A woman who spent 161 days in prison after the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned her murder conviction in the death of her Loudoun County boyfriend is suing the attorney general and other state officials for $550,000.
Cassondra Sue Betancourt, 37, filed the lawsuit last week in Loudoun County Circuit Court.
Betancourt was convicted of killing Walter Montague, 65, five years ago in a Sterling hotel room by lacing his drink with cocaine. Prosecutors argued at her trial that she killed him to collect on a $500,000 insurance policy that he had taken out in connection with a furniture refurbishing business they were planning to open.
But a three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that there was not enough evidence to rule out an accidental overdose or suicide and reversed the conviction in January 1998.
After the ruling, Betancourt remained in a Richmond area prison while the attorney general's office appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. She spent months trying to get released on bond but could not find a state or federal judge who claimed jurisdiction to release her. She was finally released June 30, 1998.
In the four-page lawsuit, Betancourt's attorney, Paul A. Morrison, argues that Betancourt's constitutional rights were violated during the appeal because Virginia law does not allow an inmate whose conviction has been reversed to seek bond while awaiting appeal.
"Once we're found to be innocent, we ought not be locked up, or in the very least we should have the opportunity to be given bond," Morrison said. "Ask anybody out in the community what it would be worth to them to avoid 161 days in the penitentiary after they had been found to be innocent."
A Loudoun Circuit Court judge ruled that he didn't have the authority to order bond in the case because Betancourt was incarcerated in a state facility, not the local jail. Betancourt then took her request to the state Court of Appeals, which also ruled that it did not have jurisdiction.
Morrison finally went to the Virginia Supreme Court seeking bond. But before the court ruled on the bond question, a three-judge panel of the same court declined to consider the attorney general's appeal of the reversal of Betancourt's conviction, and she was released.
"The plaintiff was found to be innocent by the reviewing Court, and was held in custody without bond for 161 days and without any statutory basis for any Court of the Commonwealth to set a bond in these procedural circumstances," the lawsuit states. "The Code of Virginia provides that each citizen shall be admitted to bail, pending determination of guilt or innocence. This right is guaranteed under the Federal and State Constitutions as well."
The suit seeks $100,000 each from the attorney general's office and the Department of Corrections, plus $350,000 in punitive damages. Morrison noted that there is a $100,000 cap for compensatory damages on claims against the government.
David Botkins, spokesman for the attorney general, said his office will ask that the case be dismissed. "This is a wholly frivolous lawsuit," he said.