Panama City, Fl. (WTKR) – From the day he was arrested in 2007 to the moment his name was finally cleared in 2013, Johnathan Montgomery spent 2,258 days living under the cloud of a crime that never happened.
Now he’s opening up about the 6-year ordeal in an exclusive sit-down interview with NewsChannel 3’s Todd Corillo.
“It's just a test of patience and a lot of pressure to not actually crumble under it,” Montgomery said.
From his mother’s home in Panama City, Florida where he now lives, Montgomery says he is acclimating well to his new life.
He’s bought a car, has started a full-time job working at Sonic and most importantly, he is not holding on to anger.
“I take one day at a time and progress with it and just know that I’m not angry or vengeful or anything like that,” Montgomery said.
The story of how Montgomery got to this point began with a knock on his door in Florida in October 2007.
It was detectives he recognized from the restaurant where he was working as a cook, serving him with an arrest warrant out of Virginia.
“For what? What did I do? I just got off a double! There's nothing I could have done immediately in the past 24 hours that I could have even done,” Montgomery remembers thinking.
The arrest was for a sexual assault against Elizabeth Coast.
She alleged that 7 years earlier, when she was 10 and Montgomery was 14, she had been raped by Johnathan Montgomery in Hampton, Virginia.
With no evidence or corroborating witnesses, the trial came down to Coast’s word versus Montgomery’s. Montgomery was convicted.
“It hit me - you're guilty. How can I be guilty? There's nothing that proves I did anything wrong and that's the crazy part about it,” he remembers.
Montgomery was sentenced to serve seven and a half years in prison. In 2012, with most appeals exhausted, he had resigned himself to finish out the sentence.
“I set myself a routine so I wouldn’t dwell on it. So I wouldn't sit there and be pessimistic and depressed,” Montgomery said. “I think in August or September I was thinking, ‘I’m going to really have to live with this.’”
Then in October 2012, everything changed when Coast admitted the story about the sexual assault was a lie, made up to explain being caught looking at pornography by her parents.
She recanted her story and told police she had lied under oath during Montgomery’s trial.
When representatives from the Hampton Public Defender’s Office traveled to the Greensville Correctional Facility to break the news to Montgomery, he thought someone from his family had died.
“You have no idea what’s going through your head and that’s what was going through mine – my mom died, my sister died,” he said.
On November 9, 2012 Montgomery went before a Hampton Circuit Court judge who apologized to him, vacated his convictions and ordered him to be released from prison.
“My head just dropped. A lot of weight was just lifted,” Montgomery remembers. “For a judge, even if it was illegal at the time for him to say that, for a judge to say that he believes [what] is going on right now at this time is the truth – for him to say that open in the public was probably the best thing that could have ever happened for me.”
As NewsChannel 3’s Todd Corillo waited outside the prison with Montgomery’s family for him to be released, elation turned to downright anger.
“’You’re not going home. You’re not.’ I’m like why? The Attorney General is not letting you go home,” Montgomery recalls.
Then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office was blocking the release, saying it violated Virginia’s 21-day rule.
“Him not stepping into that personal touch and not being a personal thing – it made it different. I was upset with him,” Montgomery says.
The blocked release set off 12 days of NewsChannel 3 taking action and fighting for Montgomery’s freedom, including a trip to Richmond to ask then Governor Bob McDonnell to step in and pardon him.
The very next day NewsChannel 3 got results when Montgomery was issued a Conditional Pardon and walked out of prison on November 20, 2012, just two days before Thanksgiving.
“Probably the best Thanksgiving I had. It really was. I enjoyed being there with my mom, my dad, my stepmom, the dogs, I mean everything. My cat remembered me,” Montgomery remembers.
Even though he was out of prison, Montgomery’s ordeal was far from over. The Conditional Pardon required Montgomery to petition and receive a Writ of Actual Innocence from the Court of Appeals of Virginia.
While that process played out, he was forced to register as a sex offender and be under supervised probation.
“I couldn’t go where I wanted to go when I wanted to go. Couldn’t leave the county at first,” Montgomery said. “I applied for 132 jobs in an 8-month period. All declined. Because I was a registered sex offender.”
Meanwhile, the woman whose lie put him in prison was working through Virginia’s legal system herself.
Elizabeth Coast entered a guilty plea to felony perjury and was sentenced in August 2013.
She was given a jail sentence of 60 days to be served on weekends and ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution.
As of February 2014, court records obtained by NewsChannel 3 show that Coast still owes $90,290.00 in restitution and court costs due by August 20, 2018.
“I’ve been getting $100 a month so far,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery says he’s satisfied with the sentence Coast was given, though admits not everyone in his family feels the same way.
“I think the judge did the best decision and gave her an intermediary between the two,” he said.
He also says he’s not holding on to anger against Coast.
“She did something wrong. She got punished for it. She has to live with that for the rest of her life. That label is on her and I can’t be mad or angry or anything like that because I’d be focused too much on the past than what the future holds,” Montgomery said.
Once Coast was convicted and sentenced, Montgomery’s case for a Writ of Actual Innocence went before the Court of Appeals of Virginia in Richmond.
On December 20, 2013, just days before Christmas, the court ruled in his favor, issuing the Writ.
“I’m like – I was crying – it was like the best day ever,” Montgomery remembers.
However, his battle wasn’t quite over yet. Even with the Writ of Actual Innocence, he still ran into roadblocks with getting his named removed from sex offender registries.
NewsChannel 3’s Todd Corillo took action and got results with the removal of Montgomery’s name from the Florida sex offender registry online.
“If you hadn’t had called- I would still be down here fighting,” Montgomery told Corillo.
Now, Montgomery is looking to the future. He has a full-time job and is about to become an uncle.
He’s planning on buying a house soon and wants to settle in Florida.
As for the many who have followed his journey and have known him as the wrongfully convicted man who was failed by Virginia’s legal system, Johnathan Montgomery wants you to know this:
“It doesn't matter where you're at, it’s how you get there and I can't be mad.”