MUCH, MUCH too slowly, Johnathan Montgomery is getting justice.
Mr. Montgomery, now 27, is the young man who served four years in a Virginia prison for a crime he did not commit. His conviction, for sexual battery and other charges, collapsed in October 2012 when his accuser, Elizabeth Paige Coast, admitted that she had fabricated her story from start to finish.
The judge who reached the guilty verdict pronounced himself appalled. Prosecutors said they were mortified. And, on the strength of a conditional pardon issued by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), Mr. Montgomery was released from prison days later.
At that point, the state of Virginia, which meted out the injustice that robbed him of his liberty, should have undertaken to make amends. But justice for Mr. Montgomery has moved at a snail’s pace.
For no good reason, Mr. McDonnell conditioned his pardon on the Virginia Court of Appeals declaring Mr. Montgomery innocent. This was gratuitous. Ms. Coast already had been charged with perjury; she pleaded guilty in May. And, as the appeals court said last week, when it finally vacated Mr. Montgomery’s conviction, the governor cannot outsource his pardon power to the judiciary.
By delaying full exoneration, Virginia compounded Mr. Montgomery’s injury. Even as a free man for 13 months, he has remained a registered sex offender, unable to go near schools and parks, and has been compelled to meet regularly with a probation officer and barred from leaving town without permission. Since his conviction remained in force until last week, most potential employers showed him the door.
Mr. Montgomery has been ineligible for financial compensation for the years he spent in prison. Even now that the appeals court has declared him innocent, he must wait until the state legislature authorizes payment.
At that point, Mr. Montgomery probably would receive a lump sum of roughly $24,000. The balance of perhaps $1 00,000 for which he is eligible would be paid as an annuity over the course of 10 or 15 years. He might get a monthly check of $1,000.
That’s paltry compared with the damage Mr. Montgomery suffered. The state’s formula entitles the wrongly convicted to an amount equal to 90 percent of the state’s average per-capita income for each year they spent behind bars, up to 20 years. That’s less than the federal system pays, under a law that’s almost a decade old. Some states, including Texas, pay more when justice is so badly mangled.
Ms. Coast, now serving her sentence on weekends, has been ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution to Mr. Montgomery; it’s unclear whether or when she can.
In 2007, as a teenager, she accused Mr. Montgomery of having assaulted her six years earlier, when she was 10 and he was 14. When she recanted last year — apparently overcome by guilt — she said she had invented the story to deflect her parents’ anger when they caught her surfing pornography on the Internet.
There is no chance of undoing the harm that has been done to Mr. Montgomery. But Virginia lawmakers can reform state laws so that, in relatively rare cases like this, the level of compensation reflects the scale of the injustice.