How to Convict a Fourteen-Year-Old of a Murder He Didn’t Commit

How to Convict a Fourteen-Year-Old of a Murder He Didn’t Commit

By Alan Prendergast
July 26, 2016

Lisa Polansky first saw the infamous “confession video” in fragments — a fifteen-minute segment on one old VHS tape, twenty minutes on another. The kid is in a small interview room with his mother and two Denver homicide detectives. Then the mother vanishes and there are three detectives.

Even with pieces missing and the sound turned down, you can chart the progress of the interrogation by the kid’s body language. First he slumps in a chair, staring down blankly, as if hoping these men will just go away if he doesn’t acknowledge them. Then he retreats to a corner, pulling as far back as possible as one of his inquisitors leans toward him, banging the table and getting in his face. For several minutes the kid is wracked with sobs. In the final segment, he sits dazed and slack, crumpled in his chair, as if finally resigned to his own damnation.

Lorenzo Montoya, the kid in the video, was fourteen years old when he walked into that room on the evening of January 10, 2000. What happened over the next two and a half hours set in motion an avalanche of events that resulted in Montoya’s being tried and convicted of the murder of Emily Johnson, a 29-year-old teacher at Skinner Middle School, and sentenced to life without parole. The slaying triggered substantial public outrage and media coverage — a white, pretty special-ed teacher, savagely beaten to death at her home in gentrifying northwest Denver, apparently by Hispanic youths keen on stealing her Lexus — and garnered much praise for the police officers who cracked the case in a matter of days.

Polansky, a veteran attorney with a passion for juvenile-justice reform, first met Montoya in 2011 at the Limon Correctional Facility, after he’d spent a decade behind bars. She’d agreed to take on the case pro bono, hoping she might be able to get him a reduced sentence. But she soon revised her notions of what she was dealing with.

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