Greensboro murder convict may go free with new evidence
GREENSBORO (AP) — A man who spent nearly 17 years in prison for a Greensboro murder may be freed after a hearing today, now that authorities have linked the killing to another suspect and discovered evidence that law officers and prosecutors hid key details from defense lawyers.
Superior Court Judge Joe Turner was scheduled to hear arguments today on whether to release LaMonte Armstrong, 62. Armstrong was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison for the 1988 killing of Ernestine Compton, one of his former professors at North Carolina A&T State University.
Key to the case was testimony from a convicted felon who has since said police pressured him to accuse Armstrong.
Greensboro police investigators have also identified a palm print belonging to another suspect found on a door frame in Compton’s home just above the victim’s body, Chief Ken Miller said. The print belonging to Christopher Bernard Caviness was among those tested in the early 1990s, but no match was initially found, the chief said in a statement.
Caviness was convicted of murdering his father in 1989 and died in a 2010 traffic accident after being released from prison.
The print doesn’t prove Caviness’ guilt, but if jurors had known about the match, they probably wouldn’t have convicted Armstrong, Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said.
Neumann said he expects the judge to vacate Armstrong’s conviction and release him from prison shortly after Friday’s hearing. Prosecutors don’t plan to seek bond guaranteeing Armstrong will appear for future court hearings, Neumann said.
No fingerprints or other physical evidence at the murder scene pointed to Armstrong, a former teacher and car salesman who was arrested repeatedly after he started using heroin.
Four convicted felons testified against Armstrong. Three said Armstrong confessed to them. The fourth, Charles Blackwell, said he witnessed the crime and got a five-year sentence as an accessory to Compton’s murder.
Legal documents filed in the case by Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic said prosecutors failed to tell Armstrong’s defense attorney about several secret recordings Blackwell made at the request of investigators. In the recordings, Armstrong denies knowledge of the killing as Blackwell pushes him to discuss it, the brief stated.
Blackwell said an unidentified officer told him, “If you don’t say LaMonte killed this lady, you gonna wear the charge,” the Duke team’s court brief said.
Police and prosecutors also kept other evidence from defense attorneys, including information about a neighbor who said she saw another man in Compton’s neighborhood around the time of the killing wearing bloody Army fatigues, the clinic’s court brief states.
“I really hope that nobody was intentionally framing” Armstrong, said Theresa Newman, co-director of the Duke law school project investigating wrongful convictions. “But this is so close to the line, it raises questions.”
Newman credits Greensboro’s police department and the local DA’s office for “a remarkable open-mindedness” in reopening Armstrong’s case as the evidence mounted.
“While these types of cases are very rare, we will always strive to conduct our investigations with integrity to ensure justice is done,” Miller said. “We owe that to Mr. Armstrong and to the family of Professor Compton, and it is the right thing to do.”