Law
5:00 am
Wed August 1, 2012

Conviction Overturned, LaMonte Armstrong Adjusting After 17 Years

Issac-Davy Aronson: LaMonte Armstrong walked out of a Greensboro Courthouse a few weeks ago. The 62-year-old grandfather, graduate of North Carolina A&T and longtime basketball coach was free. Convicted of murder in 1995 and sentenced to life, Armstrong has always maintained his innocence. A local law clinic intervened, evidence raising significant doubts was revealed, and ultimately a judge overturned the conviction.

Jeff Tiberii: LaMonte Armstrong is tall and slender with muscular arms hidden beneath his white button down shirt. He has a thin mustache on his dark upper lip, and cautious brown eyes behind thick-framed glasses. He’s smiling, engaging and appears almost gregarious as he recalls a recent courtroom moment, for some of the Duke Law professors who helped him get out of prison.

LaMonte Armstrong: Judge Turner again with the big folders in his hand, he says “Mr. Armstrong do you see what your team has done for you”. I said “yes, man – I see”. I’ve been with them all along the way.

For six years professors and students have worked to free Armstrong. He’s relieved to finally be out of his single cell at Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury. But since finding out in mid-June that a finger print match would set him free, the nights have been restless.

LaMonte Armstrong: I haven’t slept since Monday night of my birthday (June 12th). All the way through the last 20 days in prison, or 25, whatever it was. Now, with my freedom, I still don’t sleep well.

Are you nervous, are you anxious, are you excited about what awaits, are you scared of this next chapter in your life?

LaMonte Armstrong: I explained it to my brother and professor Newman that I am, uh lost, confused and afraid. Yeah. I’m not really ashamed to admit any of those. A lot of this stuff going on out here today was not going on when I left.

For starters, cell phones. He’s coming around but initially they gave him fits. Also new is another generation. Days after getting out Armstrong met his granddaughter for the first time. She’s 17. Armstrong is a recovering addict – clean since March of 1995. He took prison day-by-day, serving as a substance abuse counselor and G.E.D. teacher. It gave him focus, purpose and a few dollars a week. He describes those contributions as self-serving:

LaMonte Armstrong: When I say it was selfish for me when I did everything I could to pour out to other people’s children in the penal system, what I was really trying to do was alleviate some of the guilt and shame I had cause I wasn’t out there with my own kids.

He left his two children in 1995 when a jury convicted him of killing his former college professor and family friend, Ernestine Compton. There was no forensic evidence linking Armstrong to the crime, no witnesses and no motive. The trial happened seven years after the murder and key evidence was withheld from the defense. An informant testified that Armstrong confessed to killing Compton. But, he later recanted, admitting that police pressured him to finger Armstrong or face a murder charge.

Theresa Newman: It was obvious to us even before we had access to the file that we just read the trial transcript, we read some of the early documents and we just said, this doesn’t sound right.

Professor Theresa Newman is with the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke. She credits Armstrong’s release to hardworking law students and cooperation from Greensboro Police and the Guilford County District Attorney. Inconclusive palm and finger prints from the crime scene were tested again. Christopher Caviness, once a marginal suspect - later convicted of killing his own father, was a match. The prints were enough to overturn the conviction and send Armstrong out into an unfamiliar world.

Jim Coleman: The problem in all of these cases is that the charges are dropped and then guy is just dumped out there.

Jim Coleman has been at Duke Law School since 1991. He wants the state to provide more assistance with transitions like these. Guilford County A.D.A Howard Neumann - no relation to the professor from Duke – agrees:

Howard Neumann: I think there is a real issue with recidivism that’s caused by the fact that we let people out of prison, or they finish their sentences and get out of prison, and we don’t do anything to acclimate them to society.

Armstrong is transitioning at what he describes as a good pace. He cried for the first time in 17 years, is reconnecting with his children and granddaughter, and says despite some lingering anger he wants to do more for his fellow man.

LaMonte Armstrong: I enjoy trying to help an addict or alcoholic, right their life, straighten their path and realize that they can live a productive life. So what I really enjoy is giving back to society is what was given to me.

The District Attorney is expected to drop the charges against Armstrong in the next few months. At that point he can seek a pardon from the Governor and compensation for the years he served. It’s a long shot, and LaMonte Armstrong isn’t waiting on a check for lost time. He’s got a job working as a crisis counselor in Chapel Hill, taking it one day at a time.