August 25, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
One of the greatest obstacles between fathers and their children is the by-now-entrenched habit of issuing no-contact orders based on nothing but allegations of domestic violence or child abuse. For decades, family attorneys have complained that the practice has become routine in child custody matters. The allegations are well-known to be false in the large majority of cases (some 85% of them are adjudicated to be unfounded), but the practice goes on unabated.
It does so for two reasons. The first is that it works. However wrong, however obviously made-up the claims, judges still issue orders forbidding fathers from seeing their children at least until a hearing can be had on them. That sometimes takes months to occur, during which time the mother has the kids exclusively to herself. If she’s bent on alienation, which seems likely if the allegations are false, that gives her time to indoctrinate the children against their father, increasing the chances of her getting sole custody. In short, allegations — even false ones — serve their intended purpose of putting distance between the children and their father, so why wouldn’t they continue to be made?
Well, I can think of one possibility, which brings me to the second reason why false allegations continue to be made. The possibility is the consequences of perjury. After all, if a litigant tells a judge something happened (like child abuse) that turns out not to have happened, that may constitute perjury which is both a crime and contempt of court. Judges could put a stop to false allegations quickly and easily simply by using their power of contempt against those who make false claims in their courts. District and county attorneys could do likewise by bringing perjury charges against false swearers.
But neither of those things happens in the overwhelming majority of cases. Indeed, I can’t recall ever having seen a case in which a parent has been charged with perjury for false swearing in an effort to shut the other parent out of a child’s life.
So the practice is effective and, although criminally and civilly wrong, is essentially never punished, so it continues. Why would it not?
This case doesn’t involve fathers, mothers or children, but it throws light on courts’ resistance to punishing perjurers (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/19/13). Back in 2008, when she was 17, her parents caught Elizabeth Paige Coast looking at pornography online. She was embarrassed and at a loss for an explanation for her behavior. Her mother pressed her to say that she’d been sexually abused in the past, and Coast gave her mother what she wanted — a ‘yes’ answer, hoping she’d let the matter drop.
But she didn’t. Mom wanted a name and details, so Coast gave her that too. She gave the name of Jonathan Montgomery, a former neighbor who’d since moved away. Coast said that, when she was 10 and Montgomery was 14, he’d fondled her one day. That claim was entirely fabricated, but Coast was in full self-protection mode, so, when Mom went to the police, Coast continued the lie.
She lied to the police and she lied to the District Attorney who charged Montgomery with sexual assault. One day, living peacefully in his home in Florida, Jonathan Montgomery heard a knock on the door. It was the police. He was arrested and extradited to Virginia where he faced the sexual abuse charge. He had no idea of why he had been charged or what he was supposed to have done.
In court, his one-time friend Elizabeth Paige Coast testified against him. He took the stand to proclaim his innocence, and, since the “incident” had “occurred” some seven years previously, there was no evidence apart from their testimony. Astonishingly, the judge convicted Montgomery and sentenced him to seven and a half years in prison.
Four years later, Coast finally came clean. She admitted the whole thing had been a hoax and Montgomery was released from prison. He’s now seeking a writ of actual innocence which of course he should receive.
Meanwhile the District Attorney charged Coast with perjury to which she pleaded guilty. She was sentenced last week to two months in prison and restitution to Montgomery of $90,000. My guess is her parents will end up paying that, if anyone does.
If a mere two months sounds like a tap on the wrist, it’s actually more lenient than that. Coast gets to serve her time only on weekends. The rest of the time she’s free as a bird.
To me, this is a clear case in which the perjurer should spend at least the same amount of time behind bars as did her victim — in this case, four years. What possible excuse could there be for a lesser sentence?
It’s not as if Judge Bonnie L. Jones didn’t grasp the fact that perjury is a serious crime. Indeed, the complete fabrication of a criminal offense is the most serious form of perjury there is.
Coast, 26, pleaded guilty to perjury in May and was sentenced today by Hampton Circuit Court Judge Bonnie L. Jones, who said she was deeply disturbed the case.
"This goes to the very heart of our judicial system," the judge said before imposing a five-year sentence and suspending all but two months which Coast will be allowed to serve on weekends.
She’s “deeply disturbed” and understands rightly that intentionally falsifying criminal charges and allowing an innocent man to go to prison “goes to the very heart of our judicial system.” But Judge Jones’ idea of punishment is barely any punishment at all. So what gives?
Coast’s attorney offered only one reason for leniency that could explain the general refusal to take perjury seriously.
Also, he said, "If you put her in jail the message you send to other people who have done this ... if you come forward we're going to lock you up."
Hmm. Does that explanation pass the smell test? For one thing, countless criminal defendants confess their crimes every day. And they’re often given reduced sentences because of it. Indeed, plea-bargained sentences are significantly less harsh than those meted out by judges and juries.
But no one accused of serious criminal wrong-doing expects the type of sentence Coast received and they rarely, if ever, get it. The simple act of confession doesn’t usually result in the type of almost loving treatment the judge gave this defendant.
Coast’s own explanation for her behavior doesn’t explain the court’s leniency either. She clearly regrets sending Montgomery to prison, but her words fall far short of satisfying anyone but the most gullible.
"I just thought it would go away," she said. When Montgomery, who had moved to Florida, was arrested she said she stuck with the story out of fear.
"I was petrified of the police ... everyone in my life knew," she said. "I was afraid of what my family would think," she said.
She lied in court, the judge took her word over Montgomery's and convicted him.
Coast said, "I never forgot about Johnathan and my life was wrecked by it ... and so was his."
Here’s a fact she neglected to mention: from the instant she first named Montgomery to the instant she finally came clean, every minute of every day, Coast could have told the truth, but didn’t. That was something like five years during which she lied every second of every minute of every day. Coast wants us to believe that hers was a one-off type of lie, that the words came out of her mouth and she couldn’t take them back. Wrong. She could have done so at any time.
And her claim that she didn’t appreciate how it would affect him may have been true for a very short time, but, at some point no longer was. At one point, she knew he’d been charged with a serious criminal offense. At another, she knew he’d been sentenced to over seven years behind bars and would have to register as a sex offender. But still she maintained her lie.
Once Montgomery was behind bars, Coast knew to a certainty that her lie was no longer one that “would go away.” But still she waited. For four long years she kept quiet. She went out with friends, had fun, got on with her life while the young man she knew was innocent sat in prison due solely to her false claims.
The judge seems to want to agree with Coast that she just panicked and, in a moment of weakness, said something she shouldn’t have. That’s not what happened. Elizabeth Paige Coast could have fixed what she’d broken at any time, but out of cowardice and self-interest, she refused to do so. She deserves four years in prison.
It’s hard to explain the leniency accorded Coast by anything other than her sex. Study after study show women receiving more lenient sentences than men and, given the obvious turpitude with which Coast acted and the terrible penalty suffered by Montgomery, a four-year sentence seems obvious as it is just. It’s not what she received.
Her defense lawyer questioned the effect on future perjurers if Coast were treated harshly. He might well have considered the effect on future perjurers of a lenient sentence. Surely the result will be, as it always is, to encourage perjury. After all, if a case as egregious as this one results in such a laughably light sentence, few will be encouraged to tell the truth.
And, as Judge Jones said, that “goes to the very heart of our judicial system.”
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