Updated at: 11/21/2012 7:05 PM
By BROCK VERGAKIS
(AP) NORFOLK, Va. - Johnathan Montgomery spent the past four years in a Virginia state prison saying the same thing a lot of inmates do: He was innocent.
Convicted in 2008 of molesting a 10-year-old girl outside her grandmother’s Hampton home when he was 14, he insisted the alleged 2000 assault never happened. Turns out, he was telling the truth.
After the woman recently recanted her story, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on Tuesday issued a conditional pardon to Montgomery, allowing him to be freed in time for Thanksgiving at his father’s home in Vale, N.C.
"The truth sets you free," Montgomery, now 26, said Tuesday night, shortly after being released from the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrat, Va., where reporters awaited him.
It’s not exactly clear why the woman, Elizabeth Paige Coast, recanted her story, but she was working as a clerk for the Hampton, Va., police department at the time.
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.
According to media reports, prosecutors say that Coast told investigators that her parents caught her looking at pornographic websites in 2007 when she was 17, so she concocted a story of prior sexual abuse to explain her behavior. When the alleged assault occurred, Montgomery lived across the street from Coast’s grandmother in Hampton, Va. The two had previously played together.
When she devised the assault story she didn’t think anything would happen to Montgomery because he had moved with his father and stepmother to North Carolina in 2004, Virginia prosecutors said. But based on her testimony, he was convicted of aggravated sexual battery and other charges and was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison.
"Since she was a victim in the case, every time we did something in the courts she received a notification. Every time we did something in the courts it reminded her of this lie, and maybe it finally got to her," Montgomery’s father, Dave Montgomery said.
The AP could not locate a working telephone number for Coast, who ignored reporters’ questions after leaving a court hearing earlier this month.
While Johnathan Montgomery said that he was thrilled at being freed, he said he was livid with Coast for her lies when he learned she had recanted. He said that although his bitterness had subsided, he didn’t forgiver her for the false accusation and the time he lost.
"It’s just too awful," he said, adding that he’s planning to write a book about his ordeal. "She can’t take it back. She did what she did and she has to deal with the consequences."
He said he coped as best as he could behind bars. A fellow inmate gave Montgomery a tattoo on his right forearm of a masked anime character from the show "Bleach" that he said represented a struggle and the need to continually keep fighting. Among the few possessions he left prison with was a Sudoku book that included a meaningful quote, "If you’re going through hell, keep on going."
"I looked at that and said `Wow.’ And that’s what we’re doing," he told reporters on Wednesday.
Exonerations in the U.S. prison system are rare. Since 1989, there have been 1,020 cases of prisoners who were later cleared of all charges, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. There were about 7.2 million adults in prison in 2010, according to the most recent federal statistics available.
"It’s incredibly exciting. It’s only a little bit bittersweet because, you know, you’re so happy that the person’s out, but then you kind of remember how much they’ve lost," said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which filed a petition asking for Montgomery’s pardon on McDonnell’s behalf.
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, finding the judge lacked jurisdiction. The prison warden let him spend several hours with his son, but his father called being turned away without him "another twist of the knife."
Under Virginia law, only the state Court of Appeals can exonerate Montgomery or the governor could pardon him.
Amid heavy local media coverage and public outrage that Montgomery’s release could be delayed by weeks, McDonnell’s office moved to pardon him. The governor personally called Montgomery on Tuesday to apologize for his ordeal and tell him that he would be free that night. Armbrust had filed the petition for a conditional pardon less than 24 hours earlier.
"I’ve never seen a case move this fast," Armbrust said. "I think it moved quickly because there was already an order from another judge declaring his innocence and vacating his conviction. And even though that order technically wasn’t valid, I think the idea that both the commonwealth’s attorney and the judge had found this guy innocent, and he was still sitting in prison, was pretty horrifying to a lot of people and I think the governor recognized that."
After he was freed and picked up by his mother, who lives in Panama City, Fla., Johnathan Montgomery traded in his light tan prison uniform for street clothes at WalMart. The first thing he ate was an Angus Mushroom & Swiss burger from McDonald’s.
He said he savored being able to take a shower without the water being on a timer or someone telling him when to stop. He says that although he’d only slept 90 minutes in the past 24 hours at a family friend’s home, it was some of the best sleep of his life. He eventually plans to work with a friend in Florida, possibly doing construction, cooking or computer work.
But first, he intends to spend his first Thanksgiving in years at his father’s house, dining on turkey and mashed potatoes after losing 120 pounds while incarcerated. There he will be greeted by a large lighted wooden star in the front yard that he built shortly before he went to prison. It is the first thing his family puts up, and the last thing it takes down, every Christmas.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)