DENVER (CBS4) - "I was just sent to prison... for a crime I never committed," Lorenzo Montoya says.
At 29 years old, he has spent nearly half his life behind bars. But today he's a free man, after making a deal with the Denver District Attorney's Office.
Back in 2000, the then young teenager was one of two teens found guilty of killing Denver teacher Emily Johnson and stealing her Lexus. Johnson was found beaten to death at her home on New Year's Day. The tragic murder and following trial gripped the community.
Both Montoya and his co-defendant were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
At 15, the teenager who stood just over 5 feet tall, was sent to prison with adults.
"All my appeals were denied," Montoya said.
In prison, although he was a target and spent a lot of time in solitary confinement, Montoya said Bible study and visits from his mother were his saving grace: "(I) kept the faith, and always believed that I'd be set free someday."
Enter Lisa Polansky with the Center for Juvenile Justice, who took his case on pro bono in 2011.
"This is one of the pieces of the system I think is most broken," Polansky said after reviewing Montoya's case. She put together a 91-page petition for a new trial arguing that her independent DNA testing of crime scene clothing proved that Montoya was never at the scene of the crime.
The district attorney reviewed the case and, instead of a new trial, proposed a deal.
"We almost had to choose between truth and justice," Polansky said of the situation. Polansky argued that the culprits behind the crime picked up Lorenzo the next day with Emily Johnson's stolen car for a joy ride. But this would need to be proved in a new trial, and for justice, Polansky said Montoya needed to be free now.
So they agreed to the deal. "The compromise was to have him plead to accessory after the fact," Polansky said.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey declined a new interview with CBS4, citing an upcoming hearing with Montoya's co-defendant. But back in June, he told us that this was justice served.
"We always believed he was the lookout…. We felt that this was a just result in this situation," Morrissey said. Furthermore the DA's office released a statement saying that Montoya was not wrongfully convicted, adding that he declined a plea deal in 2000 that would have given him six years in a juvenile facility if he admitted to being the lookout during the attack.
"I didn't take (that) deal because I felt I'd be forced to lie," Montoya said of why he declined. His lawyer argues that this is a classic case of why children should not be charged as adults.
"He (had) no understanding of how the system works," Polansky added, "Why would somebody turn down a 6-year offer when they were facing life without parole?"
Polansky said his lawyers and the system failed him back in 2000: "He believed without a doubt in his mind that he would be freed because he was innocent."
"Change needs to happen so this doesn't happen again," Montoya said. In addition to putting his life back together, Montoya is working with Polansky in outreach programs campaigning for the fair sentencing of youth. He has since moved out of state to start over and clear his name: "Just letting people know that I'm innocent, and I never had anything to do with this crime."
Emily Johnson's family agreed to the DA's deal with Montoya saying that Emily would have wanted him to get a second chance.
With Montoya free, there are nearly 50 inmates in Colorado who were sentenced as juveniles to serve life without parole. With the Supreme Court's latest ruling on life sentences for teens, each one of those may now, at the very least, try for a new hearing.
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