CHAPEL HILL — LaMonte Armstrong met with Gov. Pat McCrory earlier this month as the newly lighted Christmas tree twinkled outside on the Capitol lawn.
Carolers sang out melodies of good tidings, and Armstrong, in his ninth month of freedom after a wrongful murder conviction cost him 17 years of his life, took note.
Armstrong, who lives and works in Chapel Hill, was with his lawyers that afternoon elaborating for the governor on the miscarriage of justice that caused him to miss out on many key moments of his 63 years. His daughter, not quite 7 at the time of his imprisonment, blossomed into a woman while he was behind bars. His older son, who was playing college football at the time, matured into the kind of man that Armstrong enjoys being around today.
The father and son were together on Monday morning, sharing a meal at a Bob Evans restaurant between Durham and Chapel Hill, when Armstrong’s phone lit on top of the table.
Armstrong looked up from his plate of eggs, sausage and grits toward his son, who was filling up on a plate of pancakes. The number in the phone window was a Charlotte one and Armstrong almost didn’t pick up. But on the fourth ring, he answered, and McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, was on the other end with long-awaited tidings.
“He asked me what I was doing and I said I was eating breakfast with my son. I said we were doing a sort of Christmas breakfast,” Armstrong said. “And he said, ‘OK. What I’m about to say will probably make your Christmas even more joyous.’ And then he said, ‘I just finished signing a document of pardon of innocence for you.’ And I said to him, ‘Fantastic, governor. Thank you so much.’”
With that – the governor’s first pardon of his term – Armstrong is eligible to file a claim under a North Carolina law that allows compensation of up to $750,000 to persons wrongly convicted of felonies.
Armstrong was wrongfully convicted of murdering an N.C. A&T University professor found dead in her Greensboro home in July 1988. He maintained his innocence throughout – from the first time Greensboro police interviewed him to when a Guilford County jury returned a guilty verdict to his arduous appeals of his life sentence.
Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic took up Armstrong’s case more than seven years ago and helped spur his release in June 2012 with a vacated conviction.
But it was not until March 18 that Armstrong learned the murder case against him had been dismissed. He no longer faced the possibility of another trial or another wrongful conviction. He finally was free of accusations that he had a hand in the fatal stabbing and strangling of Ernestine Compton, a beloved college professor at N.C. A&T.
As he constructed a life outside prison walls, conflicting emotions – happiness, anger, relief and disbelief – whirled inside him.
He was happy to be on the outside of a prison system that offered him a glimpse of the world of trouble that drug addiction and substance abuse can bring.
Though Armstrong often seems to have a placid and unruffled personality, the anger of what happened sometimes boils inside.
Armstrong’s case was another in a string of well-publicized wrongful convictions that have helped highlight flaws in North Carolina’s justice system. Defense attorneys have used Armstrong’s as a case study for how prosecutors and police should approach innocence investigations.
Greensboro Detective Michael Matthews, a 45-year-old investigator described as “a cop’s cop,” came forward with the key piece of evidence that ultimately released Armstrong from his prison sentence.
A palm print taken at the crime scene and retested in 2012 implicated another man who was on the Greensboro police department’s early list of suspects. That man, who police now think is the killer, died in a car wreck after serving a prison sentence for a different homicide.
In prison, Armstrong, an A&T graduate who taught school and sold cars for a living, helped teach other inmates who were trying to catch up with high school studies and served as a peer counselor for inmates in a drug and alcohol abuse treatment program.
Not once, during his entire incarceration, was he cited for breaking prison rules.
Theresa Newman, co-director of Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, was with Armstrong when he met with the governor.
That meeting came on the heels of a briefing earlier in the month with Bob Stephens, general counsel for the governor, and defense lawyer David Pishko of Winston-Salem as well as Newman and James Coleman of the Duke Wrongful Conviction Clinic.
McCrory asked a lot of questions and wanted to know from Armstrong what it was like to be incarcerated for so long for a crime he had not committed.
“The governor apologized to Lamonte on behalf of the state,” Newman said.
On Monday, only two days before Christmas, McCrory called Newman to find out how to get in touch with Armstrong, who had just come off the overnight shift working at Freedom House, a substance-abuse treatment center in Chapel Hill.
Armstrong, a former high school and college basketball player in Greensboro, listened to the news and invited the governor to join him for a game of H-O-R-S-E.
“He said, ‘No problem, that’s a done deal,’” Armstrong recounted later in the day. “He said we’ll play at the governor’s mansion. They have a court there.”
Armstrong was elated late in the day, wondering how his holidays could get any better this year. Though he still struggles with how prosecutors handled his case 17 years ago, Armstrong said he’ll focus on what he can do to make the justice system better.
“I can’t afford to be angered at these people because they did it, and now the cat’s out of the bag,” Armstrong said. “This news, it’s just great. It makes me feel great.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1