A Loudoun County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against state officials by a woman who spent 161 days in prison after the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned her murder conviction in the death of her boyfriend.
Judge James H. Chamblin on Thursday ruled that the officials--including Attorney General Mark L. Early and Secretary of Public Safety Gary K. Aronhalt--have immunity from liability for civil damages because they were acting in the course of their duties as government officials.
Cassondra Sue Betancourt, 37, claimed that her constitutional rights were violated because she could not find a court to hold a bond hearing regarding her release while the attorney general appealed the appellate court ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Betancourt was convicted in 1995 of first-degree murder in the 1994 death of Walter Montague, of Sterling, but a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in January 1998. Prosecutors had argued at her trial that Betancourt laced Montague's drink with cocaine so she could collect on a $500,000 insurance policy that he had taken out in connection with a furniture refurbishing business they were planning to open. The Court of Appeals said the evidence did not rule out an accidental overdose or suicide.
Betancourt remained in prison until July 1998 when the Virginia Supreme Court declined to consider the attorney general's appeal. While the appeal was pending, a Loudoun County Circuit Court judge and the Court of Appeals ruled that they did not have jurisdiction to hold a bond hearing.
Betancourt's attorney, Paul Morrison, said his only "redress" now is to lobby legislators to add a provision to state law that would give defendants the right to a bond hearing if prosecutors decided to appeal their case.