April 24, 2015
What is the value of 17 years of a person’s life?
The city of Greensboro may soon have to reckon with that question. LaMonte Armstrong, who spent 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, has filed a lawsuit against the city of Greensboro and the Police Department, alleging misconduct by police and prosecutors.
“Investigators based their case on an informant they knew was unreliable and untrustworthy.” said the brief filed by Armstrong’s attorneys. “(He) withheld exculpatory evidence from the prosecutors and from Armstrong and participated in the fabrication of inculpatory evidence that they knew, or reasonably should have known, was false.”
In 1995, Armstrong was convicted of the 1988 murder of North Carolina A&T State University professor Ernestine Compton and sentenced to life imprisonment.
From the beginning, Armstrong maintained his innocence. After he wrote to the Duke Law Innocence Project, the wrongful convictions clinic at Duke Law School encouraged the Greensboro Police Department to reopen the case.
Investigators retested a handprint found near the body and matched it to Christopher Caviness, a convicted murderer who died in 2010. Armstrong was released from prison in 2012 and officially pardoned by Governor Pat McCrory in 2013.
It is unknown exactly how much recompense Armstrong seeks. Theresa Newman, an attorney who worked to free Armstrong, told The Guilfordian that Armstrong applied for statutory compensation. Under state law, a wrongfully imprisoned person can receive $50,000 per year of time served, up to a maximum of 15 years. Armstrong applied for and received the full $750,000 maximum.
Asked why Armstrong had chosen to pursue further compensation from the state, a source who wanted to remain anonymous due to their relationship to the case told The Guilfordian that more than money is at stake.
“Someone loses 17 years of their life to prison,” said the anonymous source. “There’s accountability that needs to be assessed. There needs to be an acknowledgement that what was going on was wrong and that what happened to (Armstrong) was wrong. Those things are the purpose of the suit. (While) money is the way those damages are measured under our system, that’s far from the sole, or primary, motivating factor.”
Armstrong, who knew Compton, was questioned by police after the murder but was quickly let go.
The lawsuit alleges that investigators omitted possibly exculpatory information from the file provided to the district attorney, including that key witness Charles Blackwell was known to the police as a habitual liar and changed his story several times over the course of the investigation.
City attorney Tom Carruthers, speaking to the Greensboro News & Record, emphasized the city and the Police Department’s cooperation with the Innocence Project.
“The most important thing is for us to fully understand why this happened,” said Carruthers. “That’s why we cooperated with the Innocence Project, and that’s why we provided the entire criminal file to Armstrong’s attorney before the lawsuit.”
Newman agrees that police and prosecuters were cooperative when the Innocence Project asked for Armstrong’s case to be reopened but says that the increasing frequency of overturned convictions has, in some cases, led to less cooperative attitudes from district attorneys’ offices.
“In our exonerations, it’s always occurred with different levels of cooperation from the district attorney’s office,” said Newman. “It’s becoming more difficult to get that cooperation now. (You) can do two things in that situation: you can become much more involved and open in investigating whether wrongful convictions have occurred or you can become much more resistant.
“(In) some prosecutorial districts, we are seeing more resistance to overturning convictions.”
Wrongful conviction lawsuits can be painful for city pocketbooks.
In June 2014, a group of wrongfully convicted black men known as the Dixmoor 5, who were accused of fabricating confessions to convict the men of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old, received a $40 million settlement from the Illinois State Police.
Also in 2014, the city of New York settled for $41 million with the Central Park Five, five minority men who were wrongfully convicted of a much publicized sexual assault on a jogger in Central Park.
Newman believes that a judgment or settlement in Armstrong’s favor is definitely possible.
“When I look at what happened, I certainly hope that these kinds of facts support recovery in a civil suit,” said Newman. “I’m optimistic. I believe there’s sufficient evidence to support recovery.”