State News

Man freed 28 years after being imprisoned for murder as teen

Posted August 11
Updated August 12

— A man convicted of murder as a teenager and imprisoned 28 years ago is luxuriating by sleeping on his cousin's living room sofa after a North Carolina judge ruled he did not get a fair trial.

Johnny Small, 43, said Thursday night that he looks forward to a hot bath and getting used to an amped-up world full of cellphones he never knew now that he's left prison after nearly three decades. After prison cots, he said he preferred the sofa in a big, open room to a private bedroom.

"There's a lot I've got to adapt to," Small said after arriving at his cousin's manufactured home just before nightfall. "I don't know how to function. I mean, when I came into it (prison) I was still a kid and in a way I still got a kid's state of mind."

Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons ruled Thursday that there was not enough evidence to justify Small's conviction for the 1988 murder of tropical fish shop owner Pam Dreher in Wilmington.

Parson's decision came after Small's teenage buddy testified this week he was pressured by police to testify at the murder trial that both were at the scene. David Bollinger says a Wilmington homicide investigator made up the story, and his grandfather pressured him to lie on the witness stand.

State attorneys argued that Small deserved neither a new trial nor to be freed from prison.

Small was given a $100,000 unsecured bond and was released late Thursday. He will be under electronic house arrest while charges are pending.

"It's terrifying. I mean, I'm happy, but I am terrified," Small said. "It's been 28 years I've been incarcerated for a crime I didn't commit. I hope justice comes through."

Small said that, while he is happy to be back with his family, the transition will not be easy.

"My heart goes out to Ms. Dreher's family, but I know I wasn't the one," Small said. "I never imagined this happening, not in 100 years."

New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said his staff plans to meet with lawyers from the state Attorney General's Office and Wilmington police to determine whether to retry the case or dismiss the charges against Small.

Chris Mumma, executive director of the nonprofit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, which handled Small's bid for a new trial, said she was cautiously optimistic about his chances for freedom.

About 150 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated in 2015, a record number, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry is a project of the University of Michigan Law School and has documented more than 1,850 such cases in the U.S.


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