The 62-year-old peer-support counselor had just finished up a graveyard shift at Freedom House, the recovery center he’s worked at since 2012. He was tired but intrigued as he approached the counter.
The clerks were engrossed in The News & Observer’s story of Joseph Sledge, whose murder conviction 34 years ago seems to be unraveling with recanted testimony and new DNA evidence bolstering his claims of innocence.
“I looked at the clerks, and I said, ‘I know that man,’” Armstrong recounted. “‘You know how I know him, because the same thing happened to me.’”
Armstrong spent 17 years in prison, some of it with Sledge.
Armstrong was wrongfully convicted of murdering an N.C. A&T University professor found dead in her Greensboro home in 1988. He maintained his innocence throughout — from the first time Greensboro police interviewed him to a Guilford County jury returning 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 last June with a vacated conviction.
But it was not until March 18 — the day after his conversation with the drugstore clerks — that Armstrong learned the murder case against him was dismissed. He no longer faced the possibility of another trial or another wrongful conviction. He finally was free — and overwhelmed.
“It’s been real up and down,” Armstrong said recently while waiting outside one of the many law school seminars he’s participated in since his release.
Happiness. Anger. Relief. Disbelief. A whirl of conflicting emotions occupy the mind of the father and grandfather builds a new life outside prison walls.
Armstrong’s case is another in a string of well-publicized wrongful convictions highlighting flaws in North Carolina’s justice system.
Defense attorneys are using it as a case study for how prosecutors and police should approach innocence investigations – with a healthy dose of skepticism but also a pursuit of the truth.
“We cannot stress that enough,” said Theresa Newman, a Duke law professor and co-director of the clinic that brought Armstrong’s case forward for reinvestigation. “This is a blueprint for how things should work.”
It was Greensboro Detective Michael Matthews, a 45-year-old investigator described as “a cop’s cop,” who 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.
A beloved victim
Ernestine Compton, a beloved college professor at N.C. A&T, was found dead in her Greensboro home on July 12, 1988. She had been stabbed twice in the chest and strangled by an electrical cord.
The longtime faculty member in the physical education department was a fixture in her neighborhood, known as a woman willing to loan money to those who came asking. She kept track of who got what with notes on her refrigerator.
Armstrong knew Compton. His mother was her friend, and Compton had taught him when he was a student at A&T. He told police he had done odd jobs for her, mowing the lawn, washing the car and driving her to the grocery store on weekends.
But he told investigators he had never borrowed money from her and he had not been in her house for months before her death.
Armstrong was born in New York but had moved with his family to Greensboro when he was a boy. He went to public schools there and was a graduate of Dudley High School, where he did well academically and athletically.
He went to A&T, and played basketball, marched in the band and took part in a fraternity as he worked toward his degree in physical education. After his graduation in 1975, Armstrong did a teaching stint at a school in White Plains, N.Y.
He returned to Greensboro and had a job for a while teaching at several public schools. In the summers, he worked as an assistant director of the Sports Day Camp at Dudley High, his alma mater.
By 1981, Armstrong had switched to selling cars.
Though he had success, earning several salesman-of-the-month awards, he began using heroin and his life took a downward spiral. A series of offenses followed over the next decade, including drug possession, larceny, resisting arrest and assault.
A possible suspect
It was two weeks after Compton was found dead that Greensboro investigators turned their attention to Armstrong as a possible suspect.
There never was any physical evidence linking him to the killing.
He became a focus only after a Crime Stoppers call. A man Armstrong saw occasionally on the street – Charles Blackwell – called the tip line in search of reward money.
Blackwell falsely claimed to have dropped Armstrong off at Compton’s house, an accusation he has since recanted. That fabrication put Blackwell at the murder scene, too.
During the initial investigation, Armstrong was interviewed by police and recorded by Blackwell, who was acting as an informant for investigators. But Armstrong never provided any information showing him to have knowledge of the crime.
Armstrong agreed to take a polygraph, but a lawyer representing him on a different matter advised against that.
After an initial flurry of activity, the investigation was dormant for almost six years. Then in March 1994, investigators decided to charge Blackwell with murder.
Armstrong was charged then, too.
As part of an agreement with prosecutors, Blackwell agreed to testify against Armstrong and plead guilty himself to a lesser offense.
To this day, Armstrong marvels at the gall of Blackwell to manufacture a case and implicate himself in the process.
“He calls in and puts himself at the crime scene,” Armstrong said recently, shaking his head. “Who does that?”
