HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) - Only 10 On Your Side questioned Hampton's top cop about evidence that put an innocent man behind bars.
Commonwealth's Attorney Anton Bell did not hold the office when a jury convicted Johnathon Montgomery of sexual assault, but explained the case in an exclusive interview with WAVY.com Wednesday.
Elizabeth Coast originally testified Montgomery raped her when she was 10 years old and he was 14, but later admitted she made up the story. Montgomery spent four years in prison before Coast's confession.
"Obviously, we believed Miss Coast when she first came forth," Bell said.
Bell said Elizabeth Coast used an elaborate lie to trick Hampton prosecutors, effective because of the nature of her allegation.
"Rape is of such a secretive nature, typically there are no witnesses," Bell said.
When there are no witnesses, police usually rely on physical evidence. But Coast claimed the rape happened years before she came forward with the accusation.
"There's not going to be any DNA, fingerprints or anything of forensic nature," said Bell, describing Coast's case. "However, what we do look for is something to corroborate it."
Corroboration was key in Coast's scheme. Bell says Coast's mother and cousin told police Montgomery was infatuated with her.
"The mother of Miss Coast did not want this man around her daughter," said Bell.
Other evidence in the trial included changes in Coast's behavior, namely that her parents caught her looking at pornography. That behavior was noted as evidence Coast had been sexually abused. But, Coast later admitted, she made up the rape to explain why she was looking at pornography.
And through it all Bell says Coast was credible, specific and, most importantly, consistent.
"It's really hard to keep up with the same lie," said Bell. "It takes a special type of person to be able to pull off something off of this magnitude."
Bell says the damage is twofold - not only did Montgomery lose years of his life, but the story may make other victims afraid the court won't believe them.
"As a prosecutor, the worst feeling in the world, that you could ever have, is to find out someone has been incarcerated and they're innocent," said Bell. "You just can't really describe that feeling because that is someone's life and you cant give it back to that person."
Coast's case is now in the hands of a special prosecutor. Bell says his office handed over the case, so there would be no public perception of retaliation against Coast for lying.
Her trial is set for March.
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