SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California Gov. Jerry Brown is pardoning a man convicted of a 1978 double murder that included a child after modern DNA tests suggested he was probably innocent.
The Democratic governor announced Wednesday that he's freeing 70-year-old Craig Richard Coley from prison.
Coley was convicted of killing his 24-year-old ex-girlfriend, Rhonda Wicht, and her 4-year-old son, Donald Wicht, in her Simi Valley apartment.
His request for clemency was supported by Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone and Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten. They said they cannot stand by the evidence used to convict Coley.
In a news release Monday, the police chief and prosecutor say they began reviewing the case last year after a retired detective raised concerns with Coley's guilt. DNA tests did not find Coley's DNA but did find DNA from other people.
The victims had been found dead in her apartment in Simi Valley on Nov. 11, 1978. Rhonda Wicht had been strangled with a rope and Donald had been suffocated, officials said. Coley, who had recently broken up with Rhonda, was arrested the day her body was found. After the first jury hung 10-2 in favor of guilt, a second jury found him guilty in 1980 and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
But a now-retired Simi Valley detective more recently expressed some concerns about Coley's guilt and the case was reopened in 2016.
Investigators were able to track down evidence that had previously thought to have been destroyed and advanced testing was performed based on DNA technology that was not available in 1978. A key piece of evidence was found to contain the DNA of other individuals, but not Coley. After reviewing other evidence, documents and interviews, the office of Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten said it no longer had confidence in the conviction.
"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," Totten's office said. "We also believe that the evidence, as we now know it, would meet the legal standard for a finding of factual innocence."
"This case is tragic. An innocent woman and small child were murdered. Craig Coley has 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 other(s) committed the murders."