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Man Pardoned After 39 Years Behind Bars

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California's governor pardoned a man who had been behind bars for 39 years on Nov. 22 after DNA evidence revealed he did not murder two people in 1978.

A jury convicted Craig Coley, now 70, in 1980 of killing 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son Donald, the Daily Mail reports.

Wicht was beaten, raped and strangled with a rope, while the attacker suffocated Donald in his bed.

Coley was seen as the prime suspect at the time, with prosecutors alleging he was depressed because Wicht wanted to break up with him after they had dated for two years.

Coley's first trial in 1979 ended with a hung jury. At a second trial in 1980, the jury found him guilty of two counts of first degree murder, and a judge sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Even at the time, questions were raised about Coley's conviction. Witnesses described him as a second father to Donald and Wicht's mother said her family thought of Coley as their son, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Defense attorneys criticized the police for not investigating three other potential suspects.

During the trial, a newspaper editorial named another suspect in the case, and The Simi Valley Mirror tabloid published an article entitled, "Coley Truly Appears to be Wrong Man."

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California acknowledged on Nov. 22 that a mistake had been made and described Coley as a model inmate.

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"The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary," Brown wrote in his pardon. “It is my hope that any and all individuals responsible for the murder of Rhonda and Donald Wicht are brought to justice.”

Coley maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration.

Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingston reopened Coley's case in October 2016 after a retired police officer raised concerns about his conviction, the Daily Mail notes. Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten and Livingston backed Coley's application for clemency.

Livingston and Totten released a joint statement following Coley's pardon.

"This case is tragic," they noted, according to the Times. "An innocent woman and a 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."

"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 told reporters at a news conference.

The DNA test showed Coley's DNA was not present on a key piece of evidence. DNA from others was present, but authorities did not publicly identify who it belonged to.

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

Sources: Daily Mail, Los Angeles Times / Featured Image: Amadscientist/Wikimedia Commons / Embedded Images: Ken Lund/Flickr, Niceley/Wikimedia Commons

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