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After DNA test, California man freed from prison in 1978 double-murder

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A man wrongfully convicted in California of the 1978 double-murder of a woman and her child is spending his first Thanksgiving Day as a free man in 39 years, after being released on the basis of DNA evidence.

Inmate Craig Coley, 70, wrongly convicted of the 1978 double-murder of a woman and her child, and released from prison on the basis of DNA evidence was pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown, in Simi Valley, California, U.S., is shown in this handout photo provided November 23, 2017. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilition/Handout via REUTERS

California Governor Jerry Brown pardoned 70-year-old Craig Coley on Wednesday and prison officials quickly set him free, according to prosecutors and police in Simi Valley, where the double-slaying occurred.

Local authorities in Simi Valley, a community just outside Los Angeles, 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.”

More than 350 people have been exonerated by DNA testing in the United States since 1989, according to New York-based The Innocence Project, which helps people who were wrongfully convicted. On average, convicts who were freed had served 14 years in prison when exonerated.

Coley was convicted in the 1978 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Rhonda Wicht, and her 4-year-old son, Donald, at the apartment where the mother and child lived.

Wicht was beaten and strangled and the boy was smothered to death, Simi Valley police said in a statement on Monday. Coley, who had recently broken up with Wicht, was arrested the day the bodies were discovered.

Coley, who had no criminal history, may have been framed, Brown wrote in the pardon.

In 1980, Coley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

He always maintained his innocence, and the governor said that, in prison, Coley turned to religion and avoided gangs. After he appealed to Brown for clemency, the governor ordered a review in 2015.

Biological samples once thought to be lost or destroyed were discovered at a private laboratory, Simi Valley police said, and investigators analyzed a key piece of evidence.

It showed Coley’s DNA was not present on the sample. Instead, it bore traces of other people’s DNA.

The statement from Simi Valley police did not describe the object, saying only that technology for testing the item was not available when Coley was convicted.

“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.

They called the case tragic and pledged to continue reviewing it to determine if they can establish who killed the mother and child 39 years ago.

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Dan Grebler