Again, the power of a lie

Originally posted on November 23, 2012

The people who rail against advocates for the falsely accused love to point out that the majority of overturned cases do not actually involve false accusations. Instead, those cases are usually cases of wrongful prosecution. A rape occurred, but the wrong person was punished for it. People use that as proof that no men or boys are ever convicted of a crime that never happened. However, that is not true:

Johnathan Montgomery spent the past four years in a Virginia state prison saying the same thing a lot of inmates do: He was innocent.

Convicted in 2008 of molesting a 10-year-old girl outside her grandmother’s Hampton home when he was 14, he insisted the alleged 2000 assault never happened. Turns out, he was telling the truth.

After the woman recently recanted her story, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on Tuesday issued a conditional pardon to Montgomery, allowing him to be freed in time for Thanksgiving at his father’s home in Vale, N.C.

“The truth sets you free,” Montgomery, now 26, said Tuesday night, shortly after being released from the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrat, Va., where reporters awaited him.

It’s not exactly clear why the woman, Elizabeth Paige Coast, recanted her story, but she was working as a clerk for the Hampton, Va., police department at the time.

According to the article, Coast came up with the story in 2007 when she was 17 to explain to her parents why she was looking at porn. The article states that Coast did not think anything would happen to Montgomery because he had moved away three years before she made the accusation, however, things turned out quite different than she intended. Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison

While in prison, Montgomery tried to cope:

He said he coped as best as he could behind bars. A fellow inmate gave Montgomery a tattoo on his right forearm of a masked anime character from the show “Bleach” that he said represented a struggle and the need to continually keep fighting. Among the few possessions he left prison with was a Sudoku book that included a meaningful quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep on going.”

“I looked at that and said ‘Wow.’ And that’s what we’re doing,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Things did not go smoothly once the woman recanted:

Earlier this month, Hampton Circuit Judge Randolph T. West threw out Montgomery’s felony convictions and ordered him released from prison.

But when relatives went to pick Montgomery up at the prison, they learned that Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s office had declared the order invalid, finding the judge lacked jurisdiction. The prison warden let him spend several hours with his son, but his father called being turned away without him “another twist of the knife.”

Under Virginia law, only the state Court of Appeals can exonerate Montgomery or the governor could pardon him.

Amid heavy local media coverage and public outrage that Montgomery’s release could be delayed by weeks, McDonnell’s office moved to pardon him. The governor personally called Montgomery on Tuesday to apologize for his ordeal and tell him that he would be free that night. Armbrust had filed the petition for a conditional pardon less than 24 hours earlier.

Leave it to the state to screw with an innocent man’s release. This is not the first time I have seen something like this. A similar thing happened with a foster kid who used to live at my home, but by the time his case was handled he had already committed suicide.

Now, I am sure the naysayers will claim that this does not prove anything. The woman could have been forced to recant, they will say. Perhaps she felt that Montgomery had spent enough time in prison, they will say. Perhaps she never wanted him to go to prison and now that she is older she decided to do something about it, they will say. I will say that there is nothing supporting any of those theories. All we can go on is the woman’s recantation.

What is more important is that this young man was convicted based solely on this woman’s word. While plenty of people who have no proof of abuse are telling the truth, this case shows how easy it is to convict someone of a crime they did not commit. The article does not mention what evidence was used in the case, but one can assume there was only the woman’s testimony since she reported the false claim seven years after it (never) happened.

That means all it took was her word. All it took was her telling a convincing enough story. We can imagine that Montgomery protested his innocence. We can imagine his attorneys argued that there was no evidence linking him to the crime. We can imagine his attorneys brought up how the claim came about. Yet, a jury bought this woman’s false accusation.

And had she not recanted, Montgomery would still be in prison. Let me repeat that: had she not recanted, Montgomery would still be in prison.

He had no proof, nothing at all, that he was innocent. That is why advocates for the falsely accused are so skeptical of rape accusations. It is not because every person who claims they were raped is lying, but that it is so easy for a lie to be believed and the consequences are high for those who are convicted.


15 thoughts on “Again, the power of a lie

  1. If I decide to prosecute my abuser, it will only be on the strength of my word.

    If multiple people are required to prosecute a rapist, then the only paedophiles that get convicted will be either serial, or unlucky enough to be caught red handed.

