Wrongly convicted at age 14, Denver man sues city after 13 years behind bars

DENVER –  Lawrence Lorenzo Montoya was just 14 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. And now he is suing both the city and the county of Denver, as well as the Denver Police Department, for $30 million.

On New Year’s Day 2000, Denver teacher Emily Johnson was brutally killed and her car was stolen. Denver homicide detectives grilled Montoya for two-and-a-half hours, most of the time without even a parent present.

Attorney Lisa Polansky said they were “yelling and screaming in his face, making up evidence, banging on the table and cornering him against the wall. Telling him he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison and should say goodbye to his mother.”

The police interrogation tape shows detectives lying to Montoya about the evidence and statement from other teens. Montoya told police that he was joy-riding in the stolen car the next day but did not commit the crime, wasn’t there when it happened and did not know anything about it.

According to the lawsuit, at least 65 times Montoya told police he did not have anything to do with the death. Finally, sobbing, he told police what they wanted to hear.

"I without a doubt believe he was coerced," Polansky said.

“He ends up being convicted of a crime because the police coerced him to confess,” attorney David Fisher said.

According to the lawsuit, the interrogation tape shows detectives coaching Montoya through the false confession. It accuses police of ignoring or lying about other evidence that cleared Montoya.

Montoya was charged as an adult, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He spent 13 years, seven months and 13 days behind bars until a judge vacated the conviction in 2014 after new DNA testing exonerated him.

Fisher said it’s hard to understand why an innocent person would confess, but points out 44 percent of juveniles exonerated by DNA were coerced into false confessions.

“To me there’s nothing worse than a kid who at 14 years old went into an adult prison facility.  It could be avoided and it needs to be avoided,” he said.

Added Polansky: "The district attorneys need to admit their mistake and I think it’s more than a mistake. Their intentional conduct in fabricating and continuing this injustice.”

Polansky said Montoya is having a difficult time reintegrating into society. The city has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

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