Did media frenzy over Emily Johnson murder lead to Lorenzo Montoya's dubious conviction?
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.
Emily Johnson. A video and more photos below.
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."
A vintage portrait of ex-Denver mayor Wellington Webb.
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!).
|Peter Boyles during his time as a KHOW talk-show host.|
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.