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Did media frenzy over Emily Johnson murder lead to Lorenzo Montoya's dubious conviction?

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Update incorporated and expanded upon below: Yesterday, the Denver District Attorney's Office announced that Lorenzo Montoya, convicted of first-degree murder and more in the 2000 murder of Denver schoolteacher Emily Johnson, was released on time served after he pleaded guilty to a lesser accessory charge. The attorney for Montoya, who was just fourteen at the time of the crime, says DNA evidence proved her client had nothing to do with the killing (a contention the DA's office disputes), yet he served more than thirteen years for it anyhow.

The coverage of this development has rightly focused on Montoya. But equally important to consider is the media frenzy that surrounded Johnson's death -- a whirl of speculation about strip clubs and double lives denounced by then-Denver mayor Wellington Webb at a press conference celebrating the busts of Montoya and two other teenagers for the crime.

We covered the craziness in "A World of Possibilities," a Message column published on January 20, 2000, less than three weeks after Johnson's body was found. She was slain on New Year's Day.

During the press conference, Mayor Webb saluted the Denver Police Department for its detective work in nabbing Montoya and two other young men, David Martinez and Lloyd Kenneth Martinez, both sixteen, whose original goal was to steal Johnson's Lexus. But then he veered off-subject. "Listening to all the presumptions and moving to pre-judgment on talk shows and other places, I think we have to be careful," he said. "We have to be careful raising issues about the deceased and her lifestyle, who she dates and interracial couples. Making pre-judgments serves no purpose." Although Webb named no names, no one within the range of his voice had the slightest doubt about whom he was speaking. His criticism was aimed at talk-show host Peter Boyles, then the morning host of KHOW radio, who, as we wrote, had "beaten the drums about the Johnson slaying for the better part of a week." An excerpt from the column:

A lot of the gab on Boyles's program in relation to Johnson had been on the loopy side, with the host and others floating unsubstantiated theory after unsubstantiated theory about Robert Davis, Johnson's boyfriend, a parole violator found sleeping naked in her home with blood on his hand at the time her battered body was discovered. (For example: He must have been dealing drugs -- how else could he have paid for his share of the Lexus he and Johnson purchased together? Or: He surely had to be a snitch -- otherwise, he would have been in the pokey for his many sins.) And there was plenty o' stuff, too, about Johnson, who was reportedly adored by her students at Skinner Middle School, yet also worked for part of 1997 and 1998 tending bar at the Diamond Cabaret, a strip joint for the moneyed class. (Hey, didn't that sound a little like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, that '70s-era Judith Rossner novel -- Diane Keaton was in the movie -- about a schoolteacher by day/bar-crawling thrillseeker by night who winds up dying a brutal death at the hands of a psychotic pickup? Sure it did!).

Boyles wasn't alone in theorizing about Johnson's murder. As we documented, a "soapbox" page on the ancient Digital City Denver website popped up after the murder, with visitors "encouraged...to comment about the possibility that Johnson was leading a 'double life.'"

Brushing such blather aside was then-Denver Police Chief Tom Sanchez, who noted "a rush to judgment running rampant in our community" during the Webb press conference. He added that "we have a responsibility to clear innocent people in spite of severe pressure.... Miss Emily Johnson's lifestyle had nothing to do with this at all. We're convinced of this."

Sanchez was right -- but his previous comment about a "responsibility to clear innocent people in spite of severe pressure" echoes in the injustice done to Montoya. He and the two other teens proved to be the perfect tools to move the Johnson case from tabloid fodder to a far simpler story of a robbery gone wrong. Afterward, there was little controversy about the suspects being tried as adults for their alleged actions.

Continue for more about the freeing of Lorenzo Montoya in the Emily Johnson murder, including photos, a video and a new update. According to the Rocky Mountain News, prosecutors claimed Montoya helped drag Johnson's body despite being sickened by the sight of it, while his attorneys countered that he was nowhere near the crime scene at the time of Johnson's death and was being set up by a "snitch" who wanted to lower his prison sentence. The latter argument didn't convince a jury, however, and Montoya was ultimately convicted of first-degree felony murder, aggravated robbery and first-degree burglary and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Montoya could have been lost in the system forever, but Lisa Polansky of the Boulder-based Center for Juvenile Justice came to his aid. In a June 5 post on the CJJ Facebook page, Polansky notes that she had been working on the case for three years, filing countless motions on Montoya's behalf. In the beginning, she focused on Montoya having been supplied with ineffective counsel -- but tests indicating that his DNA hadn't actually been found in Johnson's home caused a shift.

"Not only were there injustices in his case at the trial, but we have investigated the case and determined that he is actually innocent," Polansky wrote on Facebook.

A hearing was scheduled for June 16, but Polansky added that "it is possible for the Denver District Attorney to do the right thing and dismiss the charges against Lorenzo. It is also possible for the District Attorney to offer the Lorenzo a deal where he could get out of prison immediately."

That's what happened. District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, who reportedly believes Montoya served as a lookout for the older boys, was amenable to a deal -- and so was Montoya, who admits to having ridden in Johnson's stolen car the day after the killing. As such, notes Morrissey spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough, office personnel "reviewed the allegations and in consultation with Emily'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. Specifically, Emily's family noted that they wanted to speak with Emily's voice and heart, and that she would want Montoya to have another chance."

After pleading to the accessory charge, Montoya was sentenced to ten years -- and since he'd already served thirteen years and seven months, he was set free.

Would Montoya have received similar mistreatment from the system if Johnson's murder hadn't become such a spectacle -- and if Denver officials hadn't been so desperate to change the subject? Maybe. But his tale shows that ex-police chief Sanchez's warnings about a "rush to judgment" need to apply to everyone.

Update: In one of its periodic "Setting the Record Straight" postings, the Denver District Attorney's Office takes issue with a number of claims made by attorney Lisa Polansky about the Lorenzo Montoya case. For instance, the DA disputes the suggestion that he was wrongfully convicted; prosecutors still believe he was complicit to some degree in Johnson's killing, even if he didn't personally commit it. Prosecutors also argue that DNA didn't play a role in either Montoya's original conviction or the agreement that led to him being freed.

Especially interesting: The DA's office says Montoya was offered a six-year Youthful Offender Sentence in the wake of his 2000 arrest. His legal team rejected it, went to trial and lost in a big way. However, prosecutors felt that deal was more in line with the punishment he should have received in the first place and worked out the accessory guilty plea with that in mind.

To read the entire "Setting the Record Straight" item, click here. In the meantime, here's a look at Montoya's 2000 booking photo, followed by a 7News report about the latest developments. Also note that the headline and opening paragraph of this post were tweaked to incorporate this new information.

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