RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Court of Appeals on Friday exonerated a man who spent four years in prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit.
A three-judge panel of the court unanimously granted Johnathan Montgomery’s petition for a writ of actual innocence Friday, saying there was no evidence to support his conviction after his accuser admitted lying. Montgomery was convicted in 2009 of forcible sodomy, aggravated sexual battery and animate object sexual penetration — based solely on Elizabeth Paige Coast’s testimony.
Coast eventually confessed to lying and was sentenced in August to two months in jail for perjury, paving the way for Montgomery’s exoneration.
“Absent Coast’s original testimony, the record contains no evidence of Montgomery’s guilt,” the appeals court said. “There are no witnesses who testified that the incident ever occurred. There is no physical evidence that a crime ever happened. The record is entirely devoid of any evidence that incriminates Montgomery.”
Montgomery’s attorney, Jon M. Talotta, said he was thrilled Montgomery was cleared.
“Securing the petition of actual innocence will allow him to celebrate the holidays with his family as a free man,” Talotta said.
Coast originally claimed Montgomery molested her in Hampton in 2000 when she was 10 and he was 14. She said last year that she made up the story when she was 17 to explain her behavior after her parents caught her looking at adult material on the Internet. She said she blamed Montgomery because he had moved out of state and she didn’t think anything would happen to him.
Soon after Coast admitted lying, Gov. Bob McDonnell granted Montgomery a conditional pardon, freeing him from prison but leaving intact his conviction and the requirement that he register as a sex offender. One of the conditions of the pardon was that Montgomery would seek a writ of actual innocence in the appeals court.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli supported the petition and argued in person on Montgomery’s behalf before the appeals court last month.
“We’re gratified for the court’s quick decision in exonerating Johnathan, and we’re glad for this early Christmas present for him,” Cuccinelli said in a written statement. “I’m thankful that justice has finally been served.”
At the November hearing, the appeals court expressed concern that McDonnell might have created a constitutional separation of powers problem by making a full pardon contingent on the court’s approval of the innocence petition. The court ruled that while it may not properly participate in the clemency process, it could still exercise its independent authority to consider a writ of actual innocence.
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