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Exoneree kicks off speaker series on the death penalty, race, and innocence

In 1995, LaMonte Armstrong, a current Chapel Hill resident, was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. Almost 18 years later, in 2013, he was exonerated through the work of attorney Theresa Newman, a Duke University professor and Innocence Project faculty adviser, and her team of colleagues and law students. 

On Monday night, Armstrong and Newman shared their stories as the first installment of an eight-part speaker series covering the death penalty, innocence and race at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. Newman addressed the processes within the justice system that impact convictions, especially wrong ones. Specifically, she addressed the role that finality plays in keeping those convicted of crimes incarcerated. 

“There is a doctrine of finality that really takes hold after conviction,” Newman said. 

Armstrong’s message provided attendees with an inside look at his experience through the process of his conviction, imprisonment and exoneration. He also addressed the system that put him on death row as an innocent man. 

“They proved me innocent in court, but they could not get me out of jail,” Armstrong said. “That doesn’t make sense.” 

Armstrong called the audience to give Newman a standing ovation, giving her thanks for the freedom he has today and her work to prove the innocence of the wrongfully convicted. The admiration was mutual as Newman praised Armstrong for his work as an instructor and mentor in the prison during the nearly 18 years he served. 

"And to me, that's the name of the game," Armstrong said. "To make a difference."

Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, began the speaker series in 2010, with this year being the fourth installment. Baumgartner first brought the event to his POLI 203 class: Race, Innocence, and the End of the Death Penalty. Due to the small class size at the time, he decided it was not cost effective, and opened it up to the public and his students. This extension of his class to the public is part of an effort to allow the speakers to share their personal stories with a greater audience. 

“I think it really has a deep impact on a lot of people,” Baumgartner said. 

Baumgartner uses funds from the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professorship to put on the event. He also reaches out to different campus organizations, offering the opportunity for them to co-sponsor the event. Criminal Justice Awareness and Action was one of the co-sponsors of this year’s event. CJAA awareness chairperson, Sarah Mackenzie, worked with Baumgartner to publicize and coordinate the event in hopes that those who attend will be able to take something away from it. 

“Criminality is complicated,” Mackenzie said. “And our understanding of what a criminal is needs to be something we check and we think about pretty consistently.” 

The speaker series focuses on the instances of innocent people being convicted and sentenced to death row. The speakers that Baumgartner chooses to speak at the events are those with a direct experience with the flaws of the legal system. According to Baumgartner, bringing personal stories to the students has a more profound impact on the audience than a lecture he gives on the topic ever could. 

“This argument, or sudden discovery, that there might be innocent people on death row has really changed American public opinion and public policy about the death penalty,” Baumgartner said. 

Organizers make an effort to provide a variety of speakers from year to year, with speakers including those who have been wrongly convicted, survivors of crimes, legislators, district attorneys and prison wardens. This year’s series will put on eight speaker events in total. 

“The opportunity is to enhance your education by having a deeper personal connection to somebody that’s really lived through a nightmare,” Baumgartner said. 

This opportunity was taken advantage of by the public, as well as UNC students during Armstrong’s lecture. The experience of hearing the personal story of someone who went through something like Armstrong did was attractive to UNC student Stephanie Romero. 

“I think (the lecture) is a good human experience to have," Romero said. "I think it’s important to hear the perspective of the person because sometimes a lot of the population might think, ‘Oh that person deserves the death penalty, they committed a crime,' and then it turns out that we shouldn’t be people to judge so quickly based on certain factors.” 

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