When five police cars pulled in front of LaMonte Armstrong’s house, he looked out the window and wondered who was in trouble. A moment later, his mother called him into the living room, where police officers were waiting. They took Armstrong down to the police station and put him into an interrogation room where he was questioned about the murder of Ernestine Compton, a university professor who had been killed two weeks before.
Armstrong had known Professor Compton well—they lived in the same neighborhood, she was close friends with his mother, and he had taken her classes at North Carolina A&T State University years before—but all he knew about her murder was what he heard on the local news. “If I hear anything,” he told the detectives questioning him, “you’ll be the first to know. Because I want to see whoever did this locked up in prison. Or on death row.” In 1995, LaMonte Armstrong was charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Ernestine Compton. “This was the most crushing and devastating blow I have ever been dealt in my life,” LaMonte says.
In prison, LaMonte started to question his own innocence. He had grown up in a family that trusted the government—his father was a government employee for 45 years—and he always assumed the system worked. He started thinking, “Did I do this? Perhaps I did do it,” he says. “Everybody is pointing their finger saying I did it. The jury said I did it. Wow. Maybe I did it.” And then, he says, “I was sitting on that bed one night and it seemed like someone just tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘What in the world is wrong with you?’ It was like someone was actually in the room with me saying, ‘You didn’t do this.’ I stood up and looked in the mirror, then I went back to the bed, sat back down, and said, ‘Oh my gosh. I’ve have let these fools trick me into thinking I done this. I didn’t do this crime. I didn’t know anything about it.’ That is when the fight began.”
LaMonte Armstrong started writing to lawyers, judges, newspapers, and courts, trying to get access to legal documents and establish his innocence. For years, he did this—hand writing letters over and over, spending all of his money on envelopes and stamps. In 2006, Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic heard about Armstrong, and contacted him about taking on his case.
With the help of volunteer attorneys and law students, LaMonte Armstrong’s case was reopened. DNA from a handprint left at the crime scene was tested, the results pointed to a man who had been convicted for the murder of his own his father soon after Professor Compton’s death. Armstrong’s conviction was overturned. LaMonte Armstong walked out of prison in June 29, 2012, after serving 17 years. The presiding judge looked at Armstrong and said, “Today, I know we are doing the right thing.” He says he survived prison by focusing on helping other people, and he continues to do that today. He is not, however, without fear. “You know,” he says, “this court system that we have is broken, and if they can put me in prison the way they put me in prison, with no evidence whatsoever, can they do it again? Why not?”