"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

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Wrongfully convicted man is free at last after 17 years

By Anne Blythe __ This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

—  When Lamonte Armstrong stopped in a drug store early one Sunday last month, he watched curiously as the clerks hovered over the pages of a newspaper.

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.’”

New York man freed 23 years after wrongful murder conviction

NEW YORK |          Thu Mar 21, 2013 6:16pm EDT        

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York man convicted of killing a Hasidic rabbi more than two decades ago was freed on Thursday after his conviction was vacated as a miscarriage of justice.

David Ranta, 58, spent 23 years in prison until the conviction integrity unit of the Brooklyn district attorney's office concluded after a year-long investigation that the case against him was fatally flawed.

 
 

"Sir, you are free to go," acting state Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik told Ranta at a Brooklyn courthouse as relatives, including his daughter who was an infant when he was jailed, erupted in tears and shouts of joy.

Prosecutors had joined Ranta's defense attorney, Pierre Sussman, in asking Cyrulnik to vacate Ranta's conviction "in the interest of justice.""The evidence no longer establishes the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," said Assistant District Attorney John O'Mara, the chief of the conviction integrity unit.Ranta was found guilty of killing Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger on February 8, 1990, and stealing his car in an effort to flee following an unsuccessful attempt to rob a diamond courier. The crime rattled the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn and prompted calls for swift justice."As I said from the beginning, I had nothing to do with this case," Ranta told reporters following the hearing.

The case is the latest in a string of wrongful convictions that have gained media attention in recent months, creating a headache for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who faces a rare primary challenge in September as he seeks a seventh four-year term.On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked Hynes's office from retrying a man, William Lopez, whose 1989 murder conviction was overturned earlier this year after questions arose about witness accounts.

In 2010, a federal judge freed another man, Jabbar Collins, after he spent 16 years in prison for allegedly shooting his landlord. U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry concluded that Brooklyn prosecutors had relied on false testimony and threatened a witness and faulted Hynes's office for continuing to deny any wrongdoing.

In an interview on Thursday, Hynes defended his office's record and said he created the conviction integrity unit in 2011 to investigate legitimate claims of innocence."It's a very, very difficult thing to know that someone is in jail who should not be in jail," he said.

FAULTY LINEUP; Ranta is the third defendant freed as a result of the conviction integrity unit, which currently is examining 14 other cases, mostly homicides. It began looking into the Ranta case after Hynes spoke about the unit to a gathering of defense lawyers, including Michael Baum, the lawyer who represented Ranta at trial. Baum asked the office to examine Ranta's case.Investigators soon found that a key witness, a teenager named Menachem Lieberman who picked Ranta out of a lineup, had since recanted. He said he did not recognize Ranta but selected him after a detective told him to "pick the guy with the big nose."A jail house snitch and his girlfriend, both of whom fingered Ranta as the shooter, also admitted to prosecutors that they made up their story to secure a favorable plea deal.

Ranta had long argued that the case against him was troubled, but he failed in two appeals, with prosecutors opposed to his motion in both instances.Chaim Weinberger, the courier who was the target of the failed robbery, had testified at Ranta's trial that Ranta was not the man who tried to steal his gemstones. In 1995, at a hearing to consider one of Ranta's appeals, Theresa Astin testified that her husband, Joseph Astin, had committed the murder.Astin died in April 1990, two months after the crime occurred. Nevertheless, the evidence against Ranta was deemed sufficient until prosecutors reopened the case last year.

"As soon as we reached that conclusion, there was no point in keeping David Ranta in jail another day," Hynes said.At Ranta's brief court appearance on Thursday, Cyrulnik apologized to Ranta for his years in prison.Mr. Ranta, to say that I'm sorry for what you have endured would be an understatement and grossly inadequate, but I say it to you anyway," the judge said.As he left the courthouse, Ranta carried a purple mesh bag with the belongings he had gathered from his prison cell only hours earlier. Asked whether there was anything he wanted to do now that he was free, he smiled and said, "Yeah. Get the hell out of here, maybe."

