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28 years after murder conviction, Johnny Small celebrates 1st full day of freedom

Posted September 9

Johnny Small soaked up plenty of sunshine and got dozens of hugs Friday as he celebrated his first full day of freedom in nearly three decades, but the future is still unclear for Small, who spent the bulk of his life in prison for a 1998 murder he says he didn't commit.

What is clear is that Small, 43, won't be retried for the murder of Wilmington tropical fish shop owner Pam Dreher.

A Superior Court judge ruled in August that there wasn't enough evidence to convict Small in the case, and New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David dropped all charges against Small Thursday night.

The announcement turned a small rally that had been planned for Friday afternoon at the New Hanover County Courthouse into a emotion-filled celebration for Small and his supporters.

"I've been in a cage for 28 years, so it's going to take some getting used to," Small said of his newfound freedom.

The first thing Small did after being released was visit his grandparents' graves. Then he came back to the courthouse, where supporters were waiting with signs and plenty of support.

"It's been overwhelming. I'm glad. I'm thankful they've supported me all these years," Small said.

Small said those people were some of the ones who kept him believing he would one day be released from prison. They gave him hope, he said.

Attorney Chris Mumma, who works with North Carolina's Center on Actual Innocence, turned Small's hope into action by moving the case forward through the system.

"I love Chris. She's my angel. Nobody else believed me. She did," Small said.

At a hearing in 2012, all of Mumma's work and Small's belief came to a head when his teenage friend, David Bollinger, testified that he was pressured by police to testify at the 1988 trial that both of them were at the crime scene.

Bollinger said a Wilmington homicide investigator made up the story, and his grandfather pressured him to lie on the witness stand. When Bollinger came forward and recanted a few years ago, it led Mumma and the Center on Actual Innocence to pursue a new hearing for Small.

"There's no way anyone could look at the evidence coming out of that hearing and say that Johnny Small should be in prison," Mumma said. "The damage to someone who is in prison for something they didn't do is much greater than when someone is in prison for something they did do."

The process of rebuilding Johnny Small's life started with Friday's small rally, and it appears he'll have all the help he needs, even from people who have been in his shoes.

Dwayne Dail, who spent 19 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, said he intends to help Small.

"I will be here, and wherever he is, and try to help him realize it's not his fault, and it takes time," Dail said.

Small said his first two goals are to get a driver's license and a job. He'll also spend time trying to learn about some of the technological advances he's missed – possibly starting with a cellphone.

He also said he hopes his case and others like it can bring some changes to the criminal justice system.

"They need to look more into stuff before they just jump the gun," he said. "There's a whole lot more than what people say. Anybody can get up there and say you did this and they're going to lock you up. How is that right?"

Small said he sympathizes with Dreher's family and hopes authorities can make progress in the investigation.

"My heart has always went out to them," he said. "Whoever done it, I hope they find them."

David said Thursday that the DA's office welcomes any information that could bring closure to the case.

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