The Cost is F’d Up - Part One Recap
Written by Brandi Abbott
Around 2015, a man named, LaMonte Armstrong sued the city of Greensboro, NC and three of its former cops after spending almost 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. On July 12th, 1988 Ernestine Compton was found murdered in her home. The crime was publicized on Crime Stoppers, and an informant with a reputation for lying called in and said Mr. Armstrong was the killer. The police followed up on his statement, but at some point he recanted this and the case went cold. By 1992, the police had reason to suspect Christopher Caveness was involved. There was palm and fingerprint evidence at the crime scene so the SBI was brought in to match it to Caveness - but it wasn’t a match. The police had never let go of the idea that Mr. Armstrong had committed the murder, and the informant changed his story again, becoming the star witness in Mr. Armstrong’s trial. In 1995, Mr. Armstrong was convicted of murdering Ernestine Compton. In 2010, the informant recanted his statement again. The cops had failed to mention he was paid $200 and received a lighter or reduced sentence for another crime. The palm print was run again and actually did match Caveness, but by then, he had died in a car crash – not total justice for the victim. But, Mr. Armstrong received some semblance of justice when he was exonerated in 2012 - and the next step was to try and be pardoned, because apparently those two things are separate. Once you’re released, you have to submit an application to the Governor to basically reprove your innocence, then you have to wait until they decide whether to pardon you or not. Thankfully, Mr. Armstrong was pardoned in 2013; which meant he could then apply to receive money that the state sets aside for exonerees. The amounts vary from state to state but in North Carolina, an exoneree can receive up to $50,000 for every year that they spent in prison… though, they cap it at 17 years.
There are people in our country who have been exonerated but not pardoned. Jess says that it makes sense that a state wouldn’t want to pardon someone as it admits culpability and they don’t want to pay someone hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mr. Armstong luckily received $750,000 from the state, but because of the severe injustice in his case, he was able to file a civil suit against the city of Greensboro and the three cops responsible for his conviction. The city hired 5 local lawyers to represent the cops in the suit, and as the trial dragged on into 2016, it was reported that the city spent $270,000 towards expenses for it. This meant that the city and state had spent over a million dollars for one wrongful conviction at that point. The city settled in 2016 and offered to pay Mr. Armstrong $6.42 million, as they should have. If someone goes to prison due to a wrongful conviction and mishandling of evidence, they obviously deserve some kind of compensation. If you’ve ever wondered where that money comes from however, the answer is that some can come from insurance but a large amount comes from taxpayers.
Priya found a report written in 2015 called “Criminal InJustice”. This report is based on California statistics, not North Carolina, as a report like this seemed unprecedented, but the situations are similar. The report included cases in California where the defendant was convicted of a felony and the conviction was reversed between the years of 1989 and 2012 and the charges were dismissed or the defendant was acquitted on retrial. They examined 692 cases in total and 607 of the cases “illuminate a dark corner in California’s criminal justice system”. The defendants in these 607 cases spent a combined total of 2,186 years in custody. Many of these defendants filed lawsuits and received settlements as a result of the errors. 58 of the 607 people filed claims asking for compensations. At the time of this report’s publication, only 14 of these claims were granted, 36 had been denied, and some were still pending, despite all 58 having been credible. A total of five million dollars was awarded to the 14 defendants, and this fee would have been much larger for taxpayers if all 58 people had been awarded compensation. Looking at all 607 cases, the report estimates that the wrongful convictions cost taxpayers $221 million for prosecution, incarceration, and settlement. The remaining cases out of the initial 692 examined are referred to in the report as group exonerations as they were cases that had multiple defendants. The most prominent of these was the 2002 Rampart Police Scandal in which a group of LA police officers admitted to falsely arresting or accusing hundreds of mostly Latinx residents of various crimes, 228 of which received civil settlements. LA paid more than 70 million dollars in settlements related to that scandal, and the total cost has been reported as between 125 million and one billion dollars. The settlement costs includes payouts to three LAPD officers who had lost their jobs over the scandal, despite having not been involved. The total cost to California taxpayers for all 692 of these cases was more than 282 million dollars. This doesn’t include the cost of people who were arrested but never convicted which adds cost to taxpayers significantly.
