Justice belatedly delivered

Dec. 25, 2013 @ 02:14 PM

LaMonte Armstrong told the gentleman who called Monday morning that he was “doing a sort of Christmas breakfast” with his son.

To which Gov. Pat McCrory responded, “OK.  What I’m about to say will probably make your Christmas even more joyous. I just finished signing a document of pardon of innocence for you.”

It was a richly deserved gift for Armstrong, 63, who until his release in June 2012 had spent almost 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.  McCrory’s pardon removed any taint of Armstrong’s 1995 first-degree murder conviction for the 1988 slaying of a North Carolina A & T University professor, Ernestine Compton.

The case of Armstrong, a former college basketball player and school teacher, illustrates both the flaws that perhaps inevitably occur in our justice system – and the system’s capacity, albeit with a good bit of outside prodding, to right itself. 

Although no physical evidence ever linked him to Compton’s murder, Armstrong was convicted after a man falsely accused him, Armstrong said this week, “for the reward money.” The witness later recanted his testimony.

The reasons that innocent people can end up charged with – and convicted – of crimes are many, according to Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic. Wrongful convictions, the group’s website says, can result from “mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, faulty forensic evidence, ‘jailhouse snitches,’” for example.

The clinic – Duke law students, faculty and alumni -- took up Armstrong’s case while he was languishing in jail, losing hope that anyone would come to his aid. 

“I wrote from day one of being incarcerated until my release … that I was innocent,” Armstrong said. “But it seemed to fall on closed eyes and deaf ears at first.”

New evidence uncovered by the Duke clinic’s faculty, law students and alumni prompted a Guilford County assistant district attorney and Greensboro Police to re-examine physical evidence from the crime scene in 2012, as a clinic news release summarized events.

The additional evidence implicated another individual, and the district attorney’s office agreed that Armstrong should go free.

When he ordered Armstrong’s release, Judge Joseph Turner acknowledged the wrong the system had committed. His act was, the judge said, the "closest to knowing I'm doing justice, in my career, I will ever experience."

Armstrong and his new defenders continued to press for the complete exoneration of a pardon of innocence – and they found the governor’s office receptive.

“They undertook an impressive process of review,” Theresa Newman, the clinic’s co-director, said.  “They took the claim seriously and gave it respect.”

And two days before Christmas, McCrory gave Armstrong the gift that in the former inmate’s words was “a long time coming.”

Armstrong said it better than can we: “I know the system is broke.”

But at least in this case, dedicated workers in a project such as the Wrongful Conviction Clinic, open-minded police and prosecutors and an engaged governor could reverse a shameful miscarriage of justice.