
“The real murderer or murderers have not been brought to justice. Investigation is continuing to determine if it can be established that others committed the murders.”