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Justice be done

November 27, 2012 12:10 am

JUST BEFORE Thanksgiving, after four years of incarceration, an innocent Hampton man was finally freed from prison. Johnathan Montgomery didn't commit the sexual assault that his accuser claimed had occurred in 2000, when he was 14 and she was 10, but he still was convicted. For Mr. Montgomery, the scales of justice failed to balance. Over the last few weeks, the state has managed to make a bad situation worse.

Mr. Montgomery's nightmare began when his accuser, Elizabeth Paige Coast, told authorities in 2007 that he had assaulted her seven years earlier. Turns out she fabricated the assault to explain her behavior when her parents caught her looking at online pornography. In light of her recantation, she has been charged with perjury.

Although on Nov. 9 his convictions were vacated by a judge, Mr. Montgomery, maddeningly for all involved, remained behind bars. He finally emerged from the Greensville Correctional Center thanks only to a conditional pardon issued by Gov. Bob McDonnell, who saw the need to end this travesty once and for all.

The governor (and former attorney general) knows quite well why Mr. Montgomery spent additional weeks in prison--justice in Virginia is handcuffed by its archaic 21-day rule, and will be freed only by a complete repeal of the rule during the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

The rule states that no new evidence may be considered more than 21 days after a conviction. Designed to keep endless appeals from clogging the court system, it has been partially reformed over the past decade because of advances in DNA technology that can scientifically prove a convict's innocence. Still, the rule is overly rigid: Certainly any substantive new evidence deserves consideration if one's future hangs in the balance.

In this case, Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli found that the 21-day rule prevented Mr. Montgomery's release even though Hampton Circuit Court Judge Randolph T. West had vacated his convictions and ordered him freed. Mr. Montgomery faced the prospect of waiting additional weeks or months for a court of appeals hearing.

Mr. Montgomery was aided by the intervention of the Innocence Project, which has worked here and in other states to free the wrongfully convicted. In past cases, the nonprofit's mid-Atlantic executive director, Shawn Armbrust, has lauded Mr. Cuccinelli's efforts in making such wrongs right. The attorney general, after seeing himself bound by an unjust law, should add his considerable influence toward the rule's repeal.

In the meantime, Mr. Montgomery has undergone the life-changing trauma of being wrongfully convicted of a heinous crime and spending four years of a 7-year sentence behind bars--and then suffering "another twist of the knife," as his father put it, when his release was delayed.

Attempts in the General Assembly to jettison the 21-day rule have failed in the past. The case of Mr. Montgomery should spur the Assembly to act.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.