Greensboro native LaMonte Armstrong has received two life-altering rulings at the hands of a Guilford County judge, and the two prescriptions could not be more different. The first one—in August 1995—was a life sentence without parole after being convicted for the 1988 murder of Ernestine Compton, a professor at North Carolina A&T State University.
“The judge said ‘by a jury of your peers, I find you guilty. And I sentence you to the department of corrections for the rest of your natural life,’” Armstrong recounts. “That’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever heard in my life, especially knowing that I hadn’t even done a crime.”
The second decision—in June 2012—was a judge’s order for Armstrong’s release after 17 years of wrongful imprisonment. Armstrong was fully exonerated when the murder charge was formally dropped nine months later.
A team from the School of Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic—including faculty, alumni and students—had been working with Armstrong, investigating his case for nearly five years to prove his innocence.
“I call them my nine angels—the A-Team. These guys brought hope, a lot of understanding and patience,” 62-year-old Armstrong says. “In the final court appearance, the judge held up the motion the team had filed and said, ‘This is what your Duke team thought of you, they brought this up and got our attention.’ And you know what? He was right. I knew they worked hard to get me out of here.”
But the start of this story goes back several years. In 2006, the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence flagged Armstrong’s case as one that had a strong claim of a wrongful conviction. The state nonprofit then turned the case over to the Duke Law Innocence Project, which researches cases before assigning them to the clinic.
Armstrong began writing letters to universities and state innocence projects seven months after being incarcerated. Armstrong mailed a letter to Duke in early 2006, using two stamps borrowed from another prisoner. The Duke Law Innocence Project began working on his case later that year and assigned it to the Wrongful Convictions Clinic in 2008.
Current third-year law student John Hibbard became involved with the Armstrong case as the team was preparing to complete its motion for appropriate relief. The motion was submitted in December 2011.
“I came on at the end and took all this great work that people before me had done and attempted to put it into a document that would persuade the district attorney to reopen [the case] and the judge to grant relief.”
It was this document—easily six or seven inches thick— that was presented to the Guilford County Court judge at the hearing June 29, 2012. Armstrong was released later that day.
At the hearing, Guilford County Judge Joseph Turner said he was convinced that Armstrong was innocent, praising the Duke team.
“At the end of the day, [judges] leave hoping that we did justice, but we never know. We believe—you know I believe that I do justice on a daily basis—but believing isn’t knowing,” Turner said at the hearing. “I was telling a colleague earlier today, probably this is as close to knowing I’m doing justice as I will ever experience in my career.”
Armstrong’s imprisonment was in many ways the result of “the usual suspects” phenomenon, says Theresa Newman, co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Law ’88. There was no biological evidence that ever tied Armstrong to the scene. Although none of the prints found at the scene matched Armstrong, investigators pursued him as a suspect.
“The only evidence against him were the statements of four men who were incentivized—four men testified against LaMonte, each of whom received a benefit,” says Newman, who also serves as faculty adviser to the student-led Innocence Project. Three of these men eventually admitted that they lied.
In the summer of 2010 there was a breakthrough in the case: a recantation from one of the witnesses who had placed Armstrong at the scene. “It was then that I sort of knew I’m coming out of here. I just don’t know when,” Armstrong says.
The evidence that finally persuaded the state in Armstrong’s favor was a rescanning of a palm print found at the scene above the victim’s body. The palm print was accounted for in a physical evidence chart that Natasha Alladina, Law ’11, and a classmate had composed. Little did she know that the chart would hold the key to overturning the conviction.
“When we started uncovering info that wasn’t passed over to LaMonte’s counsel, that was a moment that said we could really make a difference here,” says Alladina, who was assigned to the Armstrong case when she enrolled in the clinic as a second-year law student in 2009.
The December 2011 motion presented evidence from the team’s reinvestigation and exposed mistakes in the original one. The Guilford County district attorney’s office found the document so persuasive that the Greensboro detective resubmitted some of the evidence—including the palm print—for testing.
“[The detectives] called us in June and said we have a match, and we’d like you to come talk to us,” Newman says. “They told us if they didn’t think a mistake was made, they would not have run the print again.”
The palm print matched that of Christopher Caviness, who had been a suspect in the original investigation and whose prints had been tested in 1992—when Caviness was already in prison for murdering his father six months after Compton’s death—but no match was made. The most recent match was only made possible because Caviness’s prints had just been uploaded to a more sophisticated system in the summer of 2012.
“If the palm print had been run earlier, we wouldn’t have had a match,” Newman points out.
By the time the match had been made, however, Caviness was dead, having been killed in a June 2010 car accident.
Armstrong recounts the details of his trial, his imprisonment and then the subsequent days working with the clinic team with nothing short of total recall—sequential, precise and vivid.
“One of my friends... he’ll say to me now, ‘You know man, one thing I give you credit for is you were tough enough to hang through this stuff, and... every time you tell me anything about this whole situation, it’s always been the same story. You never miss a beat.’”
He can retell every turn in his case with complete clarity, a testament to the immense struggle that the last 17 years had been for him and his family.
“You can do the truth like that, it’s lies you can’t recall and remember,” Armstrong says. “The truth can always be remembered because the truth is what it is.”