The money owed to Mr. Armstrong that wasn’t covered by insurance was to be paid by an increase in property taxes to Greensboro residents. Kirk Turner, who was one of two cases covered in this podcast where the accused was declared not guilty, recently won a $200,000 civil suit against the SBI. His case, however, cost the state way more than that. Greg Taylor sued and was awarded $4.6 million from the SBI. By 2013, the SBI and its insurers had paid about 16.4 million dollars between three wrongfully convicted men who spent a combined 40 years behind bars or in detention. Leslie Lincoln, the other case F’d Up covered where the accused wasn’t convicted, you may remember from episode three as having lost everything. She got a lawyer and tried to sue but the lawyer was lagging and doing nothing so she got a new lawyer. This one also dragged his feet on the issue, and ultimately the statutes of limitations ran out. Leslie suffers from PTSD and lives in section 8 housing. Jess says that her situation is more the norm than those who received millions of dollars. In 2012, when Mr. Armstrong was exonerated, there was about a year between when he was released and when he received his payout which Jess says is the case for any of the exonerated who are fortunate enough to be awarded a payout.
Priya spoke to Saundra Westervelt and Kim Cook for this episode. Saundra is a professor emerita at UNCG and Kim is a professor of sociology and criminology at UNCW. They’ve dedicated decades to studying and writing about the post-exoneration process and what happens to exonerees once they’re released. When someone is exonerated, they sometimes only receive a couple of hours notice, and have to walk out of prison in the clothes they were wearing when they went in, sometimes decades ago and with no car or transportation. Some people may be lucky enough to have someone still to pick them up or bring new clothes but for a lot of people, years in prison leads to a loss of connections in the outside world. It’s possible that an exoneree has been transferred to a prison hours away from wherever they live, assuming they even still have a home. Many people walk out of prison, finally free after spending years inside for crimes they didn’t commit and find themselves in an entirely new world with no clue of where to go or what to do. Unlike parolees, there are no programs in place to help the exonerated rejoin society. There use to be halfway houses specifically for exonerees, but over the years it became defunded. Programs like the Innocence Project or Center on Actual Innocence help the exonerees that they were working with but there are still many exonerees that weren’t working with a program like these. Exonerees can’t just pick up their cell and call an Uber or a Lyft, because they don’t have phones and may not even be aware of ride services like that. There may be a payphone outside of prisons, but one still may not know anyone’s numbers. Kim Cook told Priya that every exoneree has PTSD, but that it’s what they call Continued PTSD because it continues to happen as they’re faced with all of the challenges of the outside world. Prison takes away your ability to make decisions so sometimes even being faced with what we would consider a small decision (like which cereal to buy) can lead to a panic attack, as this happened with one of the people Kim Cook was working with.
A lot of exonerees have limited stamina from being cooped up and find it difficult to walk long distances, and they sleep on the floor because they aren’t used to having a comfortable bed. Essentially, after spending years confined to a cell with limited yard time, especially with speed of which technology and everything has evolved, everything can be overwhelming. Some exonerees give talks on what happened to them in order to try and enact change and will find themselves lost and disoriented on the way to these talks. The New York Innocence Project has two social workers who help exonerees which really should be standard. You may remember all of the milestones that Greg Taylor missed like his daughter’s wedding and graduation, and every exoneree has some version of that story. There are so many relationships and milestones that slipped away while they were in prison and coming to terms with that can be extremely difficult to say the least. In some cases, some exonerees may feel resentment for loved ones who didn’t believe they were innocent or towards people who moved on to a new relationship. To pile onto all of the depression and PTSD, is a rising feeling of bitterness over the injustice, and, in some cases, guilt for leaving their friends, and what was essentially their support system for years, behind in prison.
Priya says there were so many things she hadn’t considered and she’s not alone. I’m sure many of us thought that when someone is exonerated, that’s their happy ending and didn’t realize how many hoops they still have to jump through.
Next week F’d Up will be exploring more of the costs and aftereffects of exoneration and another fucked up case. We think that’s the end, but then… Jess tells us,
“Hey everybody…. we just wanted give you all an update about LaMonte Armstrong. We recorded this episode a little while ago, we were trying to be respectful of Mr. Armstrong’s first name and not mispronounce it. We found out recently that the people who knew him best called him L.A. One of those people was Kim Cook, she posted about him very recently, because, tragically, a couple of weeks ago - as of this airing - he passed away from cancer. We reached out to Kim to ask what she’d like to say and she gave us permission to read out what she’d written on social media: ‘There’s s deep sadness in my heart today. My friend LA has passed away. It seems like I’ve known him for a long time, and i don’t recall exactly when we first met. We hit it off right away. Every time he came to Wilmington we would meet up for a visit. We often enjoyed seeing each other at The Innocence Network conferences, and he bought me funny gifts (like a New York Yankees jacket - I’m a Boston Red Sox gal), and always made me laugh. We both joined the Board of Directors of Healing Justice before it was publicly launched. Please join me in donating to his beloved Healing Justice in his memory. Thx.’