DALE COUNTY, AL (WSFA) - Jeanette McCraney, surrounded by family members and flanked on both sides by attorneys, recalled the exact date without hesitation of when she met her future husband, Coley McCraney: March 20, 1998.
That’s exactly 21 years to the day from which she would stand in front of a south Alabama courthouse and defend him against accusations that he murdered Ozark teens J.B. Beasley and Tracie Hawlett. Their bodies were found in the trunk of a car. They’d been shot in the head.
“I’d like to say that what he’s being accused of is a horrible crime," Jeanette McCraney said in a brief statement before spending nearly 30 minutes answering questions. "I grieve for the families of the young ladies. However, I’m here to let you know that the man behind those bars is innocent.”
Attorney David Harrison said he’ll “zealously” defend his client, whom he stressed multiple times was innocent until proven guilty. Harrison questioned the new DNA genealogy method used to arrest his client and called on the community not to judge him on social media. He called the people of Dale County “fair and they’re forthright,” but he didn’t rule out seeking a change of venue.
Jeanette McCraney was blunt in her assessment when asked if he would get a fair trial there, saying “No, I don’t."
Harrison said he’s assembling a team of attorneys, as well as experts in the fields of forensics, DNA and crime scene reconstruction. "We might bring the real killer into light,” he expressed.
“Every call I get from New York to Miami is, ‘Who is Coley McCraney?’” Harrison stated while introducing his client’s wife to speak. Jeanette McCraney had one mission in addressing the media.
“I am here to reshape the image that has been set out of my husband. Through me, you will see Coley,” she said in her opening remarks. Leaning heavily on her family’s faith, she explained, “We may be broken at this point, but you just know that we’re gracefully broken.”
The McCraneys were not yet married at the time of the murders, but they had known each other for more than a year. She said he was once a firefighter in the Air Force and was a long haul trucker when they met. He hadn’t yet become a preacher.
In the years since, McCraney’s family has grown to six children and eight grandchildren. For her part, Jeanette McCraney says she hasn’t watched any media coverage regarding her husband and said she doesn’t need to ask him if he killed the victims.
“I don’t feel the need to do that. I know him," she explained. "I know him better than he knows himself. I mean, I’m that wife. I’m that person.”
Jeanette McCraney confirmed she and her husband have had idle conversations about the murders in the past, like others in the community since it had been in the news so much. She said his demeanor never changed during the conversations. She also said she’s unsure who in the family may have uploaded their information to a genealogy site, but added it didn’t matter. She said she and her husband had thought of doing it themselves.
McCraney was unknown to investigators until the cold case recently turned white hot. Dale County law enforcement was watching in 2018 when California investigators revealed how they’d arrested the suspected Golden State serial killer of the 1970s and 1980s with a new process that connects DNA and popular genealogy sites.
Investigators submitted their DNA evidence to Parabon Labs of Virginia and, using genealogy, scientists determined the suspect’s family tree.
McCraney’s wife and attorney said he voluntarily submitted DNA to police “about a month ago” to assist police with their investigation. Jeanette McCraney said he was shown a list of names of a family tree and didn’t recognize anyone. As she puts it, police asked if he’d like to help them “better their search” by submitting his own DNA. She believes his DNA was taken under false pretenses, explaining that he first asked if he needed a lawyer and was told no.
She went on, stating that police called her husband about a week ago and asked him to come in and look at another list. Before that happened, law enforcement arrested him during a traffic stop. He’s now charged with five counts of capital murder and one count of rape and, according to the district attorney’s office, is eligible for the death penalty.
When asked about his client’s DNA being at the crime scene, Harrison challenged perceptions that testing of DNA is infallible. His associate attorney, Andrew Scarborough, added that they are looking into issues regarding the constitutionality of the tests, as well as privacy concerns regarding the companies that conduct such tests.
"This company has an interest that these things come back positive,” Harrison stated of the new genealogy technique. “It doesn’t prove anything other than that they new each other.”
Reached for comment, Parabon Labs told WSFA 12 News they simply provide a genetic analysis. State investigators are responsible for anything beyond that.
“Genetic analysis research that we’ve done points towards this particular family or towards this person and then they have to build a case using traditional forensic methods,” said CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist with Parabon.
Harrison will have to wait until a preliminary hearing on April 3 before making his next decisions in the case. He said at this point he doesn’t have access to any of the evidence and declined to speak about specific aspects of the case.
Jeanette McCraney declined to discuss the whereabouts of Coley on the night of the murders, July 31, 1999, and his attorney said "when you’re not guilty, you don’t need an alibi do you?” when asked if he would be developing an alibi as part of the defense.
To date, authorities have not given any indication on a motive in the double homicide.