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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Virginia Court Declares Johnathon Montgomery an Innocent Man

 
"This is even better of a feeling," Montgomery said. "Even just getting out of prison, I was still stuck in a proverbial prison … (So) it means more. It means that not only am I out of prison, but I'm away from all that … and I can get on with my life." 

A “proverbial prison”, that is exactly what the Sex Offender Registry is! 

As a registered sex offender, he said, "I couldn't go near a park, near a school, or near a day care." He has needed to meet regularly with his probation officer, and get approval to go out of town. Because of his felony convictions, he said, he was turned down by 130 potential employers. 

Thank God justice was finally served for this young man, but how many more innocent Virginians (men and women) were wrongly convicted because Virginia’s poorly written statutes allows an accusation alone with no corroboration to convict people in sexual cases?
 

Virginia court declares Johnathon Montgomery an innocent man
Virginia Court of Appeals grants writ of actual innocence
December 20, 2013  

HAMPTON — It's official: Johnathon Montgomery is an innocent man. 

The Virginia Court of Appeals on Friday granted Montgomery a "writ of actual innocence," meaning the three felony sexual assault convictions against him are forever wiped away.  

All court records of his guilt in Hampton Circuit Court are to be expunged, and he no longer has to register as a sex offender.

"We hold that Montgomery has met his burden … of establishing that he is actually innocent of the crimes for which he is convicted," a three-judge panel of the court wrote in its opinion. "Accordingly … this Court grants Mongtomery's petition."
 
From his father's home in North Carolina, Montgomery, now 27, expressed elation with the news, saying that being declared innocent is a bigger deal to him than getting out of prison a year ago. 

"This is even better of a feeling," Montgomery said. "Even just getting out of prison, I was still stuck in a proverbial prison … (So) it means more. It means that not only am I out of prison, but I'm away from all that … and I can get on with my life." 

As a registered sex offender, he said, "I couldn't go near a park, near a school, or near a day care." He has needed to meet regularly with his probation officer, and get approval to go out of town. Because of his felony convictions, he said, he was turned down by 130 potential employers. 

But with everything now being wiped away, he said, those burdens will be greatly reduced, and he will be able to enjoy Christmas. And, he hopes to soon land work in his chosen field of computer technology. "This will be a lot easier on me personally," he said. 

'An injustice has been done' 

It was five years ago that Montgomery was pronounced guilty in Hampton Circuit Court. That came after a 17-year-old girl took the witness stand and lied under oath, saying Montgomery had assaulted her outside her grandmother's house nearly eight years earlier, when he was 14 and she was 10. 

Montgomery was found guilty and sentenced to 7 1/2 years to serve. 

But after he had served four years in prison, Montgomery's accuser, Elizabeth Paige Coast, came forward last year to say she had lied at the 2008 trial — and that she had made up the entire tale. Earlier this year, she was convicted of one count of perjury — a verdict the appeals court said played a significant factor in Friday's ruling. 

In its 16-page opinion, the appeals court said changing stories by witnesses are correctly viewed with suspicion by the justice system. "Because victims' recantations are often unreliable, it is rare that a petitioner can offer clear and convincing evidence that the recantation is true and it is the trial testimony that is false," the court said.

But the Montgomery case, the court said, "presents an uncommon situation." That is, Coast's perjury conviction, which is rare in rare in recantation cases, establishes the falsity of her testimony "beyond a reasonable doubt." 

That's significant, the court said, because the case against Montgomery "rested entirely on Coast's word." If the new information were available at Montgomery's trial, the court ruled, no rational judge or jury could have found him guilty. 

"Absent Coast's original testimony, the record contains no evidence of Montgomery's guilt," the court ruled. "There are no witnesses who testified that the incident ever occurred. There is no physical evidence that a crime ever happened."

The court's decision comes a month after a hearing in which Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli strongly backed Montgomery's innocence petition — personally arguing a case in court for only the fourth time in his four-year tenure as attorney general.
 
"We have come to the conclusion that not only has justice not been done, but an injustice has been done," Cuccinelli said in November, saying his job is not to protect convictions but "to seek the ends of justice."

'Finally'

On Friday, Cuccinelli expressed appreciation with the ruling. "We're gratified for the court's quick decision in exonerating Johnathon, and we're glad that this is an early Christmas present for him," he said. "I'm thankful that justice has finally been served."