DENVER (CBS4) – A man walked out of prison Monday after a court in Denver vacated his murder conviction.
Lorenzo Montoya, 29, was convicted nearly 14 years ago in the murder of a Denver teacher. Now with a plea deal Montoya was set free after his lawyers say new evidence cast doubt on his guilt.
Only CBS4 was on hand as Montoya hugged his mother as a free man.
Montoya’s life sentence for the murder of 29-year-old Emily Johnson in 2000 was vacated in exchange for his pleading guilty to accessory to murder. Johnson was a special education teacher at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver.
“He was 14 at the time of the murder and was accused of accompanying 16-year-old co-defendant Nicholas Martinez, 30, in what began as an effort to steal Johnson’s car, but ended in her murder,” Lynn Kimbrough with the Denver District Attorney’s Office said.
According to Kimbrough, “Johnson’s family, the original prosecutors on the case and others involved in the investigation, determined that allowing Montoya to plead guilty to being accessory was in the interest of justice.”
Kimbrough said Johnson’s family said they wanted to “speak with Emily’s voice and heart, and that she would want Montoya to have another chance.”
After the plea deal Montoya was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Since he already served nearly 14 years he was immediately released.
Defense attorney Lisa Polanski had been working on Montoya’s case since 2011 when she took the case on pro bono.
“He was falsely accused and wrongfully convicted,” Polanski told CBS4. “He didn’t trust the system at all.”
The district attorney’s office refutes Polanski’s claim that Montoya was wrongfully convicted, however.
“He declined a plea offer in 2000 that would have resulted in a 6-year sentence to the Youthful Offender System. Instead, he took his case to trial, as was his right, and he was found guilty of felony murder,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement. “The accusation was that he had been the lookout and knew that he was in the victim’s stolen car and that she had been attacked. In fact, Mr. Montoya admitted this.”
In a 91-page petition for a new trial Polanski argued that the then 14-year-old’s attorney failed him and new evidence proved his innocence.
“We had done some DNA testing on some physical evidence and found that it exonerated our client,” Polanski said.
The district attorney’s office also disagreed with Polanski saying, “This is not a DNA exoneration case. There were no court proceedings that litigated any new DNA evidence.”
“We always believed he was lookout,” Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said.
Morrissey says instead of a new trial Montoya agreed to plead guilty to accessory to murder since he admitted to being inside the Johnson’s stolen car the next day.
“We felt that this was a just result in this situation,” Morrissey said.
“This was essentially a compromise in order to get my client out free where he should be,” Palanski said.
Montoya was one of the about 50 cases in Colorado of juveniles convicted to life behind bars — a sentence now deemed unconstitutional. Those inmates’ cases are currently awaiting a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court.