Duke Law helps overturn wrongful life sentence
After 17 years serving a life sentence, LaMonte Armstrong’s name has been cleared of his 1988 wrongful murder conviction.
Armstrong, a Greensboro native, was released last June with the help of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, an organization at the School of Law that investigates claims of innocence by incarcerated felons. Law School students and alumni re-examined Armstrong’s case along with involved police and prosecutors. Howard Neumann, the Guilford County Assistant District Attorney, officially dismissed Armstrong’s murder charge this past Monday, of which he was convicted in 1995. Armstrong expressed his happiness in an interview with The Chronicle to no longer have the murder charge hanging over his head.
“It was a great relief,” Armstrong said. “It’s been tough these past few months being able to walk around but still not feeling free.”
Jamie Lau, Law School ’09 and supervising attorney for the Clinic, facilitated the testing of DNA evidence that was not available at Armstrong’s original trial. The DNA results identified a handprint found at the home of the victim and proved conclusively that Armstrong could not have been at the scene of the crime, Lau said.
The Duke Law Innocence Project, a student organization devoted to exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted, wrote to Armstrong in 2006, asking to take on his case.
“[The Duke Law students] were the first ones to really take the time to listen, to look at my case and to research,” Armstrong said.
The victim of the murder, Ernestine Compton—a faculty member at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University—was found stabbed and strangled with an electrical cord in her Greensboro home. Compton was Armstrong’s college professor and a friend of his mother. While no physical evidence ever linked Armstrong to the murder, he was arrested after an informant placed him at the scene. This witness only implicated Armstrong to avoid being charged with the crime himself and later recanted his story.
More than a decade after this wrongful conviction, John Hibbard, special projects director of the Innocence Project and a third-year law student, worked closely with the Wrongful Convictions Clinic on the case.
The Clinic takes cases in which individuals who are currently incarcerated have claimed innocence and investigates these claims. If members of the Innocence Project find factual basis for innocence, they will litigate the case and take it to court to try to absolve their client from the charges, Hibbard said. He also noted that the Clinic is closely entwined with the Duke Law Innocence Project, as they are both working toward the same goal. The Innocence Project did preliminary research and found that the lack of physical evidence, false tip and witness statements claiming to see the victim alive after Armstrong allegedly killed her were enough for the Clinic to take on the case.
Even during his time in prison, Armstrong said he never gave up hope that he would eventually be exonerated. He stayed productive during incarceration by keeping up-to-date on current events, serving as a teaching assistant and working as a counselor to provide support to inmates suffering from drug addiction.
“I worked on me,” Armstrong noted. “I wanted to be a better person, son and father. And, despite what people may say, I think I’ve done that.”
Armstrong currently works as a counselor for drug addiction and is pursuing a professional degree. He said he wants to continue improving the lives of others and hopes to start his own program to support youth and keep them out of jail.
“I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” he said. “I’m helping people.”
Even though he spent 17 years in prison, Armstrong says he is not bitter toward the system and maintains a positive outlook on his experience.
“He’s really just an incredible person,” Hibbard said. “He’s got his own job and a place to live and has done most of it on his own.”