$6M settlement the right move for wrongful conviction

Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.

LaMonte Armstrong, although innocent, was convicted of murder and imprisoned for 17 years because of evidence contrived by Greensboro police.

He’s been free for four years, thanks to the Duke University Law School Wrongful Convictions Unit. In 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory issued a pardon of innocence. The state paid $750,000 in compensation for Armstrong’s years behind bars.

One more legal action was pending — until last week. The Greensboro City Council voted to settle Armstrong’s civil lawsuit against the city for $6.42 million.

About half that amount will be covered by insurance, but taxpayers will bear the rest of the cost. The settlement could have an impact on the property tax rate or the level of services the city will be able to provide.

Yet, it could have cost more. A jury, after hearing in detail how the murder case was developed against Armstrong, might have awarded a greater sum.

The City Council’s responsibility was twofold: To protect the taxpayers, as much as possible, from financial liability; and to offer fair compensation for wrongs done in the city’s name.

Is $6 million the right amount? There is no sure or easy answer to that question.

“We’re really happy to have this behind LaMonte,” his Chapel Hill attorney, David Rudolf, said after the settlement was announced. “But it will never compensate him adequately for what he went through. You can’t compensate him adequately for that.”

That goes beyond the 17 years in prison, the lost earnings, stolen opportunities, separation from family and friends. It was also the indignity of the investigation, the allegations, the trial. Being branded a murderer. What is the right price for that?

Armstrong was first identified as a suspect in the 1988 murder of North Carolina A&T professor Ernestine Compton by a tipster. Only years later did police actually make a circumstantial case against him, but when a key witness tried to retract testimony, detectives allegedly threatened him. Armstrong was convicted in 1995.

A palm print taken at the crime scene did not match Armstrong but in 2012 was used to identify a different man — Chris Caviness, who was convicted of another 1988 murder in Greensboro and died in 2010. If the palm print had been correctly analyzed in the first place, Armstrong might never have been charged. The state crime lab was at fault, but its mistake didn’t excuse police who built a shoddy case against Armstrong.

Taxpayers who may resent the large settlement should nevertheless be pleased that Armstrong is using his experiences to help others as a counselor in Durham. At 66, he is remarkably content and gracious.

“It seems to me that the more I continue to be of service to my fellow man and help people, the more that God continues to serve me,” he told the News & Record’s Taft Wireback last week.

The city was right to make amends for the wrong done to this man. The $6 million is going where it is owed.

Greensboro News & Record