The North Carolina justice system failed an innocent man

December 26, 2013 

EXONERATED-NE-040513-TEL

LaMonte Armstrong, 63, prepares to shoot hoops April 1, at the Chapel Hill Community Center. Armstrong, a former N.C. A&T University basketball player was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1995 and served 17 years in prison for a crime he had nothing to do with.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

The lawyers from Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic thought it was an open-and-shut case, but not in the way that confident prosecutors mean. No these lawyers couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 clinic’s lawyers noted that one of the victim’s neighbors told police she’d 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 here’s another frightening twist in this saga: Armstrong might well have faced the death penalty.

We’ve known for some time that North Carolina’s 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 isn’t 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 didn’t 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, he’s 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 let’s 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 isn’t alone in having spent a huge chunk of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

In recent years, as DNA evidence and problems with the state’s 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 state’s justice system. They must be addressed before one day, the ultimate mistake is made.

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