The way things are done

It took 17 years and a collaboration between the Guilford County District Attorney, the Greensboro Police Department and Duke Law School to free LaMonte Armstrong after he was wrongfully convicted in 1995 of the murder of NC A&T University professor Ernestine Compton.

We’ve seen a lot of stories like this in North Carolina over the last decade, most notably Darryl Hunt, who was freed in 2004 after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Winston-Salem Journal copy editor Deborah Sykes. And after the fallout from the SBI scandal settles, we could see dozens if not hundreds more.

In 2010, an audit by NC Attorney General Roy Cooper revealed that the State Bureau of Investigation — the top law enforcement agency in the state — had been obfuscating data from its serology lab to favor prosecution in some 230 cases, three of which, it was later revealed, resulted in executions of wrongfully convicted men.

That the team that freed Armstrong freed Armstrong worked in concert to see justice done speaks well of all parties involved, including Greensboro police Chief Ken Miller and Guilford County DA Doug Henderson, who get well earned name-checks here. It’s a different story over in Forsyth County, where Kalvin Michael Smith was convicted in 1997  Smith was convicted in 1997 of the beating of Jill Marker at the Silk Plant Forest store. Like Armstrong and Hunt before him, Smith was convicted not on physical evidence, but testimony — this from Eugene Littlejohn, who records reflect had little or no knowledge of the details of the case. Littlejohn gave four different accounts of the night in question, leading retired FBI Assistant Director Christopher Swecker, who reviewed the case earlier this year, to conclude, “Eugene Littlejohn would say whatever he thought the interviewer wanted him to say.”

Swecker, who previously had helped NC Attorney General Roy Cooper with the SBI investigation, tore the state’s case against Smith to shreds, taking particular issue with Detective Don Williams’ handling of the case, calling his investigation “seriously flawed and woefully incomplete.” Swecker concluded that at the very least, Smith deserves a new trial.

But unlike the circumstances in Guilford County, the Forsyth County DA’s office and the Winston-Salem Police Department are sticking to their guns on this one, pushing back against claims of injustice and defending the actions of the departments. Former DA Tom Keith couched the conviction in racial terms. His hand-picked successor, Jim O’Neill, told the Winston-Salem Journal in 2011: “It is sad that when the court system does not cede to the demands of a small but vocal few, they would stoop to hurl the most vile and untrue slurs.”

So while Guilford County law enforcement worked toward the truth — even if it meant besmirching its own processes and personnel, in Forsyth those entrusted with seeking justice seem to actively suppress it.

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