As if the shameful trail of wrongful convictions in North Carolina needed another chapter, it has one in LaMonte Armstrong.
The 69-year-old N.C. A&T graduate spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
After he was convicted for the murder of A&T professor Ernestine Compton in 1994, Armstrong — who, like me, grew up in Greensboro and attended Dudley High School — insisted on his innocence from day one and never rested until he could prove it.
And, with the help of the Duke University Law School Wrongful Convictions Unit, Armstrong won his freedom in 2012. He also received a “pardon of innocence” from then-Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013.
But the happy ending to Armstrong’s story was all too brief and bittersweet.
Armstrong died on Aug. 17 following a battle with pancreatic cancer, only seven years after the state admitted it had wronged him.
That meant that, after all the hoping and praying and hard work, Armstrong lived free for fewer than half the years he spent behind bars.
Yet somehow, when I left a service in Armstrong’s memory last week, I was smiling. And so was everyone else.
In a packed little church near downtown Burlington, it was hard not to be inspired by the grace and goodness Armstrong found in his life, even before his release from prison.
One speaker after another recounted his smarts and his gentle spirit ... and his tenacity. In fact, members of his legal team from Duke considered him more a colleague than a client. A pair of them sat behind me in the balcony of Ebenezer United Church of Christ, the only space left to squeeze into.
“He worked alongside us,” Jamie Horowitz said, smiling through her tears as she remembered her time on what came to be known as “the A-Team” at Duke. She and her husband-to-be were Duke law students at the time.
“He had this sticky joy to him,” Michael Horowitz told me about the man they called “L.A.” “Even when the case was hard, you couldn’t escape his sticky joy. And that wasn’t just the way he approached his case. That was the way he approached his life.”
In a eulogy that was at once joyful and angry, the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman of Greensboro remembered meeting Armstrong more than 20 years ago in a prison ministry for “those who had strong desire to clean up their lives from the ravages and distortions that drugs and alcohol had left behind.” That began Spearman’s “deep dive” into a relationship with Armstrong.
Spearman, now president of the state NAACP, quoted a letter he received from Armstrong on Oct. 25, 2001: “Dear Ted, I’ve not written in a while because I’ve been working hard trying to prepare some legal stuff. I need your help (again — smile) if possible. I’m sending you some papers I need copies of. I need 4 copies of each page. I am preparing an all-out attack on my former lawyer and the DA. I have to have this paperwork filed in a few weeks before Dec. 6, 2001. These papers will prove that I’ve been very unjustly treated, and that these people have no respect for ethics, or the Constitution. Now, keep a copy for yourself and please send me back the originals and four copies.”
“I’m here to tell y’all,” Spearman said as the congregation chuckled, “that L.A. used to work me like a Hebrew slave and if I had to do it all again, I would.”
So the state paid Armstrong $750,000. The city of Greensboro paid him another $6.42 million to settle a federal civil suit. Armstrong moved to Alamance County.
LaMonte changed his allegiance from Carolina to Duke (who could blame him?). He traveled to NBA playoff games to see his favorite pro team, the Golden State Warriors.
But he also supported efforts to help others who were wrongly convicted. He became a substance abuse counselor. And he was paying off other people’s layaways at Walmart as recently as December.
As for why bad things happened to this good (if, like the rest of us, imperfect) man? You can count the reasons: A deeply flawed justice system that shortchanges the black and the poor. Shoddy work by police detectives in Greensboro and by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Yes, there were the settlements. But money can’t buy time. And what price do you put on 17 years of a man’s life anyway? Still, LaMonte Armstrong refused to be bitter.
Somehow he rose above it all with courage and resolve and, always, his “sticky joy” for life.