LaMonte Armstrong, whose conviction in a 1988 Greensboro murder case was called into question by new evidence uncovered by Duke Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, was granted a pardon of innocence by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on Dec. 23.
The pardon fully clears Armstrong of the murder of Ernestine Compton.
The governor called Armstrong on Monday morning to inform him of the pardon, which capped a lengthy review process. The two met earlier in December.
“It’s fantastic,” said Armstrong. “He asked me what I was doing and I said I was eating breakfast with my son. I said we were doing a sort of Christmas breakfast. And he said, ‘OK. What I’m about to say will probably make your Christmas even more joyous.’ And then he said, ‘I just finished signing a document of pardon of innocence for you.’ And I said to him, ‘Fantastic, governor. Thank you so much.’”
No physical evidence ever linked Armstrong to the crime scene, according to a statement released by the governor’s office. The statement noted that Armstrong was implicated by an acquaintance who subsequently recanted his testimony.
Armstrong, a Chapel Hill resident, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 and served more than 16 years of a life sentence. He was released from prison on June 29, 2012, when a judge agreed with defense attorneys and the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office that new evidence indicated another individual committed the crime.
New evidence uncovered by Duke clinic faculty, and Duke Law students and alumni prompted a Guilford County assistant district attorney and Greensboro Police detective to re-examine physical evidence from the crime scene in 2012. They found additional evidence implicating the other individual. Judge Joseph Turner ordered Armstrong’s release, saying that doing so was the "closest to knowing I'm doing justice, in my career, I will ever experience."
“Despite the remarkable way he was released from prison, there had been no definitive statement from the state that he is innocent,” said Wrongful Convictions Clinic Co-director Theresa Newman. “This gives him that. It removes all doubt.”
Armstrong’s release and eventual pardon was the result of years of work by Wrongful Convictions Clinic faculty, a team of Duke Law students and alumni, and an assistant district attorney and police detective willing to re-examine evidence when presented with credible questions about the case. Clinic Co-director James Coleman said the process by which Armstrong was exonerated is a good model for innocence cases in the future.
“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.
The clinic also represented Armstrong through the pardon process. Newman praised the approach the governor, his general counsel, and staff took to the pardon application, noting that it involved face-to-face meetings with Armstrong and his legal team that included Newman, Coleman, and Duke alumni David Pishko and Jamie Lau. “They undertook an impressive process of review,” she said. “They took the claim seriously and gave it respect.”
Armstrong said he was proud of his legal team. “I feel tremendously blessed. It’s as simple as that.”
Armstrong is one of four wrongfully convicted persons released over a four-year period because of the work of the clinic, the Duke Law Innocence Project, and the Duke alumni community.
Coleman and Newman oversee Duke Law’s Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility.