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.