Guilty Until Proven Innocent? – Harris County Jury Sentenced Innocent Man to Life in Prison

By now, this may be old news – given the rapid media cycle and twenty-four hour coverage by national networks. However, this story deserves being revisited. LaDondrell Montgomery was sentenced to life in prison by a Harris County jury in November of 2011 for committing an armed robbery. The undisputed fact is that LaDondrell Montgomery could not have committed that crime because he was already being held in jail on unrelated charges. There was a trial, a prosecutor, a judge, a defense attorney, a video of the crime and the perpetrator, and there were “eyewitnesses.” What went wrong? How did the defense lawyer miss this? Why did the prosecutor charge and bring a trial against a man when he was already in jail at the time of the robbery? This is a comedy of errors; unfortunately for LaDondrell Montgomery, there is nothing funny about it.

This glaring error was not discovered until weeks after the sentencing when Montgomery’s attorney was researching his client’s rap sheet, something he should have done prior to the trial. Contained in the report was proof that Montgomery was in jail and was not released until 9 hours after the robbery took place. Video surveillance of the robbery confirmed the time of that crime and that it was impossible for Montgomery to have committed it. Following that discovery, Montgomery’s attorney moved for a new trial and the judge granted that motion. The prosecutor was then forced to dismiss the charges, or face further embarrassment. The judge apologized to Montgomery then berated the defense attorney and the prosecutor. According to Judge Mark Kent Ellis at the hearing, “it boggles the mind that neither side knew about this during trial…both sides in this case were spectacularly incompetent.”

Prosecutorial zeal appears to play a major role in this scenario, as does the unreliability of eyewitnesses. However, it truly is baffling that the prosecutor would argue to convict a man of a life sentence for a crime that took place during the time the man was in jail, especially considering the resources available to the prosecutor. This particular prosecutor claims that she was unaware of this glaring fact until it was raised in a motion for a new trial, by the defense lawyer, after the conviction for life in prison. According to the Houston Chronicle, after the hearing, the prosecutor added “that information, everyone would assume, would come from the person in custody.”

While I do agree that you would expect the accused to remember that he was in jail on a particular day and you would expect the defense attorney to raise this through evidence, I do not agree that prosecutorial responsibility can be so easily shirked or disregarded. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor and, in the United States of America, we are all innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. To follow this prosecutor’s logic, you are guilty unless you can prove you are innocent.