Elizabeth Paige Coast, the woman who sent a random young man from her past to prison for four years for a supposed rape that never happened (she made it up as a way to explain to her parents why she was visiting pornographic websites), was sentenced this afternoon to serve just two months behind bars, on weekends only. She will also have to pay Mr. Montgomery $90,000 in restitution for the years he spent in prison. See here, here and here.
The story of Johnathon Montgomery's ordeal not only is heart-breaking, it's a cautionary tale about how an innocent young man can be destroyed with no evidence beyond the very shaky say-so of his false rape accuser. If it can happen to Johnathon, it can happen to any young man.
Today's sentence worked an intolerable injustice to Johnathon and the Montgomery family. Although Hampton Circuit Court Judge Bonnie L. Jones said she was deeply disturbed by the case, and added that "this goes to the very heart of our judicial system," it is impossible to see how the actual sentence imposed fit the crime, given that the guilty person was given two months (weekends only) jail time for a crime that sent an innocent man to prison for four years. The prosecutor, Hopewell Commonwealth's Attorney Richard K. Newman, wanted Coast to serve the same amount of time behind bars that Johnathon served, but the court opted to give Coast a slap on the wrist instead. According to one news report: "Just prior to sentencing Coast, Jones asked, 'What do I do? Is it an eye for an eye, or is there room for compassion?'"
It is well to note that there was no room for "compassion" in sentencing Mr. Montgomery when he was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence for a crime that never happened. It is unfathomable how the horrors of spending years in prison on a false rape claim could be lost on the judge. Those are horrors that Ms. Coast will be spared on her weekend sojourns to the local lock-up.
According to a news report, "Coast cried repeatedly during her sentencing hearing; her lawyer tried to portray her as a naive, then 17-year-old, who feared her parents." (So much for accepting responsibility for her actions.) "Coast says she never thought the lie would hurt Montgomery, and only said it was him because he had moved out of the area." (In fact, Coast sat silent after Johnathon was charged, and she allowed him to twist in a false rape hell for four years. It is one thing to make a split-second stupid decision, and quite another to refuse to correct it after it's apparent that an innocent person is going to suffer because of it, much less suffer for four years because of it.)
The sentence today also does no favors for rape victims because it undermines the public's confidence in the way rape claims are handled. Jurors have no hesitation in holding young men accountable for rape when the evidence is clear. But when the system botches it -- when false accusers and their families, police, prosecutors, and courts allow innocent young men to be convicted for rapes they didn't commit -- it has a chilling effect on juries deciding rape cases. It underscores the uncertainty inherent in charges based on he said/she said facts.
In this case, the justice system needed to send a clear and unmistakable message that such mistakes are not tolerated, that they are not "business as usual." It needed to manifest its outrage, belated though it may be, by punishing the false accuser appropriately. It didn't do that. Now, the next jury called upon to decide a rape case will know that, when it comes to this particular crime, the system tolerates injustice to innocent young men -- and jurors will be all the more wary about convicting even young men who deserve it. If we want to treat rape as a serious crime, we can't tolerate false rape claims.
Punishing Coast in a serious way would not have deterred rape victims from coming forward, and it would not deter recantations by other false accusers. We've dealt with both arguments many times. See here.
All persons of good will need to be outraged about this sentence. Judge Bonnie L. Jones not only has denied Johnathon Montgomery justice, she's done a disservice to the community of the wrongly accused, and to rape victims.