By JAMES NYE
PUBLISHED: 23:49 EST, 29 June 2012 | UPDATED: 06:27 EST, 30 June 2012
A man who spent nearly 17 years in prison for murder walked free on Friday after authorities discovered evidence that law officers and prosecutors hid key details from defense lawyers during his trial.
Superior Court Judge Joe Turner ordered that LaMonte Armstrong, 62, be released from prison where he was serving a life sentence.
Armstrong was convicted in 1995 for the 1988 killing of Ernestine Compton, one of his former professors at North Carolina A&T State University.
LaMonte Armstrong, 62, was imprisoned in 1995 for the murder of Ernestine Compton, one of his former professors at North Carolina A&T State University
Turner said signing Armstrong’s release order was probably the ‘closest to knowing I’m doing justice, in my career, I will ever experience.’
Armstrong thanked God, adding that he took his late mother’s advice in prison.
‘Every letter said this: Son, don’t forget to pray,’ Armstrong said. ‘I never stopped praying. I never stopped. I hope she knows that.’
Key to the case was testimony from a convicted felon who has since said that police pressured him to accuse Armstrong.
In emotional scenes Armstrong walked free from the court today in Greensboro, North Carolina after a judge ordered his release
An earlier, undated mugshot of Armstrong, who was released from prison today after his conviction was deemed unsafe. It was not overturned
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, said police.
The print belonging to Christopher Bernard Caviness was among those tested in the early 1990s, but no match was initially found.
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.
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.
Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic said prosecutors failed to tell Armstrong’s defense attorney about several secret recordings. In the recordings, Armstrong denies knowledge of the killing as Blackwell pushes him to discuss it
Four convicted felons testified against Armstrong. Three said Armstrong confessed to them. The fourth, Charles Blackwell, said he witnessed the crime and received 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.’