Everyone in Virginia’s criminal justice system knew that Johnathan Christopher Montgomery was innocent of the crimes for which he’d been convicted.
His accuser had recanted her testimony and admitted she lied to police about being molested by Montgomery more than a dozen years earlier. And yet the state continued to deny him his freedom until an advocacy organization for the wrongly convicted petitioned for his release.
Finally, on November 20, 2012, more than four years after he was sent to prison for aggravated sexual battery and lesser charges – and two days before Thanksgiving –Montgomery was conditionally pardoned by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and walked out of the Greensville Correctional Center.
“The truth sets you free,” Montgomery told reporters outside the facility.
His accuser, Elizabeth Paige Coast, had told police that Montgomery sexually abused her in 2000 when she was 10 years old and he was 14 and lived across the street from Coast’s grandmother in Hampton. Coast invented the story, she reportedly told investigators, because she was embarrassed and panicked when her parents caught her looking at pornographic websites.
Coast said she didn’t think anyone would pursue her allegations against Montgomery because he and his family had moved to North Carolina in 2004, though she later testified against him in court and helped send him to prison to serve a 7½-year sentence.
Coast has since been charged with felony perjury; at the time she recanted, she was employed as a clerk with the Hampton police department. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.58].
“She can’t take it back,” said Montgomery, now 26. “She did what she did and she has to deal with the consequences.”
In early November 2012, Hampton Circuit Court Judge Randolph T. West threw out Montgomery’s convictions and ordered his release from prison. But Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli argued that West lacked jurisdiction due to a state law that prohibits judges from considering new evidence, other than DNA evidence, more than 21 days after sentencing. Cuccinelli declared the release order invalid and kept Montgomery imprisoned in spite of Coast’s recantation.
It was only after the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) filed a clemency petition for Montgomery that Governor McDonnell – less than 24 hours later – issued a conditional pardon and Montgomery was set free.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” said MAIP executive director Shawn Armbrust. “It’s only a little bit bittersweet because, you know, you’re so happy that the person’s out, but then you kind of remember how much they’ve lost.”
Montgomery’s attorneys filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Court of Appeals last December, but in March 2013 asked the court to delay hearing the case until after the perjury charges against Coast are resolved.
Sources: Associated Press, Richmond Times-Dispatch, www.wtkr.com, Huffington Post
(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)