On March 13, 1980, the body of social worker Rose Holliday was found just after midnight in the garage of her home in San Diego, California. Her body was discovered by her husband, 51-year-old Chester Holliday.
Holliday told police that he had last seen his wife around 8 a.m., just before he left for work. He said she was not home when he returned from work, and that he called friends and neighbors and searched the house. It wasn’t until just after midnight that he found her body in the garage. The medical examiner determined that Rose Holliday had been strangled and had been dead for approximately sixteen hours when Holliday reported finding her body.
There was only circumstantial evidence to tie Holliday to his wife’s death. The couple had recently received $200,000 from a real-estate investment, and when police examined the couple’s home, they thought that the floors looked like they had been recently mopped.
Despite a lengthy investigation into the crime, a San Diego County grand jury declined to indict Holliday on March 4, 1981. Nonetheless, Deputy District Attorney Donald Rudloff felt there was sufficient evidence to convict Holliday and filed a homicide complaint against Holliday on April 10, 1981. The theory was that Chester Holliday had killed Rose in the morning before he left for work.
In September 1981, Holliday was tried by a jury in San Diego Superior Court before Judge Raul Rosado. Attorney Otis L. Jones represented Holliday. Jones’s defense was rife with errors and the use of ineffective and improper tactics. After Jones attempted to argue a fact that was not in evidence, Judge Rosado said, “Mr. Jones, I don’t know whether you do these things out of ignorance or whether you do them in bad faith.” Holliday testified in his own defense and several witnesses testified that he was at work the entire day until leaving in the evening. But Jones had also failed to locate key defense witnesses who could have accounted for his time in the morning.
The medical examiner had set Rose’s time of death as approximately 7:30 a.m. on March 12, 1980. At trial, Holliday established that on March 12, he had not been at home from approximately 8:00 a.m. until the evening. Rudloff argued that Holliday had killed his wife before he left for work that morning, likely as the result of some argument. “He had to have killed his wife early in the morning before he left to work. Just no question about it,” Rudloff told the jury. “That’s consistent with the aspect of rigor mortis.” Rudloff argued that after strangling her, Holliday had dragged his wife’s body through their house to the garage and then mopped up the blood. Rudloff asked the jury to convict Holliday on a charge of second-degree murder.
Jones failed to instruct the jury that involuntary manslaughter was also an option, which left them with only two options: convicting Holliday of second-degree murder or acquitting him. The jury found Holliday guilty of second-degree murder on September 15, 1981.
In October 1981, Holliday hired new attorneys Stephen Perrello and Charles Adair, who filed a motion for a new trial on the basis of inadequate legal representation. Judge Rosado denied the motion on February 19, 1982, but he did reduce Holliday’s conviction from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter, saying he believed Holliday had killed his wife in a fit of rage. Judge Rosado sentenced Holliday to three years in prison but allowed him to remain free on $10,000 bail while he appealed.
Perrello and Adair investigated the prosecution’s theory of the case, and soon found multiple witnesses who disputed the prosecution’s narrative. These new witnesses included a neighbor of the Holliday’s, who had seen Rose standing in the doorway as her husband left for work on March 12, as well as three of Rose’s co-workers, who had seen her in the San Ysidro welfare office around noon on March 12. The Hollidays’ two children, 9 and 10 years old, each signed an affidavit stating that their mother was alive when they left for school with their father on the morning of March 12.
One of Rose’s co-workers saw her speaking on the day of her death with the father of a violent, alcoholic 19-year-old, whose welfare case she managed. Perrello suspected that this teen, who was imprisoned soon after for robbery and burglary, was responsible for Rose’s death. The teenager had described himself as “unable to be hurt” and was described by others as capable of murder. After Rose’s body was found, police found her wallet contained no cash. Chester Holliday said his wife typically kept about $40 in cash in her wallet at all times.
The night Holliday found his wife’s body, he also discovered a pair of gloves behind his garage refrigerator and turned them over to police. Police technicians found blood on the gloves. Perrello hired criminologist Eugenia Bell to assist in the investigation and wanted to have her look at certain pieces of evidence, including the gloves. Perrello obtained a court order to have the gloves preserved in evidence for Bell to examine. In early January 1982, Bell requested to examine the gloves and was told the police could not locate them. However, on January 21, Police Detective Barbara Muse told Bell the gloves had been found. The next day, Muse called again and reportedly told Bell that the gloves “had been destroyed on or about January 21.”
On August 5, 1983, Holliday filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on the basis of inadequate legal representation. Without a habeas hearing, the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed Holliday’s conviction on January 18, 1984.
At Holliday’s retrial in August 1984, the defense focused on the testimony of the eight new witnesses who had seen Rose throughout the day on the day of her death, until as late as 1:00 p.m. The prosecution was not able to produce witnesses or evidence to link Holliday to his wife’s death. He was acquitted on August 10, 1984.
In January 1985, Holliday and his two children sued his original trial attorney, Otis L. Jones, Jones’s partner, and their law firm, for professional negligence and for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In June 1987, Holliday was awarded $800,000 in damages, and $150,000 was awarded to each of the Holliday children. On appeal in 1989, the judgment was upheld for Holliday but reversed for his children.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.