    Then there is the child protection aspect, it is unethical to ban people from working with children and vulnerable adults without evidence. If there is evidence, then they should be convicted, if they can’t be convicted then the evidence isn’t good enough….

    It is difficult,

  2. Mike, the problem is simply that some people lie. This is why sexual abuse cases need to be handled with care. I do not want anyone who was abused not to be believed, however, I also do not want anyone innocent to go to prison for something they did not do or something that never happened. I wonder just what this woman testified to, who questioned her, and who investigated this.

  3. I wonder too about how investigations like this work. And the basis for those workings. And I’ve never seen much detail about it. The science of truth or lie detection in an investigative context. Different than in court certainly.

    And there seem to be minor or no consequences for the ones who lie, and and if there were, there’d be powerful incentives to never correct a wrong that pretty much ends a persons life as he (usually) understands it. Wow.

    Perhaps the problem could be stated as, many times investigations lead people to feel certain a crime was committed by someone, but there’s no legally reasonable way to pursue it, and no other way to pursue it either. We need another way than court.

  4. Allan, short of mind reading I do not think there is another way to handle these cases other than simply checking the person’s story. I am not sure if this case could have been caught. With my foster brother, the accusation against him was believable enough that I bought it, particularly since he plead guilty to the charges. I had no reason to assume he or the girl lied, and what little I knew about the accusation sounded plausible. Investigators could have been pushed by the girl’s family to pursue the case, Montgomery could have given conflicting explanations about his innocence, or his attorney just did not do their.

  5. That makes sense, but I’m supposing there is a detailed and well studied method to what you call “simply checking the person’s story” and “handling these investigations very carefully”. A way to learn to do it, rules to live by, ways to improve, a year of training. So that “pressue to pursue the case” doesn’t lead to complete police misconduct. But like, in Sandusky’s case, (like you’ve talked about) … sure, “people lie” but it’s less likely some 10 separate strangers all tell the same exact kind of lie about someone. So, can a detective create that situation where one person’s “story” is independently repeated in some manner by others without too much prompting or collaboration? That sounds like the beginnings of an investigative methodology. A confession if not unduly pressured helps enormously, and I once heard a detective talk about the supreme importance of “the sting”, where a victim engages a perpetrator in recorded conversations with the aid of the detective attempting to elicit a confession of sorts. Or some kind of acknowledgement of an alleged event. All to eventually get a confession upon confrontation. But then, there are cases with no confession, rather denials, no evidence except one persons statement, perhaps very detailed and “believable” , “credible”… but little else. But how “little”…

    And your foster brother, … this doesn’t seem the place to ask you about that, but there’s lots to say about all that I imagine.

  6. I’m not at all sure what Allan is pushing at, but there is so much evidence and best practice around fantasists and false claim, I am actually surprised when the issues get raised and that some are still denying reality. They are the fantasists who are in many ways most dangerous.

    The Johnathan Montgomery case is by no mean isolated. You only have to look at the website for The National Registry of Exonerations – University of the Michigan Law School.

    Have a look at the James Grissom case from 11/19/2012. There are so many more too – Globally!

    It’s also worth considering that Fantasists don’t just exists in relation to the Criminal Justice system – they pop up all over the place. In education – the work place – In hospitals ( there you get labels such as Munchausen Syndrome thrown about) – even with the insurance industry. There is a spectrum that runs from 100% fraud to 100% fantasy, and you can have a person who’s reality and relationship with reality moves up and down the spectrum.

    I’ve dealt repeatedly over the years with abuse victims, and I can report that I have found fantasists from kids to pensioners – male and female making false report about everyone from celebs to family members, total strangers to carers and even their doctor… there is a mass of evidence and research on the subject.

    There are also the mixed cases – there has been a real event – the real event has then been used as the basis for a Fantasy. Believe it or not there is even a whole genre of abuse and damage literature that has exploded via the net in the last 20 years, much of it self published – and now it’s required reading for some in law enforcement just so they can keep up with the plots and the latests publications.

