Wrongfully Convicted: An Innocent Man Speaks Out

By  | 

PANAMA CITY - A new report out this week from NBC estimates 2,000 people have been sent to prison over the past twenty years, for crimes they didn't commit.

That's exactly what happened to a local man, who served four years before finally being freed, and able to come home to Panama City.

Johnathon Montgomery finds simple joy in taking a walk his mom, Mishia. His quiet life was taken away in an instant back in 2007.

"I was working a double at Flapjacks" says Montgomery, as he remembers the day everything changed. "I came home to my mom's house, we were living on Missouri Avenue at that point, and I got a knock on the door. Lynn Haven police arrested me, said they had a warrant out for my arrest."

The police told him he was wanted for a crime in Virginia, which took Montgomery by surprise.

"I didn't know what was going on." says Montgomery. "Virginia? I hadn't lived in Virginia for years!"

Montgomery was arrested for rape. He thought it must be a mix up, or a case of mistaken identity. He went to Virginia to clear his name. "That's when it all fell apart," he says.

What happened next sent Montgomery's world spiraling into a legal web of lies.

His accuser, 17 year old Elizabeth Coast, told police she was raped when she was 10 years old, by her 14 year old neighbor, Johnathon Montgomery.

"The only evidence they had against me was her word against mine," says Montgomery. "Throughout the whole thing I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, I didn't do it, I didn't do it! And they're telling the judge, you did do it, we're going to prove you did."

Montgomery was found guilty of rape, and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.

When Montgomery was asked if police ever asked for DNA, he replies, "Never. There was no DNA to ask for. It was word against word."

Words can be powerful in a court of law.

Countless appeals couldn't get Montgomery's sentence overturned.

Montgomery says, " I came to the realization I was going to have to live with this for the rest of my life, even though I did nothing."

After Montgomery spent four and a half years behind bars, there was a dramatic turn of events. His accuser, Elizabeth Coast, stepped forward, saying she made the whole story up.

An attorney called Montgomery's mother, Mishia Woodruff in Panama City, to share the news. At first, she thought something tragic had happened.

"I thought he was dead," she says, wiping away tears. "I thought they were calling to tell me he died. He (the lawyer) said, you need to sit down, and I thought, I can't sit down if you're going to tell me Johnathon's dead." She continues through more tears, " He said, I want you to listen to me. She (Coast) recanted her story. She lied."
Montgomery is asked if, at that point, he finally felt free. He responds, "Dealing with the courts, there was still that doubt."

Montgomery's doubts were spot on.

It took another year of legal wrangling, involving the governor of Virginia, before he was finally released. It took another year after that to clear his name, allowing him to travel freely back to Panama City to visit his family.

The legal nightmare has taken a toll on Montgomery. "A lot of people don't understand how hard it is to hold yourself together," he says, as he starts to cry. When asked how he managed through that difficult time, he says simply, through tears, "I've got my mom. She's been by me since the beginning. Her and my dad."

With his family's help, Montgomery is now trying to accept his past, and focus on the future. He is thankful he can finally be free.

"I'm OK with it now. I really am," says Montgomery, "Because she (Coast) will have to live with it the rest of her life, and I can move on with mine."

Within the past few weeks, Montgomery's record was finally wiped clean, and his name removed from all sexual registry databases.

Last Sunday, he moved home to Panama City, and is now looking for a job.

As for his accuser, Elizabeth Coast, she was convicted of committing perjury against Montgomery. She was sentenced to two months in jail.

For more on the NBC report about the exoneration of innocent prisoners see link on the side of the page.