Johnathan Montgomery, Va. man in prison for false rape claim, being freed
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a conditional pardon Tuesday for a man who has served four years in prison for a sexual assault that his accuser now says never occurred.
Johnathan Montgomery left Greensville Correctional Center late Tuesday, McDonnell's office said.
"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.
Montgomery, 26, was convicted in 2008 of sexually assaulting Elizabeth Paige Coast. The woman, then 17, said Montgomery assaulted her outside her grandmother's house in Hampton in 2000 when he was 14 and she was 10. Montgomery was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison.
The Associated Press does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual assault. However, Coast is being identified because authorities say she admitted fabricating the story and because she has been charged with perjury.
Earlier this month, Hampton Circuit Judge Randolph T. West threw out Montgomery's felony convictions and ordered him released from prison.
But when relatives went to pick Montgomery up at the prison, they learned that Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli's office had declared the order invalid, saying the judge lacked jurisdiction.
Under Virginia law, only the state Court of Appeals can exonerate Montgomery or the governor could pardon him. McDonnell also could free Montgomery pending his petition for a writ of actual innocence.
McDonnell's office said he received the conditional pardon request from Montgomery's attorneys late Monday, allowing him to take immediate action to free Montgomery.
McDonnell, a former prosecutor, said he personally delivered the news to Montgomery by phone Tuesday night and spoke directly to his mother.
David Montgomery had been turned away from the state prison when he sought to pick up his son after West threw out his convictions and ordered him freed.
"It was just another twist of the knife," Montgomery, who lives in Vale, N.C., told The Associated Press in an interview after learning his son could not be released.
The elder Montgomery and his attorney said the wrongly convicted man should not have to spend another day in prison.
Montgomery's case was first reported by The Daily Press of Newport News. The newspaper reported that prosecutor Anton Bell strongly backed a request by Montgomery's attorney to throw out his convictions and sentence.
Since she recanted, Coast has been arrested on the perjury charge and released on bond.
According to The Daily Press, Coast told investigators that her parents caught her looking at pornographic websites in 2007, so she concocted the story of prior sexual abuse to explain her behavior. Coast blamed Montgomery because his family had moved away and she didn't think police would be able to track him down.
It was not clear why Coast decided to recant five years later.
McDonnell said he worked with the attorney general's, local prosecutors and the Mid-Atlantic Actual Innocence Project to review Montgomery's case before issuing the conditional pardon.
"This situation has been a tragedy," McDonnell said. "An innocent man was in jail for four years."
McDonnell said he offered his personal apology to Montgomery and extended the "heartfelt apologies" of the residents of the state.
"Justice, while tragically delayed, has been served," McDonnell said.