Local News

Charges dropped against man convicted as teen in Wilmington murder

Posted September 8, 2016 4:54 p.m. EDT
Updated September 8, 2016 10:57 p.m. EDT

— New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David said Thursday that he has dropped all charges against a man convicted of murder as a teenager and imprisoned for 28 years.

A Superior Court judge ruled last month that there wasn't enough evidence to support Johnny Small's conviction for the 1988 murder of tropical fish shop owner Pam Dreher in Wilmington, and he ordered that Small get a new trial.

David said it would be too difficult to retry the case, so he dismissed the case against Small after conferring with Dreher's family.

"My duty is to seek justice, not merely to convict," David said in a statement. "Ultimately, the challenge of retrying a 28-year-old homicide in which there is no physical evidence and where two material witnesses have been discredited by the Court proved to be too great to overcome."

Small's teenage buddy, David Bollinger, testified during a hearing that he was pressured by police to testify at the 1988 trial that both 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.

He finally came forward and recanted a few years ago, prompting the nonprofit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence to pursue a new hearing for Small.

"We are appreciative that justice has finally been served for Johnny Small and regret that Ms. Dreher's family is left with unanswered questions," Center on Actual Innocence Director Chris Mumma said in a statement. "Although the district attorney has indicated that there is insufficient evidence to retry Mr. Small, the fact is that there is no evidence that Mr. Small was involved in the crime in any way. If all of the evidence had been made available to the jury at the time of the original trial, Mr. Small would never have been convicted. He is innocent, as he has always proclaimed."

Small, 43, has been on house arrest since his Aug. 11 release, and David's decision means that Small can remove his ankle monitoring bracelet.

David said Bollinger won't face criminal charges for his false testimony in the original trial, and he said he won't criticize how the case was handled back then.

"There is no statute of limitations that precludes charges being brought against anyone should any additional evidence come to light," David said, asking anyone with information about Dreher's killing to contact Wilmington police.