GREENSBORO, N.C. — A Greensboro man convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 was released from prison Friday after a judge agreed with defense attorneys and a North Carolina assistant district attorney that he should be freed pending a new trial.
LaMonte Armstrong, convicted of the 1988 murder of Ernestine Compton in Greensboro, had served 17 years of a life sentence. He was released by Judge Joseph Turner after defense attorneys David Pishko ’77 and Theresa Newman '88, a professor at Duke Law School and co-director of the school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, presented evidence of his wrongful conviction. Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann joined with Armstrong’s lawyers in recommending his release pending a new trial.
Armstrong’s hearing, originally scheduled for September, was fast-tracked after police uncovered new evidence during a retest of physical evidence from the crime scene.
A team of Duke Law students, many of them now alumni, has been working with Newman, Pishko and Professor James Coleman on Armstrong’s case for years. Their “dogged work,” and the “open minds” of Neumann and Greensboro Police Detective Michael Matthews, resulted in a just outcome, Coleman said.
“The willingness of the Greensboro Police Department and the District Attorney’s office to listen to our concerns and act as amenable, if skeptical, allies in pursuing the truth is a blueprint for how innocence investigations should proceed,” said Coleman. “In this case the system worked with us and together justice will be achieved for Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Compton.”
A brutal killing
On July 12, 1988, the body of Ernestine Compton was discovered in her home. She had been stabbed and strangled with an electrical cord. A longtime faculty member at North Carolina A&T University, Compton was a fixture in her Greensboro neighborhood, Newman said.
She was also friends with LaMonte Armstrong’s mother, who lived down the street, and knew LaMonte Armstrong from the neighborhood and his time as a student at A&T, where he graduated in 1975. At the time of her death, Armstong had known Compton for more than two decades -- from his childhood, through his early career as a teacher in Guilford County Public Schools, and during his eventual slide into heroin addiction.
There was never any physical evidence linking Armstrong to the crime, Newman said. He became a focus of the police investigation after a Crime Stoppers tip. During the initial investigation, Armstrong was intermittently interviewed by police and recorded by a police informant. He never gave information indicating any knowledge of the crime, even after prompting by the informant. As a result, the police abandoned Armstrong as a suspect, and the investigation languished.
Six years later, the informant was himself charged with the murder; at trial, he testified against Armstrong and pleaded guilty to a much lesser offense. Based on the testimony of that informant, who has since recanted and admitted that he testified to avoid the murder charge, Armstrong was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
A blueprint for collaboration
Armstrong’s case was referred to the Duke Law Innocence Project by the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. After an initial investigation indicated that his claim of innocence might be plausible and provable, the Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic took on the case.
As students investigated the case, the District Attorney’s office and the Greensboro Police Department gradually opened their files and eventually took an interest. Natasha Alladina ’11 and Matthew McGee ’10 worked with Greensboro Detective Michael Matthews, “without whom,” Alladina said, “this release would not have happened.”
Matthews reviewed the entire case file with McGee and Alladina. The file contained recordings involving the informant that strongly indicated Armstrong’s innocence and witness statements from people who saw Compton alive after the state claimed at trial that Armstrong killed her. None of the recordings and documents had been turned over to Armstrong’s trial attorney.
These and other facts strongly pointing to Armstrong’s innocence persuaded Newman, who primarily supervised the clinic’s investigation, to begin drafting a motion requesting a new trial. The clinic enlisted Pishko, a Winston-Salem attorney who has worked with the clinic on other wrongful conviction cases, to assist in the hoped-for hearing on the motion. Much of the motion rested on the lack of evidence against Armstrong, the impeachability of the police informant, and the evidence never given his original attorneys.
“I had personally given up hope of the physical evidence being helpful,” McGee said. “None of it ever implicated LaMonte, but none of it ever helped prove he was innocent, either.”
But earlier this month, Newman got a call. “ADA Neumann called me and told me that they had retested some of the physical evidence from the crime scene, and they got a hit,” she said. “I started to get chills. There had been a palm print positioned on the wall right over Ms. Compton’s body. For more than two decades, that print had never been identified. Now, because they were using a new database and because that database was gradually being populated with new information, they ran the print and got a match. Detective Matthews told me that if the prints had been run three months earlier, they wouldn’t have found anything.”
Neumann agreed that the new information merited a prompt hearing date, and the court agreed to hear the case on Friday.
“Neither Assistant District Attorney Neumann or Detective Matthews were pushovers,” Newman said. “They were simply willing to listen to the facts. That’s how the police and prosecutors should always approach these cases.”
The Duke Law ‘A-Team’
Armstrong is the third client of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic to be released from prison. As with most of the cases the clinic manages, his took years to investigate. Many Duke Law students moved through the clinic and graduated, but most who worked on the Armstrong case were reluctant to leave it behind.
“Over time, we amassed this great team of alumni who were willing to work with current students and keep pushing this case forward,” Newman said. “We call them the ‘A-Team.’ All of their firms have been willing to make this case an official pro bono matter, which is a testament to the firms’ commitment to public interest work and to the team members’ commitment to the case.”
That team included Alladina, McGee, Michael Horowitz ’09, Jamie Rietema Horowitz ’09, Sachin Bansal ’08, and John Hibbard ’13. Nearly all of them were at the hearing Friday to witness Armstrong’s release. Over the years they have visited and corresponded with Armstrong. Two students who worked together on the case – Rietema and Horowitz – later got married. They sent Armstrong an invitation to the wedding, hoping his release would come before their wedding.
“If you send him a birthday card, he’ll send you a long letter,” said Alladina. “I surprised him with a visit in March. You’re always hoping for a good outcome in these cases, but I have to say it is shocking to think that was the last time I would see him behind bars.”
While in prison, Armstrong participated in a number of educational programs and served as a teaching assistant to inmates seeking their G.E.D., and as a peer counselor in the Drug/Alcohol Recovery Treatment program. He wants to be a substance abuse counselor, Newman said.
“He’s a very smart man, and he has somehow stayed centered and positive through all of this,” she said. “He’s going to be an excellent counselor.”