Prosecutors presented Armstrong two plea deals before trial. But he rejected their offers of sentences of 20 or 15 years in exchange for a guilty plea.
Armstrong thought the system would work and he would be found not guilty of the accusations against him.
A name on a list?
In 1994, before prosecutors were required to open their files to defense lawyers, Armstrong said Greensboro investigators withheld evidence crucial to his claims of innocence.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors contended that Armstrong had gone to Compton’s house to borrow money and become enraged when she refused. Prosecutors told jurors over and over that Armstrong’s name was on a debtor’s list on Compton’s refrigerator, but no tally with his name on it was ever produced.
“I kept nudging my lawyer, saying, ‘Make them show the notes, I want to see the notes,’” Armstrong recalled recently. “But he never did.”
Armstrong said he went numb when the jury came back, convicting him of first-degree murder, a crime that carries an automatic life sentence.
In prison, Armstrong 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, did he receive an infraction.
Armstrong was a prolific letter writer, as are many prisoners. He kept in touch with family and reached out to the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, an organization that receives nearly 1,000 inmate inquires a year and carries an active load of about 130 cases.
The center referred Armstrong’s case to the Duke Law Innocence Project. The law school’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic took on the case after an initial investigation showed his claim of innocence to be plausible.
A new investigation
As law students investigated the case, pulling out court files, knocking on doors, talking with people, Howard Neumann, an assistant Guilford County district attorney, and Matthews, the Greensboro detective, began to open their files and reconsider the evidence.
Matthews, the grandson of a Burlington police chief, grew up in Winston-Salem when another high-profile wrongful conviction was making the news. Darryl Hunt spent 18 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of murdering and raping a Winston-Salem newspaper copy editor, before DNA evidence exonerated him and implicated someone else.
Though investigators often hear claims of innocence or injustice when investigating a crime, Matthews said he thinks it’s the police department’s responsibility to weigh those possibilities.
“If somebody’s been sentenced to life in prison,” Matthews said, “then we as a police department shouldn’t have anything to hide.”
Newman, a Duke law professor since 1990 who also serves as associate director of the Duke Law School Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, tries to work through prosecutors and law enforcement officers when pursuing what seem to be credible claims of innocence.
A team of law students working with Newman, defense attorney David Pishko of Winston-Salem and James Coleman, another Duke law professor involved with the Innocence Project, found recordings that raise questions about the informant and witness statements from people who saw Compton alive after the time that prosecutors claimed Armstrong had killed her. None of that had been turned over to Armstrong’s trial attorney.
Newman began drafting a motion seeking a new trial.
The prosecutor, Neumann, said he would not oppose a hearing on the request. So Matthews, a dogged investigator, decided to review the police file in preparation for a hearing that had been set for September 2012.
“When I’m looking at an older case, I sort of have to wipe the slate clean and not prejudge what was done before,” Matthews said. “I’m not afraid of what I’ll find. I want the truth.”
He used new tools to examine old evidence. He had six sets of prints from the crime scene, none of which matched Armstrong.
And when he scanned a palm print found near Compton’s head into a new machine, he hit upon information that sent him to the prosecutor’s office. The palm print matched a man who was on an early list of suspects – a man who was convicted of killing his father after the Compton homicide, served time for second-degree murder and been killed in a car wreck several years after his release.
‘A new avenue’
A further search of the old evidence revealed a note that Compton had written to the man, telling him he owed her $15 and she was calling in the loan.
“My thought was this definitely opened up a new avenue in this case that we needed to look at,” Matthews said.
Neumann contacted Newman at Duke, and the hearing was moved up to June 2012.
Judge Joseph Turner ordered Armstrong’s release, pending a new trial, and the man who managed to stay centered and hopeful throughout his ordeal was suddenly back in the free world again.
Armstrong, whose college degree, teaching experience and counseling jobs prepared him better than many for a return to freedom, was suddenly making to-do lists. He needed a Social Security card, a job, a home, new technology skills and transportation.
He lives in Chapel Hill now. He has a job and is taking classes to improve his standing in the counseling field.
He is in touch with his family – his daughter, who was not yet 7 when he went to prison, and his son, who was playing college football at the time.
Armstrong plays basketball on Tuesdays at a Chapel Hill park if he’s not slowed by a back injury. He is an avid newspaper reader and a regular speaker about the imperfections of the justice system.
Since his release, he has gone back behind bars several times to offer advice to those still on the inside struggling to beat addiction and substance abuse.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is give these guys hope,” Armstrong said. “I tell them ‘If I can do this, you can.’”