Prospect of freedom fills convicted killer with hope, fear
Posted July 26, 2016
Wilmington, N.C. — A 43-year-old man who has spent the bulk of his life in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit will get a court hearing next month in his bid for freedom.
Johnny Small was convicted of killing a store owner in a Wilmington strip mall during a robbery in 1988, when he was just 15.
"I've hollered that ever since I was in the courtroom, before I was in that courtroom that I was innocent," Small said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with WRAL News at New Hanover Correctional Center. "Nobody believed me. Nobody wanted to hear what I had to say."
Chris Mumma, who heads the nonprofit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, changed that. She took Small's case after the state's main witness, David Bollinger, called her in 2012 and said he lied about Small's involvement when investigators threatened him with the death penalty.
"He was kind of upset on the phone," Mumma said of Bollinger. "He said he had testified at a trial a long time ago, and what he said at trial was a lie, and he wanted to fix it."
Detectives told Bollinger that Small would only face time in a juvenile detention center until he turned 21 but that they would pursue a capital case against Bollinger if he didn't cooperate, Mumma said.
"I believe he testified falsely, and I believe we’ll prove that in the end," she said.
Small said he holds no grudge against Bollinger and is grateful he finally recanted and will testify for him at his hearing, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 8.
"I have nothing towards him, no hate or anything," Small said. "The man was threatened with the death penalty. I mean, what kid wouldn’t be scared of that when you’ve got the police threatening you like that?
"It still isn’t right," he continued, "but I’m glad he is trying to make it right."
Mumma said she reviewed the case files and found other problems with Small's prosecution, such as the credibility of other witnesses and issues with the timeline of the crime.
"We don’t go forward with litigation unless we are 100 percent confident of somebody’s innocence," she said, noting her group receives 600 claims of innocence a year.
She added that courts don't routinely hear a motion for appropriate relief, such as the one she filed for Small.
The judge could vacate the conviction, order a new trial or uphold the conviction.
Small said he's excited about the prospect of being exonerated or winning a new trial, but he's also apprehensive.
"That’s a scary feeling going back out in that world 29 years later," he said, adding that he hopes to live a quiet life if released.
"He's been raised by the prison system. So, there's a whole different level of sadness that comes with his case and tragedy," Mumma said.
"They've robbed me. They've stolen my whole life," Small said.