"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

Governor pardons, frees innocent man

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 4:40 pm, Wed Nov 21, 2012.

JARRATT, Va - This will be a happy Thanksgiving for Jonathan Montgomery, the first in many years.

Gov. Bob McDonnell on Tuesday issued a conditional pardon and ordered the release of the innocent Florida man who was in prison for sexual assaults his accuser now says did not happen.

Montgomery, who was locked up on Dec. 10, 2008, after being convicted of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl — an attack that did not occur — emerged from the Greensville Correctional Center at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday.

“It feels great,” he said. “This is awesome. This is the best experience I’ve had in four years.”

His first few moments of freedom were spent under a half moon in front of television cameras outside the prison.

Standing near him, his mother, Mishia Woodruff, of Panama City, Fla., said she felt “liberated. Liberated from all the lies.”

Montgomery, 26, was serving a seven-year, six-month sentence for crimes allegedly committed in Hampton in 2000 against Elizabeth Paige Coast, who recently admitted she lied and is now facing a perjury charge.

Asked how they felt about Coast, Montgomery said he could not comment. “It’s just too awful.”

His mother said, “She can’t take back what she did.”

Montgomery’s lawyer, Ben Pavek, Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney Anton Bell and the judge who convicted him attempted to get Montgomery out of prison by court order on Nov. 9.

But a Virginia rule takes jurisdiction away from a circuit judge 21 days after a case is final. That meant Montgomery could be released only with a pardon from McDonnell or a writ of actual innocence from the Virginia Court of Appeals.

“It is a travesty of justice when an innocent person is confined in a jail or prison, and it should never occur in our society,” McDonnell said in a statement announcing the conditional pardon.

He added: “This situation has been a tragedy. An innocent man was in jail for four years. While tonight Mr. Montgomery is free from prison, he will never get those years of his life back. Tonight I called Jonathan to personally offer, on behalf of the citizens of the commonwealth, our heartfelt apologies for all that he has been put through due to this miscarriage of justice.”

The governor received the official conditional pardon request from Montgomery’s lawyers at 10 p.m. Monday.

Pavek, Montgomery’s lawyer, said: “I am elated my client is at liberty. ... And I am extremely grateful for the expeditious way Governor McDonnell acted. He said he would move expeditiously, and he did.”

Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said, “We’re thrilled that the governor acted so quickly and that he did the right thing.”

The offices of McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said this week that they are willing to assist Montgomery as promptly as possible and in any appropriate way. The Innocence Project and Pavek are working on a petition for a writ of actual innocence, which must be filed with the Virginia Court of Appeals.

Reached by telephone, David Montgomery, the innocent man’s father, said the family will celebrate Thanksgiving at his home near Hickory, N.C.

“We were preparing for the worst hoping for the best,” said the elated father, noting that he got the good news in a voice mail from McDonnell.

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