Friday, September 16, 2016

Wrongful conviction an injustice that our system must correct

How does it feel to live a nightmare, locked away for nearly a quarter of your life for something you didn’t do?

Ask LaMonte Armstrong.

After spending nearly 17 years in prison for the 1988 murder of an N.C. A&T professor, the 66-year-old Greensboro native was freed in 2012. Armstrong had maintained his innocence from day one. With help from the Duke University School of Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic, he finally got to prove it.

Another Greensboro man, Damen Vega, 50, spent 27 years in a prison for the murder of a woman that he also insists he didn’t commit. As the News & Record’s Taft Wireback reported last week in a series of stories that was, at once, fascinating and deeply disturbing, the cases of Armstrong and Vega intersect in at least three key respects:

• The victims — A&T professor Ernestine Compton and an accounting director, Carolyn Sue Lundy — were both middle-aged African American women who were strangled to death. They lived within two miles of each other and were murdered within 11 weeks of one another in 1988.

• No physical evidence tied either man to the alleged crime.

• And a third man may have been the actual murderer in both cases.

In Armstrong’s case, a computer analysis identified palm prints at the scene of the murder as belonging to a man named Chris Caviness. After being freed on parole, thanks also to the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, Vega may have used similar evidence to prove his innocence. If it still existed. The Greensboro Police Department either lost or destroyed his case file.

There were other missteps: In Armstrong’s case, police relied heavily on the dubious accounts of jailhouse informants. One of the informants, Charles “Tippy Toes” Blackwell, told police he saw Armstrong kill Compton. When he attempted to retract what he had said, Blackwell claimed later he was told by detectives that they would pin the murder on him if he didn’t stick to his story.

Police also held back secretly recorded conversations in which Blackwell attempted to coax Armstrong into admitting he killed Compton. But Armstrong could be heard on the recordings denying that he committed the crime.

As for Caviness, he was paroled in 2007 after serving 20 years in prison for killing his father with a lead pipe and a knife in 1989.

Did he also murder Lundy? We may never know. Caviness died in a car crash in 2010.

What we do know is that this tangle of tragedy and botched police work shows how the system can make mistakes that not only fail to bring the right people to justice but convict the wrong people.

To their credit, the Greensboro police and Guilford County District Attorney’s Office helped the Wrongful Convictions Clinic exonerate Armstrong. And the Greensboro Police Department has addressed many of the problems that hindered these investigations.

But the cost of those earlier sins is impossible to atone for: Seventeen years of a man’s life.

Twenty-seven years of another man’s life.

Ugly memories of prison life that are past but not forgotten.

The hard transition to freedom, which is hardly as simple as unlocking a cell and starting a new life.

There is also a price to taxpayers. The state paid Armstrong $750,000 for his wrongful conviction and the city of Greensboro has spent $271,000 defending itself against a lawsuit filed in federal court by Armstrong. That meter is still running.

Meanwhile, Vega may never be able to prove his innocence through no fault of his own.

This is what happens when justice takes shortcuts and human beings are treated as disposable means to an end. Nobody deserves the pain they’ve suffered.

Original report here

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