The past five years have been an unthinkable nightmare for Johnathon Montgomery and his family. Montgomery was sentenced to 60 years in prison after a young woman in her late teens accused him of sexual assault, which she said occurred years earlier when Montgomery was 14 and she was 10 years old. Montgomery spent four years in a Virginia prison before the woman recanted and admitted the crime never happened. False accusation and false witness are not new to those who have studied DNA-proven wrongful convictions, but how our system responds to one who recants such a damaging lie deserves thoughtful consideration.
In this case, a striking reversal of fortune reveals that Johnathon Montgomery was the true victim and Elizabeth Coast, now 23, was the perpetrator of a lie that soon will have her facing a grand jury hearing. She is charged with one count of perjury. If indicted and convicted, she could face up to ten years in prison.
What prompted Coast to invent this crime and finger Montgomery? What penalty is appropriate for someone who lies under oath and costs an innocent person years in prison?
As Coast has explained, she invented the story of sexual assault when her parents discovered her viewing sexually explicit content on the Internet. Coast accused Montgomery, who had moved from the area, to derail her parents’ anger, and because she thought the police would never pursue or find Montgomery.
Instead, he was apprehended, tried, and convicted of three felony assault charges. Fifty-two and a half years of his sentence were suspended, but Montgomery still faced seven and a half years in prison and would have likely served them if Coast had not recanted.
When the story broke, the public was understandably outraged by the injustice that Coast’s lie brought upon Montgomery. A special outside prosecutor was appointed to avert any perception that prosecutors who had believed Coast’s story would be especially harsh on her.
Now the system is challenged to strike the difficult balanced response that discourages false accusations but encourages the truth, however late, especially when it can bring true justice to an innocent person languishing in prison.
According to a Daily Press report (here), Jonathan Montgomery would be less harsh on Elizabeth Coast than many observers. He would like the judge to be “lenient.” Montgomery would be satisfied to see her get ten years probation and no prison time. “I don’t want to see somebody else’s life screwed up just because of this,” he said. “Enough is enough. I can’t possibly think she thought this through.”
As is often the case when innocent people are released from wrongful imprisonment, they demonstrate a grace and mercy that outsiders have difficulty imagining. For observers, Coast’s punishment is yet to come, but Montgomery has some insight into penalties suffered—fear, stress, destruction of reputation, consumption of hard-earned assets—beyond those any court can impose.
Presumably Coast has been paying for her lie even before she recanted and demonstrated her resolve to seek whatever redemption she can earn. While she can never restore the time or repair the suffering and loss that Montgomery and his family experienced, she has come forward and has not resisted swift process toward the final resolution of the case. Coast has waived a preliminary hearing. A plea hearing is scheduled for April 15 and the trial date is May 7.
Coast is paying the ongoing price of public humiliation and scorn. According to this Washington Post opinion (here), she was fired from her job as Hamilton police department civilian clerk. She is bearing the cost of legal representation, and, she has knowingly offered herself up to a justice system that could seek to make an example of her. She could spend a decade in prison.
While no one should make excuses for Coast’s horrendous lie, she is not a seasoned criminal. She was a teenager when she made an inexcusable false accusation that took a very tragic course. Perhaps the court-imposed sanction could be consistent with her effort—however delayed—to recant, make amends, and seek redemption. For example, the court could require not only probation but also a period of public service in an area that holds importance to Coast or Montgomery.
Montgomery’s hope and recommendation for leniency for Coast also may be the best course for our system of justice. Without Coast’s false accusation, Montgomery and his family would not have experienced the nightmare of wrongful conviction, but without Coast’s recanting, Montgomery would likely still be in prison.
Montgomery’s comment that Coast probably did not think through her initial lie is an important insight. As Coast sought a solution to the near-term problem of her parent’s wrath, she presumably didn’t anticipate the horrible longer-term impact of her lie, nor the potential punishment she might face. It is questionable whether the potential of harsh punishment could have been part of her consideration.
On the other hand, she had years to think about the personally difficult ramifications of recanting. It is to her credit that she recanted anyway.
How the justice system responds to Elizabeth Coast may influence the decision of other false accusers considering recantation. Therefore, for some who have been wrongfully convicted, the outcome of this case could determine whether or not they remain in prison or win deserved freedom. For persons who may have been convicted by false accusation in capital cases, the resolution of this case may even impact life and death.
If there is any circumstance in which restoration and redemption are more productive than retribution, it is in our justice system’s response to those who have mustered the courage to correct a tragic lie.