Chapel Hill man pardoned for wrongful murder conviction

Dec. 23, 2013 @ 04:33 PM

A Chapel Hill man who spent almost 17 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit was pardoned Monday by Gov. Pat McCrory.
LaMonte Burton Armstrong, 63, was having breakfast at Bob Evans restaurant Monday morning when he got a call on his cellphone, and almost didn’t answer it.
He’s glad he did.
McCrory granted him a pardon of innocence, clearing him of the 1995 first-degree murder conviction in the 1988 slaying of a North Carolina A&T State University professor, Ernestine Compton, at her Greensboro home.
Armstrong was implicated by an acquaintance, Charles Blackwell, who became the prosecution’s key witness. Blackwell recanted his testimony in 2010, saying he lied to collect a CrimeStoppers reward.
No physical evidence linked Armstrong to the crime, according to a statement by the governor’s office.
Armstrong was released from prison June 29, 2012, when a judge agreed with defense attorneys and the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office that new evidence showed another person committed the crime.
New evidence uncovered by Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic 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, according to a Duke news release.
They found evidence implicating the other person.
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.”
Theresa Newman, co-director of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said: “Despite the remarkable way he was released from prison, there had been no definitive statement from the state that he is innocent. This gives him that. It removes all doubt.”
In an interview Monday, Armstrong said McCrory’s call caught him by surprise.
“I said ‘hello’ and the person on the other end said: ‘This is Governor McCrory.’ I said: ‘Wow. Good morning, sir. How are you?’ ”
“That was crazy,” Armstrong said. “I was hoping to get a pardon, but to get a personal phone call from North Carolina’s number-one citizen was kind of overwhelming. That was big stuff.”
Armstrong said his release and pardon were “a long time coming.”
“I wrote from day one of being incarcerated until my release in 2012 that I was innocent, but it seemed to fall on closed eyes and deaf ears at first. It seemed like no one was listening.”
But the Wrongful Convictions Clinic changed that.
Armstrong got a letter in prison from the clinic asking if they could investigate his case.
He had to borrow money for a stamp to reply, and his answer was “yes.”
Asked how he feels today about the man who falsely accused him, Armstrong said: “Things like that are done on a daily basis. He said he did it for the reward money. I think people who do stuff like that are actually sick.”
Armstrong, a former college basketball player and Greensboro city school teacher, said his years in prison were tough.
“You get frustrated in there because of everything that’s going on, and sometimes you lose some hope,” he said. “But the days I had the roughest times and would be losing hope and feeling sorry for myself, I would get a letter from [Duke clinic co-director Newman]. That’s all I would need to sort of get back on track.”
He said the conviction shook his faith in the justice system.
“I know that the system is broke,” he said. “Most people don’t know that. They think that it’s all good. They think that anytime a prosecutor accuses somebody or a detective says somebody did something, it’s the Gospel truth. And a lot of times, it’s not the truth.”
Armstrong, who is eligible to receive up to $750,000 to compensate him for the wrongful conviction, said he struggled in prison not to let anger consume him.
“I was totally angry inside some of the time, but not all the time,” he said. “My mom and dad never taught their children to hate anybody. I know that anger is an emotion that will turn into hate if you let it fester. So I did all I could not to let that happen to me.”
Armstrong now works for The Freedom House in Chapel Hill, an outpatient substance abuse treatment center.
He’s taking classes at Wake Technical Community College to become a certified substance abuse counselor.
Although he’s a free man today, Armstrong tries not to forget that other innocent people remain in prison.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “My situation is just one of many.”