Thursday, December 20, 2012

The monstrous rape lie that sent an innocent man to prison for four years

This is a chilling cautionary tale: if this could happen to Johnathon Montgomery, it can happen to any man.

Four years ago, Elizabeth Coast, then 18-years-old, duped a police detective, a prosecutor with years of experience in juvenile cases, and a seasoned judge into believing that she had suffered the trauma of a sexual assault when she was ten years old. She claimed the perpetrator was Johnathon Montgomery, a neighbor boy four years older than she was. (Mr. Montgomery was 14 at the time of the supposed assault, 22 at the time of the trial.) It had taken Coast years to come forward, and she seemed to have no motive to lie.

At the trial, there was no evidence of the sexual assault other than Coast's word. No forensics; nothing. The judge said it was "word-against-word." In fact, the judge went further than that: he said that Coast and Montgomery "both made good witnesses."

As if that wasn't enough to clear Mr. Montgomery, there was evidence at trial that Coast was making it up. Coast first told police that the alleged assault happened in January 2001. But records showed that Mr. Montgomery was living in Iowa at that time, far from Hampton, where the assault supposedly occurred. So what did Coast do? She simply changed the timeline and told the court that upon further reflection, the assault happened in late 2000 when Mr. Montgomery was still living in Hampton. Changing the timeline to coincide with Mr. Montgomery's residency in Hampton spoke to Coast's lack of credibility, the defense attorney said. The prosecutor disagreed, saying that Coast was recalling events several years old.

Incredibly, the judge -- whose name is Randolph T. West -- convicted Mr. Montgomery and sentenced him to state state prison for 7-1/2 years. (Judge West is invited to tell his story on this blog to explain how it was possible to find Mr. Montgomery guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.)

It turned out that, indeed, Mr. Montgomery was not guilty. It turned out that Elizabeth Coast's story was a terrible, awful lie. She had fabricated the sexual assault as a way to explain to her parents why she was visiting pornographic websites.

Five years after her lie, Coast recanted. Mr. Montgomery had spent four years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.

The recanted testimony led to Johnathon's release from prison — thanks first to decisive action by the duped judge (to Judge West's credit), who expressed his profound regret, and followed by a conditional pardon from Gov. Bob McDonnell. McDonnell, a former prosecutor, said he personally delivered the news to Montgomery by phone Tuesday night and spoke directly to his mother. "It is a travesty of justice when an innocent person is confined in a jail or prison, and it should never occur in our society," McDonnell said in a statement.

The prosecutor who brought the case forward said she "furious" at the thought of an innocent man sitting in prison for four years. She said that Coast had plenty of opportunity to back out, call it quits and let everyone walk away. But she chose to bring the case forward against Montgomery.

The current prosecutor went through a painstaking effort to make sure that the recantation was legitimate, and he is convinced it was. He said he can only speculate why she came forward after several years. "I just really believe it was an overwhelming sense of guilt," he said.

So what happens when such a case comes up again?  "I hope if anything good can come out of this, it's that the bench in general — not the judges in Hampton, but the bench in general — will rethink how they apply their gauging of credibility in these types of cases," said Mr. Montgomery's defense counsel, James D. Garrett. "Maybe it will give them pause."

Under Montgomery's condition of clemency, he is expected, within 30 days of his Nov. 20 release, to file a writ of actual innocence, which would, upon approval, vacate his conviction.

Coast has been charged with perjury.

This case underscores the absolute necessity for Blackstone's formulation in our jurisprudence.  Sadly, as in this case, sometimes justice devolves into nothing more than a determination of whether the accuser was a good actress.