On July 12, 1988, 57-year-old Ernestine Compton, a professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, was found murdered in her home in Greensboro, North Carolina. She had been stabbed four times in the chest and strangled with an electrical cord.
Police recovered two bloody knives, a broken knife blade, hair and fiber samples, and bloody articles of the victim’s clothing. The evidence was sent to the FBI crime laboratory for analysis.
Two weeks later, Charles Blackwell, a longtime police informant and convicted felon, called Crime Stoppers and suggested that police interview 38-year-old LaMonte Armstrong, a former student of Compton’s whose family had been friendly with the victim for many years. At the time, police considered Blackwell a habitual liar, but they chose to follow his tip and use him later in their investigative efforts to implicate Armstrong.
Armstrong grew up in Greensboro and had graduated from the university where Compton taught. He became a school teacher and moved to New York. After several years, he returned to teach in Greensboro and then switched careers, becoming a successful car salesman. But beginning in about 1981, Armstrong started using heroin, resulting in a series of arrests for larceny, possession of narcotics, resisting arrest and assault.
Police interviewed Armstrong by telephone and he said he had known Compton for about 23 years, but had not been inside the victim’s home for many years. Armstrong said that several years earlier, he had performed odd jobs for Compton, who lived down the street from Armstrong's family.
Armstrong told detectives that Blackwell had been calling him and asking about the case, but he told Blackwell he knew nothing about it. In fact, Blackwell was surreptitiously calling on behalf of police to see if Armstrong would incriminate himself—which Armstrong did not do.
Eight months after the murder, the FBI reported that none of the evidence from the crime scene could be linked to Blackwell or Armstrong.
The investigation then went dormant. In 1992, police asked the crime lab to make a comparison of latent palm prints and fingerprints found in the home to Christopher Bernard Caviness, who was in prison after being convicted of the January 1989, murder of his father in Greensboro, but the analyst reported no identification was made.
In 1994, detectives renewed their interest in the case. Blackwell had given a statement shortly after the murder, when he was assisting police in the investigation, saying that Armstrong asked to borrow money from him and he refused. Blackwell said that at Armstrong’s request, he drove him to a pay phone where Armstrong made a call and then jogged up the street. Blackwell said Armstrong returned 45 minutes later, breathing heavily, and that he had cash and a women’s watch.
In March 1994, authorities located Blackwell in prison, where he was serving time for an unrelated conviction, and charged him with the murder. Over time, Blackwell’s story about the crime had become increasingly more detailed, and his final statement during the original investigation said he had been in Compton’s house but fled when Armstrong began struggling with her. To avoid the murder charge, Blackwell agreed to plead guilty to being an accessory to murder and to testify that Armstrong committed the murder. He was sentenced to five years in prison, which he thought was going to be served at the same time as his unrelated sentence, but instead it was made consecutive, adding five years on to his incarceration.
Armstrong was arrested on April 14, 1994 and charged with the murder. He rejected two offers to plead guilty in exchange for sentences of 20 and 15 years, consistently maintaining his innocence.
By the time Armstrong went on trial in August 1995, Blackwell had written letters to both Armstrong and Harold Murdock, a lawyer in the Greensboro branch of the NAACP, recanting his implication of Armstrong and saying that he lied in order to get payment from Crime Stoppers.
Nevertheless, Blackwell was the star witness for the prosecution at Armstrong’s trial. He would later say that he testified because he was told by detectives that he would face a murder charge alone unless he implicated Armstrong.
Blackwell’s testimony at trial was his sixth different version of the crime. He said he and Armstrong went to Compton’s home on the evening of July 9, 1988, to borrow money to buy drugs. He said that Compton refused to loan Armstrong money and pointed to a “debtors list” on her refrigerator which included Armstrong’s name. Blackwell said a fight broke out and that Armstrong grabbed a cord from the top of the refrigerator, at which point Blackwell fled. This was the first time Blackwell had mentioned the cord and he did so only after being prompted by the prosecutor and although he had already described the crime five times previously.
The defense attempted to show that Blackwell was lying, presenting the letters he had written in which he said he only implicated Armstrong for the money.
Blackwell told the jury that he fabricated that story because he was angry at one of the Greensboro detectives and wanted to embarrass him.
