Local News

NCCU sophomore mistakenly jailed for 'doing the right thing'

Posted February 26
Updated March 5

— A 20-year-old sophomore communications major at North Carolina Central University, Lewis James Little sat in the Durham County jail for nearly a month last year after he did what he says he thought was the right thing.

He and several friends had been visiting the home of a childhood friend on Melbourne Street in east Durham on the night of June 20, 2013, when, he says, they discovered 25-year-old Michael Lee dead in the middle of the road.

"I called the police – when none of the other guys were even thinking about it – trying to do the right thing, and it pretty much started from there," Lewis said.

Twenty minutes after officers arrived, he was handcuffed and later jailed under a $1.425 million bond on burglary, kidnapping and several other criminal charges in connection with a break-in at a nearby home.

"You can do good your whole life and like that, (you're in jail under) a million-dollar bond," he said. "It was kind of like a dream. I kept waking up, like, 'I can't believe I'm in here.' I kind of felt defeated."

Then, on July 15, a corrections officer told him he was free to go. The Durham prosecutor working the case dropped the charges and apologized to Little.

A witness in the home invasion had identified Little as one of three men who broke in, but statements to police called into question that identification, authorities say.

"You can assume a lot just from looking at my face and dreads. I was in basketball shorts and flip flops," Little said. "Something like that happening to them – I can kind of understand that maybe they would jump to conclusions."

Arrest's stigma continues for Little

Little had been wrongly accused, and even though the case was dismissed, the damage was already done. Since then, he says, he has had issues finding both housing and employment.

The stigma continues for Little. All he just has to do is search for his name on the Internet, where his mug shot and numerous stories about his arrest show up, including one on WRAL.com.

"I feel ashamed about it, because I don't want to be known like that," he said. "It's up there, and there's no taking it back."

Knowing what he knows now, Little says that if he had to do it again, he would have ignored the dead body in the street.

"I felt like it was the right thing to do (by calling police)," Little said. "I did, and I suffered from it."

Little's experience not uncommon

Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University, says Little's experience isn't unlike that of other black people's encounters with police.

"His resemblance to the person who actually did it or what information was provided to the officer was probably a catalyst in what happened to him," Joyner said.

That's partly why, he says, people won't report crimes, cooperate or answer police questions.

"They don't want to run the risk that they'll end up being the target of an investigation. It's a valid fear that people have," Joyner said. "People often have this notion that, if it is an African-American young person, it is highly likely that they participated in the crime, if they were anywhere physically close to it."

Little wants to keep moving forward

But Joyner says there aren't many legal options for Little and that any kind of lawsuit against police would likely fail.

"The opportunities for redress are limited in these situations," he said. "The law protects police officers. The theory is you don't want to have police subject to lawsuits every time they do something."

A more successful option would be for Little to get his record expunged, and while he is considering the option, Little says he doesn't think the burden should be on him to clear his name.

While what happened angers him, Little says, he isn't going to let it cloud his vision for the future.

"Holding onto the anger every day doesn't get you anywhere, so most definitely, I'm mad, but I still have other stuff going on," he said. "So, I have to balance that, and keep moving forward."

54 Comments

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  • bmullins Feb 28, 9:58 a.m.

    This is a prime example of why our justice system is broken. No longer is it innocent until proven guilty... you get arrested, it gets publicized and, as happened to this young man, it haunts you until YOU take steps to remove it.

    The states must have some accountability here in undoing the damage done to this young mans reputation.

    I will also join the others and congratulate Mr. Little for his maturity and outlook on bringing this bigger issue to the attention of the public. I think, given what you've shown of your moral character, you'll succeed no matter what your chosen profession is.

  • thepeopleschamp Feb 27, 4:22 p.m.

    These things always seem to happen in the progressive paradise of Durham. What is wrong with the... View More

    — Posted by beef

    Is anyone reading the actual article or just making comments from the headline? It clearly states a citizen identified him as a suspect, not the police.

  • vsusu2002 Feb 27, 1:47 p.m.

    I admire Mr. Little's positive attitude after this horrible ordeal. To be accused of something so serious, later let go because of mistaken identity and now having difficulty getting his record expunged is so unfair to him. On the flip side, I am glad this young man was not tried and found guilty of a crime he did not commit as he would have been imprisoned for the rest of his life. Continue to "fly like an Eagle" ,Mr. Little. I wish you much success in your life ahead.
    #fromaShawBear

  • kikinc Feb 27, 12:16 p.m.

    KIKINC...just look at "who" posted that comment...nuf said

    — Posted by buford

    I know. I wanted people to go look for themselves. I didn't want to call anyone out on anything!

    I have to admire this guy. He's been through a lot, and yet he still handle himself with dignity and disgrace. He has shown a lot of maturity. If it had been me, I don't think I would be as well spoken.

  • buford Feb 27, 12:02 p.m.

    KIKINC...just look at "who" posted that comment...nuf said

  • Not Now Feb 27, 11:40 a.m.

    It is a terrible shame that NO ONE has commented on the maturity this young man has shown. He was wrongly arrested, wrongly imprisoned, and yet, he is able to move past it (forgive, but never forget): "Holding onto the anger every day doesn't get you anywhere, so most definitely, I'm mad, but I still have other stuff going on," he said. "So, I have to balance that, and keep moving forward."

    Mr. Little, I would hire you in a heartbeat if I had a position for which you are qualified. You are a stand-up, honest young man, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

  • busyb97 Feb 27, 11:28 a.m.

    A more successful option would be for Little to get his record expunged, and while he is... View More

    So why on earth does he have to take on the process of getting his record expunged?! Shouldn't that have been done already by the local PD and/or state of NC? That is ludicrous.

  • mramorak Feb 27, 11:01 a.m.

    I had an experience with the DPD to be a states wittness and now no matter what happens if it doesn't involve me or my family I DIDN'T SEE A THING!!!

  • 678devilish Feb 27, 10:58 a.m.

    Ignore other peoples predicaments. They will only put you at risk.

    Thanks for your comment. If this where we are in the world now, having no care for others, because we ourselves don't want to get in any kind of trouble like this young man was wrongfully arrested?

  • justabumer Feb 27, 10:57 a.m.

    This was a racial issue at best. I will be so glad when officer all over the United States will... View More

    — Posted by 678devilish

    Did you not read the article? It had nothing to do with the police "judging him by his color", he was identified by a citizen. As it turns out, the identification was mistaken but it wasn't the police who made the mistake.

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