Craig Coley was arrested on November 11, 1978 for the murder of a 24 year old woman and her four year old son, which had occurred in Simi Valley, California that same day. Newspapers which cited other plausible suspects were heavily criticized. After a first trial ended in a hung jury Coley was convicted in the Ventura Superior Court and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Evidence included testimony that Coley had been seen leaving the woman’s house upset 2 weeks prior to the murders. After appeals had been exhausted a court ordered that all physical evidence be destroyed.
A Petitioner for clemency on the basis of factual innocence caused Governor Brown to order an investigation in 2015. Despite the order to destroy all evidence there was, by chance, remaining physical evidence recovered which DNA analysis matched to other individuals but not Coley.
The November 22, 2017 Pardon by California Governor, Jerry Brown, stated that the original police investigation into the murders was mishandled by Simi Valley police and that Coley may have been framed.
This case is a tragedy on multiple levels. A young woman and a four year old boy lost their lives. An innocent man spent his adult life in prison for a crime he did not commit. And the perpetrator of the crime went free.
There was a rush to judgment, the facts were maneuvered to match that rush to judgment and journalists who dared to question whether the pieces of the puzzle actually fit were criticized in an effort to silence them. An order to destroy evidence at any point in a case is anathema to the truth.
This case is a reminder that the justice system is fallible because it is subject to tunnel vision and a presumption of guilt in place of innocence and that vigilance in defending each case is necessary to safeguard the individual and societal liberties aspired to and enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.