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Plight of wrongly accused man in Va. finds support

Saturday - 11/17/2012, 12:22pm  ET

RICHMOND, Va. - The Innocence Project has joined the effort to free a man who is serving a prison term for a sexual assault a woman now says never happened.

Jonathan Montgomery, 26, was convicted in 2008 of sexually assaulting Elizabeth Paige Coast. The accuser, then 17, claimed 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. Coast, however, is being identified because authorities say she admitted to fabricating the story and she has been charged with perjury.

Nov. 9, Hampton Circuit Judge Randolph T. West tossed Montgomery's felony convictions and ordered him released from prison.

But when relatives went to pick Montgomery up at the prison in Jarratt, they learned Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli's office had declared the order invalid because the judge lacked jurisdiction.

Under Virginia law, only the Virginia Court of Appeals can exonerate Montgomery, or Gov. Bob McDonnell could pardon him. McDonnell also could free Montgomery pending his petition for a writ of actual innocence.

"Our first step here is to try and get Mr. Montgomery out as quickly as possible because the writ process is so time-consuming," Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, told the Richmond Times- Dispatch ( http://bit.ly/1042Xi1).

"We're working very quickly to try to get something to the governor's office that they can act on," she said.

Spokesmen for McDonnell and Cuccinelli have said they are mindful of Montgomery's plight and willing to assist.

Montgomery's attorney, Ben Pavlek, has said he welcomes the help but believes West's order is valid. He said he has filed court papers asking that the Department of Corrections and the warden of the prison where Montgomery is held be found in contempt of court.

Montgomery's case was first reported by The Daily Press. The Newport News newspaper reported that prosecutor Anton Bell strongly backed Pavek's request to throw out Montgomery's convictions and sentence, and West expressed regret for having convicted the man based on Coast's testimony four years ago.

According to The Daily Press, Bell said at a court hearing that 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, Bell said.

It was not clear why Coast decided to recant five years later.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com


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