The lawyers from Duke Universitys Wrongful Convictions Clinic thought it was an open-and-shut case, but not in the way that confident prosecutors mean. No these lawyers couldnt believe, given the evidence they examined, that LaMonte Armstrong was ever even tried for murder.
Evidence that would clearly have exonerated him was withheld from his defense. Another suspect, who later served time for murder and then was killed in a car accident, was passed over. His palm print was later turned up from the crime scene. And yet Armstrong, a former college basketball player, was tried and convicted and sent to prison for life.
The case was horrific, to be sure. Ernestine Compton, a college professor at N.C. A&T State University, was stabbed and strangled in her Greensboro home in 1988. Prosecutors pushed on against Armstrong, who maintained his innocence throughout his trial and afterward. In prison, he managed to keep his calm demeanor and had not one violation of the rules. But that didnt reflect he had accepted his fate, not by a long shot.
The Duke lawyers went to work, re-examining evidence, demanding police do more. As their case unfolded, they were stunned. Theresa Newman, a Duke law professor and the head of the clinic, said, It was a gross miscarriage of justice. Nobody should be convicted that way.
The clinics lawyers noted that one of the victims neighbors told police shed seen a strange man in the area after the killing. She did not say it was Armstrong. The man was wearing bloody army fatigues, the woman said. But the defense never saw those notes.
And heres another frightening twist in this saga: Armstrong might well have faced the death penalty.
Weve known for some time that North Carolinas justice system, and any justice system, for that matter, is not foolproof. First, humans investigate and humans make mistakes. Second, prosecutors zeal sometimes gets in the way of fairness; this isnt the first case in which defense lawyers have not been given access to all pertinent evidence, as required by law.
And there are quirks in the criminal justice system that contribute to the likelihood of mistakes, including the variation in the quality of defense lawyers. An innocent defendant, in other words, might not get a fair shake because he or she didnt have adequate counsel.
In this case, Duke lawyers seem to indicate that Armstrong got wronged by investigators and by prosecutors.
Somehow, Armstrong, who won his freedom thanks to the Duke office in 2012, when his conviction was vacated, has managed to put his life back together and reacquaint himself with his children. He has been working. And yes, under state law, hes entitled to compensation for his wrongful conviction, up to $750,000. He should get every cent.
As Christmas neared, he got a final sort of exoneration when Gov. Pat McCrory called to say he was issuing a full pardon of innocence. McCrory also apologized to Armstrong on behalf of the state, the right and honorable thing to do.
But lets hope the governor and legislators who support the death penalty might find in this case food for thought. This man might have gone to his death, and the state would have no way to fix that mistake.
Advocates of the death penalty conveniently ignore the possibility of a mistake because that possibility undermines their entire position.
After all, LaMonte Armstrong isnt alone in having spent a huge chunk of his life in prison for a crime he didnt commit.
In recent years, as DNA evidence and problems with the states SBI crime lab have come to light, Darryl Hunt of Winston-Salem and Greg Taylor of Raleigh have been exonerated after they, too, gave up long stretches of their lives behind bars.
There are serious flaws in our states justice system. They must be addressed before one day, the ultimate mistake is made.