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A wrongly imprisoned man in Virginia

IN VIRGINIA, a young man has languished in prison for four years for a crime he did not commit. Now that his lone accuser has admitted that she invented the charges against him, the state and the courts seem paralyzed, unable to quickly arrange for the release of the wrongfully imprisoned man. This is a travesty.

The man is Johnathan Montgomery, age 26. In 2007, a then-teenage girl named Elizabeth Paige Coast accused Mr. Montgomery of having molested her six years earlier, when she was 10 and he was 14. It wasn’t true.

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Despite the flagrant miscarriage of justice in Mr. Montgomery’s case — a stain on Virginia’s criminal justice system — no one in a position of authority has moved to set him free. The trial judge who convicted Mr. Montgomery vacated the verdict and the sentence and ordered him released. But the release was blocked over the weekend by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s■ office, which said the state’s Court of Appeals must first declare him innocent. That could take weeks, even months.

In the alternative, according to the attorney general’s office, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) could pardon Mr. Montgomery or commute his sentence. But until Tuesday morning, Mr. McDonnell seemed unaware of the case, and there is no evidence that Mr. Cuccinelli (R) alerted him to it.

According to the Daily Press of Newport News, which broke the news, Ms. Coast recanted her story last month. She says she made it up as a way to deflect her parents’ anger when they caught her surfing pornographic sites on the Internet. She told investigators that she chose Mr. Montgomery because his family had moved away and she believed police wouldn’t be able to find him. She was wrong. Mr. Montgomery was located, arrested, brought back to Virginia, and tried and convicted for sexual assault. In 2008, he was sentenced to 7½ years in prison.

After Ms. Coast came clean last month, she was charged with perjury and fired from her job as a civilian clerk in the Hampton police department.

The chief prosecutor in the city of Hampton, Anton Bell, agreed with Mr. Montgomery’s request that his conviction and sentence be thrown out. Hampton Circuit Court Judge Randolph T. West, who presided over Mr. Montgomery’s trial in 2008, said he was mortified to learn of Ms. Coast’s deception. “You will never forget this, and God knows, I will never forget it,” the judge told Mr. Montgomery in a hearing last week.

Since his conviction, Mr. Montgomery has been incarcerated at the Greensville Correctional Center, a gloomy state prison south of Richmond that houses Virginia’s execution chamber. He has lived his life amid career criminals, behind a double perimeter fence topped with razor wire, in the shadow of six five-story-tall guard towers.

If Mr. Cuccinelli is unwilling or unable to act, then Mr. McDonnell must do so, and immediately. If that means taking time out from the annual conference of the Republican Governors Association, beginning Wednesday in Las Vegas, so be it.

 
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