    I’ve also had to deal with the people I would politely call sceptics – the ones who have the attitude that no claim is false and/or all claims are true. That may seem odd to say but they are not in fact the same thing.

    The No claim is false school will insist that someone has done something to the person – so they defend their position by insisting crime rates are higher than reality. You fight them off with valid stats. They also have a lust for Justice, so you keep asking many innocent people and miscarriages of Justice they will accept – 1 – 5 – 10 – 100… and you keep asking for an explicit number. You don’t bother with any arguments about what is justice – what is a miscarriage of justice – you just keep asking for that Magic number of innocent people in jail … and of course they can’t do that so they either shut up or go away. You are then permanently empowered to make it clear that when asked for the number they refused, because they lack the courage of their convictions. They push the idea that Justice is all that matters and yet keep ignoring that claim by pushing the idea that some one has to pay, even if they are innocent… but they can’t give you the number!

    The ALL claims are True school are focused upon minimal evidence is all that is needed – and there is no burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. So you keep asking them for the evidence they would require to prove the accused innocent and not guilty. That causes a big issue with cognitive dissonance because if you remove a piece of evidence they claim adds to guilt ( it never proves it ) that should naturally add to the proof of innocence because guilt has to have gone down with less evidence ( It’s a See Saw) , but they refuse to accept their own logic. Ultimately they will claim anything even the totally absurd is proof of event and accused guilt. It’s actually quite pitiful to see supposedly sane people trapped in that madness. It ends up that they attribute guilt and demand guilt because they fantasise about people being guilty … and that leads into highly Freudian territory as to why they think and behave that way.

    It ultimately ends up as magical thinking and magical belief – and once that is established and they are unable to refute it, you just keep telling folks about how some believe in Santa Clause and demand people be guilty die to repressed nappy rash.

    I’ve even used the same techniques with law enforcement officers to weed out those who may be good at dealing with a burglary with physical evidence, but very bad at dealing with a case where physical evidence is poor or nil, and it comes down to witness testimony as the only factor. Any officer who wants guilt and is readily swayed away from rigour and quality in assessment of evidence has no place in interview process or presentation case to any other person.

    Often there is a need to be beyond scrupulous in verifying every part of the testimony against external sources – it is claimed that event took place at certain venue 15 years ago, and it’s generally known that venue is gone – demolished – built over. but does the claim of 15 years agree with actual reality? It’s amazing how many times those who want guilt will assume and not check and verify facts. One case involved the claim of date and the presence of a particular toy – but the toy was only manufactured two years after claimed date .. and from there more and more cracks came up and the whole façade crumbled. But that little fact of the toy and the first time it was even available only came to light 6 months after It had been decided that Guilt had to exist.

    You can imagine how few comers there are to tell me about fantasists and abuse. I’m very gentle in dealing with people reporting crimes against them, but scrupulous in checking the facts of what has been claimed and reported.

    As for dealing with fantasists – there are well developed protocols (In the UK anyway) for interview and identification of red flags. Normally it takes 3 in depth interviews with the person over a number of months to identify the necessary markers. I’m not going to go into detail for obvious reasons.

    In the USA I am aware that from State to State there are massive differences in protocols and even basic understanding of the issues. You are better of being accused of a federal crime than a state crime – the FBI have the matter down to a fine art and can call upon national support. They have quite a good record of catching fantasists of all kinds and preventing false prosecution.

    As I said – there is such weight of research and expertise globally in the field of fatasists in law enforcement I am amazed that people still attempt to claim they don’t exists or that when Knowledge and expertise is not used Miscarriages of Justice do follow. The people who attempt to push those agendas are the fantasists and need to be dealt with kindly and firmly – and boy do they hate logic and reason becasue they simply lack it to a disabling degree.

  7. That makes sense, but I’m supposing there is a detailed and well studied method to what you call “simply checking the person’s story” and “handling these investigations very carefully”. A way to learn to do it, rules to live by, ways to improve, a year of training.

    What we have today is supposed to do that, however, the problem is that many cases are not brought immediately. For instance, if this woman made this claim back when she was a child, the police could have asked when the boy last visited and checked that against the girl’s story. Depending on what she claimed happened, they could have done a physical examination of her to see if there were any injuries. They could have taken her clothes, assuming they had not been washed, and tested them. All these things could help catch the girl in a lie.