Armstrong’s time in prison was in many ways characterized by silence: silence from the many clinics and innocence projects he reached out to, and then a silencing of his own hope in 2001, when his mother passed away.
“When she died on me, I didn’t have a lot of communication with anyone,” Armstrong recounts.
Hope was renewed when Duke responded in 2006. Groups of students visited four times that year, and then in Spring 2008, Newman made her first visit to Armstrong. As the visits became more frequent, Armstrong says he began to gain confidence in his Duke team, recognizing its genuine investment in his cause.
“In the latter part of 2008, I started to see that these Duke people were different. Professor Newman was always writing me back, and they were quick. I was impressed. I was starting to trust Duke,” he says.
And as the case went on, the bonds between the team and LaMonte strengthened.
“Professor Newman visited me on my birthday in June 2010, and that was the first time I’d had a visit on my birthday in 15 years,” LaMonte recalls. Two other team members—now professional lawyers—came to visit that June to sing him happy birthday.
And that relationship has lasted well beyond his release. Armstrong speaks to Newman every other day and keeps in touch with other members of the team—sending well wishes to those who have received new jobs or those who have recently moved back to North Carolina.
“I can call any of them at any given time and ask them a question, and it doesn’t have to be about law it can be about life, and they’ll do whatever they can to help me,” he says. “Those nine guys and girls are tremendous.”
As someone who was wrongfully incarcerated for 17 years, one might expect Armstrong to be bitter and defeated. But within moments of speaking with him, his warmth and enduring energy are apparent. Today, Armstrong works as a counselor at a recovery center for addicts in Chapel Hill and is taking classes to earn Certified Substance Abuse Counselor status.
But, understandably, his attitudes toward the criminal justice system have been at odds ever since the state sent him to jail for life.
“I used to sit on the same side of the table as you, I thought that everything that the courts, the detectives, the DA put in the newspaper was true until it slapped me right in the face,” he says.
Flaws in the system
Armstrong’s exoneration certainly exposes inequities and inefficiencies in today’s legal system. Newman and fellow clinic co-director and law professor James Coleman maintain that drawing attention to these problems is nearly as important as securing justice for their clients.
Uncorroborated testimony of witnesses was a huge factor in Armstrong’s wrongful conviction. Problems arise when the prosecution exchanges the testimony of a witness for a reduced sentence, early parole or some other form of compensation, Newman says. These trades simply encourage the witness to admit whatever the prosecution wants to hear and can often put the wrong people behind bars.
“One change we have to pursue is the use of incentivized witnesses,” she says. “ [The state] often over-incentivizes witnesses without concern and yet nothing they testify to is independently corroborated—this is partly because of the prosecution’s caseload and partly because they don’t care.”
This is particularly frustrating when testimony contradicts physical evidence.
“They found six sets of fingerprints in my case, and they don’t match me, and they claim they couldn’t find a match,” Armstrong adds. “They sent me away on the basis of testimony from four inmates trying to get reduced sentences. What kind of message are we sending to the public? That the forensic science doesn’t work?”
The clinic often finds that testimony and evidence has not been made available to both the defense and the prosecution. Alladina noted the need for every individual to have his or her “fair day in court.”
“I still can’t believe that there was so much evidence that was favorable to LaMonte that didn’t get uncovered until this late. That really does show that there are serious flaws in the system.”
In the last four years, the Wrongful Convictions Clinic has produced three other exonerations that have exposed further shortfalls in the criminal justice system.
Mecklenberg County resident Noe Moreno—exonerated in August 2012 with the help of the clinic—had pleaded guilty to several charges, including second-degree murder and assault, because his lawyer had not prepared an adequate defense and because police had not conducted a complete investigation. Moreno was sentenced in 2007 to between 18 and 22 years in prison.
Exoneree Shawn Massey served 12 years in prison for crimes he did not commit because of a misidentification by an eyewitness due to cultural factors. The white victim had said the person who attacked her wore braids. When the clinic discovered that the victim in fact had meant cornrows—not braids—the Duke team was able to persuade the court to release Massey seeing as he had never worn his hair long enough for cornrows.
In the case of Jonathan Pierpoint, who was accused of sexually abusing a minor, there was simply no crime. When Duke re-examined the evidence of the claim of sexual assault, the team was able to show that there was a medical explanation for the evidence rather than anything corresponding to sexual abuse. Pierpoint had served 17 years of a life sentence upon his exoneration in 2011.
“Sometimes there are mistakes. Sometimes prosecutors or law enforcement agents overreach,” says Duke Law Dean David Levi, calling the criminal justice system “imperfect.”
“It is essential to a fair system that there be some sort of effective post-conviction review. Our clinic is one way to provide this review.” In all four of the clinic’s exoneration cases, district attorneys agreed with the findings of the clinic’s reinvestigations, and none of these cases had to go back to trial. The clinic teams work with—not against—the state to attain release for their clients.
Supervising attorney for the clinic Jamie Lau, Law ’09 added that this is a testament to the iron-clad work of the clinic teams.
“We always attempt to work with the state first before litigating,” he says.