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Andrew Hay, Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)


 

Judge tosses 1991 capital murder conviction, life sentences, in Newport News case

 

 
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The jury at the 1991 trial spared Boyce the death penalty. But until Tuesday, Boyce, now 42, was destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

"Boyce's convictions and sentence are VACATED," Spencer's order said, according to an entry to the federal court's online docket. "Unless the Commonwealth retries (Boyce) within 120 days," the state must set him free.

Before Tuesday, the paperwork from both sides in the petition for a writ of habeas corpus had been on Spencer's desk for more than 11 months. There had been no movement on the court's docket during that time, and no indication on how he would rule.

But in the end, Spencer granted Boyce's motion for summary judgment, meaning the judge determined he had enough information to make a ruling even without further hearings or arguments. He denied a motion by the state Attorney General's office to dismiss Boyce's petition.

Along with his order, Spencer issued an opinion spelling out the reasons for his ruling. But it wasn't posted at the court's online docket, and Boyce's lawyers had not received the opinion by press time Tuesday.

Crucial evidence

Spencer's ruling comes nearly three years after a state judge in Norfolk held an extensive hearing in the then-20-year-old case.

After that hearing, Circuit Court Judge John R. Doyle III ruled that a Polaroid picture crucial to Boyce's defense was never shared with Boyce's trial attorney. But Doyle said the fact that the issue wasn't raised within the requisite 21 days after the trial means nothing can be done about it.

"The court finds that the commonwealth unwittingly suppressed material exculpatory evidence, and compounded this error by presenting demonstrably false testimony touching on the same issue," Doyle wrote in the 2010 ruling. "However, the court finds that Boyce's failure to raise the issues" at or soon after trial "disallows him from seeking relief."

The Polaroid — showing Boyce with short or medium hair — was snapped by a Newport News police employee when Boyce was brought into the police station the morning Askew was found dead.

Doyle wrote that Boyce's lawyer could have used that picture to counter the state's tying Boyce to a motel clerk's trial testimony that a suspicious-looking man at the motel that night had "shoulder length hair."

Instead, a Newport News police technician made that connection, testifying that Boyce had "almost shoulder length" hair when he was brought in.

 
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"No reasonable person could possibly look at the photograph and describe Boyce's hair as almost shoulder length," Doyle wrote. As such, he wrote, the Polaroid "would have undermined the (state's) case against Boyce." But, he said, Boyce needed to bring it up within 21 days of the trial under Virginia's procedural rules.

Since Boyce was looking at the camera when Polaroid was being taken, Doyle said, he should have remembered it.

That ruling was later upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court.

A long fight

After decades of fighting his conviction in state courts to no avail, Boyce filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. That's essentially an argument that the state of Virginia violated his constitutional rights and does not have the right to hold him.

A key dispute at the federal level was whether Virginia's procedural rules should have prevented Boyce from making his claim, said one of Boyce's lawyers, David Koropp, a Chicago attorney with the firm Winston & Strawn.

"We argued that his claim was not filed too late, because the state didn't turn over the photograph until 2008," or 18 years after the crime, Koropp said.

Koropp has handled the habeas case in recent years with Elizabeth Papez, a partner in Winston & Strawn's Washington, D.C., office, and other lawyers with the firm.

Winston & Strawn has pursued the case pro bono for more than two years with the Richmond firm of Hunton & Williams. Before Winston & Strawn, Boyce was represented by both Hunton & Williams and Howrey LLP, which had led the case pro bono for more than six years after being referred to it by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

"I'm overwhelmingly happy for Mr. Boyce," Koropp said. "It's the most satisfying thing that a lawyer can do — to help an innocent man win his freedom."

On Tuesday afternoon, Koropp tried to reach Boyce at the Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville, but was unable to make contact because of prison rules.


 

Freedom after nearly 25 years of wrongful imprisonment

60 Minutes Report

A wrongfully convicted man whose prosecutor is now being investigated for withholding evidence is calling for greater accountability of prosecutors nationwide.