Three other men testified: Timothy McCorkle, W. Dwight Blockem, and William Earl Davis. McCorkle became involved in the case when he wrote a letter to detectives from prison, where he was beginning a 25-year sentence for armed robbery. McCorkle said he was painting a house near the victim’s home on the day of the crime and had talked to Blackwell and Armstrong after he saw them leave the victim’s home.
All three men were placed in the same holding cell in the courthouse while they waited to testify and Blackwell was also in the cell for part of the time.
Blockem told police that while he was awaiting trial on a drug charge, he was in a holding cell with Armstrong, who said that “when he did it, he was by himself.”
Davis, who was a regular informant for Greensboro police, said he was housed in the same cell with Armstrong prior to Armstrong’s trial. He testified that Armstrong admitted murdering Compton. His version was that Armstrong said he, Blackwell and several other people went to the house earlier in the day, then Armstrong and Blackwell returned later, at which point Armstrong killed her. They later sent someone back to make sure she was dead.
McCorkle, Blockem, and Davis were cross-examined about benefits they hoped to receive from Greensboro police in exchange for their testimony. McCorkle admitted that in 1986—two years before Compton was murdered—he was convicted of robbery and conspiracy based largely on the testimony of Armstrong’s brother, Kermit, and that he had been released from prison four months before Compton was killed.
A pathologist testified that based on the condition of Compton’s body, she was killed on July 9, a Saturday—the day that Blackwell said the crime occurred.
The defense called the NAACP’s Murdock, who said after receiving Blackwell’s letter, he visited Blackwell in prison. There, Blackwell said that police had spoon-fed him information about the murder and that he had never been to Compton’s house.
Several defense witnesses said Blackwell had admitted to them he concocted Armstrong’s involvement. One of them, Dolphus Cates, testified that Blackwell had admitted to him that “Mr. Armstrong didn’t have nothing to do with the charges” and that Blackwell “made it all up to get the reward money from Crime Stoppers.”
Armstrong testified in his own defense and denied committing the murder. He said he never borrowed money from Compton and that he had been about 25 miles away in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on the weekend of the killing. He also said that at one point prior to his arrest, detectives asked him to implicate Blackwell, but he refused.
The jury convicted Armstrong on August 18, 1995 and he was sentenced to life in prison. Shortly after the trial, Blockem wrote a letter to Armstrong’s attorney admitting his testimony was false, but nothing happened as a result.
After Armstrong’s conviction was upheld on appeal, he wrote to the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and his case was referred to the Duke Law Innocence Project, a student-run volunteer organization. After some investigation, Duke Law accepted the case and assigned it to students enrolled in its Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
Law students began re-investigating the case and after a time, Guilford County prosecutors and Greensboro police began opening their files and taking an interest in the re-investigation.
The files contained a wealth of evidence suggesting Armstrong’s innocence that had never been disclosed to Armstrong’s defense lawyer. This evidence included multiple witness statements to police saying that they saw Compton alive after July 9 and before her body was discovered on July 12—which cast doubt on testimony from Blackwell and the pathologist, who both said the murder occurred on July 9.
The police had failed to disclose that they paid Blackwell $200 for his work in attempting to implicate Armstrong. The police had also failed to disclose telephone conversations that they had arranged between Blackwell and Armstrong, in which Armstrong repeatedly denied involvement in the murder.
Investigators discovered the “debtors’ lists” from Compton’s refrigerator and none of them bore Armstrong’s name—another contradiction of Blackwell’s testimony. And they discovered a statement to police suggesting an alternative suspect—which also could have helped the defense.
In 2010, Blackwell recanted his trial testimony and said the testimony had been completely fabricated.
In December 2011, the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic filed a motion seeking to overturn Armstrong’s conviction. In March 2012, the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office agreed to an evidentiary hearing. In preparation for the hearing, the prosecution sent the latent prints collected at the crime scene to be checked once again with more sophisticated technology than had been available two decades earlier.
This time, a palm print recovered from the door frame directly above where Compton was found was matched to Christopher Bernard Caviness, the man police had asked for a comparison to back in 1992.
Caviness had been convicted of murdering his father six months after Compton was killed. He was released from prison in 2007 and was killed in a car accident in June 2010.
On June 29, 2012, the motion for new trial was granted and Armstrong was released from prison on his own recognizance after spending nearly 17 years in prison. The Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic and the prosecution jointly initiated additional DNA testing of the evidence. When the tests failed to link Armstrong to the crime, the prosecution dismissed the murder charge on March 18, 2013.
– Maurice Possley