A clinic like no other
The Wrongful Convictions Clinic is one of eight clinics offered at the School of Law. Led by faculty members Newman, Coleman and Lau, the for-credit clinic is part of the Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility. The center, which is the umbrella organization for the clinic and Innocence Project, is funded by a $1.25 million grant from the provost’s office that will run out next year. The grant was issued in 2007 partly as a response to problems in the North Carolina judicial system illuminated by the 2006 Duke lacrosse case.
Prior to the clinic’s establishment, Newman and Coleman had been teaching a course on wrongful convictions and supervising the Innocence Project, a student-led group that had been founded six years earlier and was able to move case investigations only very slowly. This year, there are about 70 volunteers at the Innocence Project, making it the largest extracurricular activity at the school. Coleman and Newman both noted the need for renewed and increased resources if the work done in both the clinic and at the Innocence Project is to expand.
Students can earn course credit through the Wrongful Convictions Clinic for up to two semesters. The clinic is one of the law school’s more popular, says Coleman, adding that many students stay on with their clinic cases even after earning their maximum course credit, working as volunteers. In a given semester, between eight and 12 students are enrolled in the clinic for credit.
Newman says it is the pathos of the clinic’s work—and the human connection it produces—that keeps students and alumni coming back. It is both an intellectual and emotional investment, she says.
“You meet the client at the beginning of the semester and are required to spend many, many hours in the clinic but you end up spending many more than required. When they visit, they know the only way he is able to walk out is if they solve the puzzle: how did they get convicted and how do we prove innocence?”
With four exonerations to date—two in 2010 and two in 2012—the clinic is one of the more successful among its counterparts at law schools nationwide, Coleman says.
“We have a very good infrastructure of faculty who are able to work full-time on this and help with the investigations. In that sense, in terms of a clinic that’s only been around for four years, we have been very successful, and we are also very good at what we do.”
Between the clinic and the Innocence Project, there are about 20 cases currently in progress, eight of which are currently in the clinic. The remaining cases are still in their initial investigation phases at the Innocence Project.
In the Fall, two more cases will be moved from the Innocence Project to the clinic, Coleman added. The oldest case that the clinic is working on is a 1976 conviction, for which it recently filed a motion to overturn.
Unlike some of its peers, the Wrongful Convictions Clinic is not DNA-based, meaning it does not take on cases that can be resolved simply with DNA testing.
“Most people who are wrongfully convicted aren’t ones who had biological evidence in their cases,” Coleman explains. Instead, the Duke clinic takes on cases that need a full reinvestigation.
An educational mission
Current third-year law student Katie Claire Hoffmann contends that the practical skills she learned in the clinic have enhanced her law education in ways that classes cannot. The hours put in for the clinic’s casework exceed that of a normal class greatly because of the unpredictable and persistent nature of the work.
“For the wrongful convictions clinic, we’re out there in the world tracking down witnesses, interviewing them, picking up files, visiting clients in prisons all over the state,” she recalls. “It’s a lot of car time and a lot of interactions with people outside the walls of the law school.”
Hoffmann, Trinity ’07, says she came to law school with little direction or an idea of what she wanted to get out of it. Like many other students, she was inspired to become involved with innocence work during the law school’s orientation week, when Winston-Salem exoneree Darryl Hunt, who was relieved of rape and murder charges in 2004, spoke to the incoming students.
“It reminds you right at the beginning why you came to law school,” Hoffman says.
After Hunt’s remarks, Hoffmann became involved with the Duke Law Innocence Project, and now serves as the group’s case management director. Hoffmann joined the Wrongful Convictions clinic in her second year and was placed on a case team. She has completed the clinic but is still working on the case as a volunteer.
Hoffmann’s work at the clinic encouraged her to pursue work in a public defender’s office after she graduates. She cited the clinic as an unprecedented opportunity to observe “good lawyering,” noting the benefits of working so closely with Newman, Coleman and Lau.
“What we do in the clinic is primarily what lawyers do in the profession. Lawyers are problem solvers,” Coleman adds. “We are all working together on all aspects of the case. Students interview the inmate when we need to do that. They help to discover new evidence, they are doing the investigation, we are supervising it. When we get to the point where we’re going to file a motion, they’re involved with drafting and putting together the exhibits. They’re very present.”
Third-year law student John Hibbard, who was part of Armstrong’s “A-Team,” says that his work in the clinic and with the Innocence Project is what makes law school—and its price tag—worthwhile.
“The exonerations have been the best part of law school. It’s the best justification for tuition,” says Hibbard, who serves as the special projects director for the Innocence Project. “They’re the best things that have happened to me here, and I couldn’t imagine going to a different law school because of it.”
The clinic work is also successful in connecting current law students to alumni. The Armstrong case saw an unprecedented amount of retention even after students graduated and went on to work at large firms. Alladina is one example of this phenomenon, having worked on the case as student from 2009 to 2011 and then incorporating the case into her pro bono work as an associate at Alston & Bird in Atlanta.
In addition to the bond with her professors and peers, she says Armstrong himself was a big reason why she decided to stay on with the project after graduating.
“Once you meet him, you can’t help but become a champion for his cause.”