"I don't have a lot of things really driving me. But one of the things is, I don't want this to happen to anybody else," Michael Morton tells 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan. "Revenge, I know, doesn't work. But accountability works... it's the social glue, in a way. Because if you're not... accountable, then you can do anything."

In his first interview since he was exonerated, Morton tells Logan about his tragic incarceration and what he and others say may be a broader weakness in the justice system. Logan's report will be broadcast Sunday, March 25 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Pointing to other cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct throughout the country, Morton says more needs to be done to make sure prosecutors disclose evidence favorable to the defense and are held accountable when they don't. "If you did those things... the sort of stuff where you were hiding evidence from a homicide investigation, they'd lock you up in a minute," Morton tells Logan.

By law, prosecutors are required to tell defense lawyers about evidence favorable to the accused. But studies have shown that prosecutors are hardly ever criminally charged and rarely disciplined by the state bar for serious error or misconduct. The Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors cannot be sued in civil court because of their legal work, even if they withhold evidence.

In 1986, Morton was living with his wife and 3-year-old son near Austin, Texas. He came home from work one day and discovered his wife had been murdered and he was the prime suspect. Though he had no prior criminal record, he was wrongly convicted of the crime and spent 25 years in prison until he was exonerated by DNA testing last year.

Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson prosecuted Morton. It was only recently that Morton's attorneys Barry Scheck and Nina Morrison of The Innocence Project and Houston attorney John Raley discovered exculpatory police reports in Anderson's file from the original trial. One report contained Morton's 3-year-old son's eyewitness account of the murder in which he says his father was not there. Another report describes a neighbor's sighting of a van and a strange man near the murder scene. Says Scheck, "If they had been revealed, and the defense had seen them, Michael Morton would have been acquitted." Morton's original trial lawyers say Anderson never told them about these reports.

Anderson, now a district judge in Williamson County, has admitted a mistake was made, but denied any misconduct. He turned down a request to be interviewed by 60 Minutes. An independent judge recently initiated a special criminal inquiry into Anderson's handling of the case.

Scheck says there have been a number of high profile cases which raise questions about prosecutors' actions and are evidence of the need for added safeguards and scrutiny. "This is a very important moment. We've had a whole series of cases in this country that have focused attention on this issue," Scheck says.

Locked up in maximum security prisons for nearly 25 years, Morton left a courtroom a free man last October. "We stepped out of the courtroom and it was a beautiful sunny day. The sun felt so good on my face, on my skin," he tells Logan, who asks if he had ever felt the sun before. He replies, "I'd felt the sun, but I hadn't felt free sun."

'Innocent' man released from prison after 13 years

A California man was freed from custody Tuesday afternoon after serving more than 13 years in prison for a crime a federal judge and the California Innocence Project say he didn’t commit.

Federal Judge Suzanne Segal ordered the release of Daniel Larsen, who was convicted in 1999 of carrying a concealed knife, a third strike for the twice-convicted burglar. Police alleged he had tossed the 6-inch blade under a car after a brawl in a Northridge bar.

Larsen has maintained his innocence throughout the years and eventually got the California Innocence Project to take up his cause.

“You’re being given a rare opportunity here," Segal said. "I hope you use this opportunity well. Don’t violate the trust the court has put in you.”

Bailiffs unlocked Segal's shackles as he smiled broadly and his family watched, sharing tears of joy.

Although a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge ordered his release in 2010, he had languished in prison.

The California Innocence Project found several witnesses –- including a former chief of police -– who stated that they saw a different man throw the knife away, not Larsen.

Larsen’s defense attorney during his trial never called a witness in his defense. That attorney was eventually disbarred.

The Innocence Project filed an appeal under habeas corpus that eventually reached the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That judge found Larsen to be “actually innocent,” a legal term that allows Larsen to be released from prison while his case works its way through the courts.

The judge found Larsen was not given an adequate defense. The state attorney general’s office is fighting Larsen’s release on technicalities related to the filing of his appeals and maintains he is guilty.

It is unclear whether he will be re-tried. He may also be re-sentenced under Proposition 36, which amended the three-strikes law to require that the third strike be a serious or violent felony.

 

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