    But if it is reported weeks, months, or years later, most or all the evidence is gone, people will not remember exact times or dates, and there would be no point in doing a physical examination. Everything we use as circumstantial evidence would be out. All we would have left is the direct testimony, which could be a lie. There is no way of getting around that, which is why eye witness testimony is so problematic. What if the person gets a date wrong, the location wrong, how long the assault took place, who did it? What if the person makes it up? If it sounds believable, how would you know it is a lie? On what grounds would you have to call them a liar?

  8. Thanks Mediahound for that link. I read the Grissom case, and parts of the full report.

    Some of that is really frightening. Really, really frightening. Table 13. Sexual assault, 80% mistaken eye witness identification. CSA, 74% perjury or false accusation.

    Some of the stories. OMG. Doesn’t completely surprise me though.

    Generally, I’ve been saying the legal approach to CSA is really limited and we put too much effort into that kind of “solution”. All these issues are just part of that limitation.

  9. Sometimes people get away. Indeed if the criminal doesn’t screw up and nothing unlikely happens they can get away with it. See Casey Anthony: All evidence is consistent with both murder and accidental death. Or the person disappears and no trace of it can be found.

    Sometimes people get away with it. And it sucks. And we can’t do anything about it. Sometimes its tempting to throw away the law to get to someone like O.J., but we can’t. The law is what keeps us safe from the Stalin’s of the world.

  10. “The law is what keeps us safe from the Stalin’s of the world.”

    You don’t need to worry so much about the Stalins! Anyone with an ATM card and access to rope can rabble rouse a lynching! Hell many still do – and if they can’t actually kill they they seek to cause as many injuries as possible.

    Last time I saw figures (UK and Europe) for sequella post trial for men accused of sexual offences and 1) not charged 2) found not guilty at trial – it was around 85% of single men had relocated home and job within 2 years – and for married men it was 60%+.

    That of course does not factor in time under investigation or time awaiting trial. Mental health rates with anxiety- depression were running at 60%.

    Those little Lynchings take one hell of a toll on innocent people. It seems that sexual offences attract the lynchings more than any other type of case, including murder – so I do advocate for full anonymity of all parties in sexual offences cases.

  11. The Ottawa Sun story is worrying – and not because of the victim being female – learning disabled – and a number of other areas where people could stumble into and set of many hair triggers – what alarms me is what is indicated about the professionalism of police and prosecutors. This is alarming:

    The woman agreed that the camera – which snaps an image every second the cab is stopped and 30 seconds it’s in motion – captured none of her “horrible” allegations.

    Sorry – but for 2 years neither the police or prosecutors ensured due diligence in preparing the case? So – to the issue of malicious prosecution this case is clear evidence of Negligent Prosecution … and all that would have been needed for guilt to end up being used would a a corrupted recording system and those snapped images lost.

  12. It’s shocking to me in many of these cases that it appears charges are immediately filed and it’s two years later that, what, only a few hours? of effort is put into obvious questions that show there’s no basis for the charge. Like, they are just hoping to wear men down into a plea deal?

    And no apparent consequences.

  13. @Allen – I’m not one for conspiracy theories against all men – I have seen how hard it is to keep a conspiracy about a small group under wraps, so global is not one I go for! P^)

    However – the idea that for 2 years basic due diligence in due process just passed some by is staggering. That issue is gender neutral as all are equal in sight of the law and all have equality of due process. I’m sure that if there was a female affected to this level there would be outrage and calls for heads to roll – but It’s just a man so it’s not really mentioned or made prominent.

    I hope that there is legal recourse possible for damages due to Public Maladministration – I aint going to go boning up on Canadian Law, but I can say that one country has dropped on my Emigration Wish List!

    The fact that accuser was Disabled and the basics had been missed also makes me wonder about endemic Disability Discrimination and negligence. If it’s was ever claimed that the failure in Due Diligence was due to not knowing how correctly and lawfully interview a disabled witness – well that is simply a prima fascia admission of Disability Discrimination. It opens up cans of worms – can after can after can after can!

  14. Pingback: A Dose of Stupid v91 | Toy Soldiers

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