Johnny Small was 16 years old when he watched his life evaporate.
What he must have felt in 1989 when the judge sentenced him to life and an additional 16 years in prison for the murder of 32-year-old Pam Dreher is unfathomable. Small maintains to this day that he was truly innocent.
For the past 28 years, Small sat in prison while the life he could have led slipped slowly away. He cries when he thinks of his mother, who died in February after years of being too ill to make the trek to the prison.
He hadn’t seen her in six years.
After being repeatedly denied parole, Small had lost hope of ever leading a normal life. So much so, he contemplated suicide.
“I used to sit out in that yard, looking at that fence, just thinking of just climbing on up and making them shoot me off it,” he said, speaking of the prison yard, according to WWAY.
In 2012, those dark thoughts were quelled by a spark of hope.
David Bollinger, Small’s childhood friend who was the key witness against him in the 1988 trial, contacted the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence with a shocking admission.
Bollinger said he lied on the stand in 1988, and he doesn’t think Small killed anyone.
The Center’s director, Chris Mumma, filed a motion on Small’s behalf, seeking to have him exonerated.
On Monday, Wilmington, N.C., Superior Court judge W. Douglas Parsons held the first of several hearings this week that will consider the motion.
On July 13, 1988, 32-year-old Pamela Dreher’s body was found facedown in Tropical Paradise, the pet store she owned on Wrightsville Avenue in Wilmington. She’d owned the shop for three short months.
There was a single gunshot wound in the back of her head, and $173 was missing from the register. Confusingly, her purse and jewelry remained unmolested.
An autopsy report revealed the slaying to be more of an execution than a crime of passion, the Wilmington Star reported. According to the report, a barrel of a handgun was pressed against her head when she was killed.
Police were stumped. CrimeStoppers offered $5,000 for any information on the case, which was growing cold.
That’s when Nina Raiford, a high school classmate of Small’s, called CrimeStoppers with a tip. She said she was walking by the pet store at the time of the killing and claimed to have seen Small exit the store. Though it is unclear why, this led police to Bollinger, according to the Star.
When police questioned Bollinger, he initially denied knowing anything about the murder.
Later, he changed his story and said he drove the then 15-year-old Small to the pet shop so he could use a pay phone there. At that point, Small entered the store, robbed it and killed Dreher.
Bollinger said Small left the store wearing a different shirt.
Later that evening, Small allegedly held Bollinger at gunpoint, told him that he had robbed the store and was forced to kill Dreher and that Bollinger would be next if he exposed him.
That testimony, according to the motion Mumma filed, is what put Small in prison.
“There is more than a reasonable possibility that had Bollinger’s testimony not been admitted at Small’s trial, a different result would have been reached,” the motion stated.
Now, Bollinger has taken it all back.
Monday was the first time Bollinger and Small faced each other since the trial in the late ’80s.
Bollinger said he decided to come clean after meeting Dwayne Allen Dail at a party in 2012. Dail was exonerated after 18 years in prison with the help of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission. When Bollinger met him, he knew what he had to do.
“I knew right then I’d found a way to at least come forward to someone,” Bollinger said
Bollinger was apologetic, as he told the judge that he lied back in 1988.
The two weren’t even together at the time of Dreher’s death, Bollinger said. Instead, he was driving his boss to an automobile auction in South Carolina.
He said that he lied because Wilmington Police Department detective James Lightner told him to and threatened to arrest him for murder if he didn’t cooperate. Bollinger said Lightner told him that he would be charged with Dreher’s murder and receive the death penalty, the Associated Press reported.
Bollinger said he was naive about how the court system worked and believed Lightner.
“They questioned and interrogated me one night, and the rest of the time it was coaching — telling me what to say,” Bollinger said, according to the Star.
“I lied on him,” Bollinger said, WRAL reported. “(The investigator) told me, if I didn’t say (that Small did it), he was going to prosecute me for murder, and I would get the death penalty.”
“I’m sorry. I was forced to do something I didn’t want to do and I can’t take it back,” Bollinger said, looking at Small who raised his wrists, still handcuffed together, to dab tears from his eyes, the Associated Press reported.
Bollinger said he told his grandfather, a former police officer and FBI agent, about the police forcing him to lie, but his grandfather encouraged him to stick to that story.
“He told me to go along with the story. He knew I would get into trouble, and he didn’t like Johnny,” Bollinger said.
Eventually, Small took the stand.
Small is a hulking figure, intimidating with his broad shoulders, shaved head and arms covered in prison tattoos — a sleeve on his right and an emblem on his left.
“I swear on my life I didn’t do it,” Small said.
Now, all he wants is a simple life — to fish, to be left alone.
“I wanna go fishing,” he said, visibly choking back tears in a video from the hearing. “I just wanna be left in alone in peace, that’s all I want. Just be left alone. Just leave me alone. Get a little job to support myself and just be left alone, that’s all I want. I’ve been surrounded by drama and violence for the past 29 years of my life. … I don’t want to be around it. I’ve had enough to last me until the day I die.”
Not everyone, though, thinks Bollinger is telling the truth now.
Assistant Attorney General Jess Mekeel said Small’s motion should be dismissed.
“Innocence is in vogue now,” he told the judge, the Associated Press reported.
Exonerations are certainly on the rise. Last year, about 150 people were exonerated, a record number, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In this case, though, Mekeel thinks Bollinger’s just telling a story.
“I think you’ve also heard the phrase, never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” Mekeel said. “This is a good story. The facts will get in the way.”
Mekeel continued, stating that he considers reopening cases based on recanted testimony to be a threat to the American legal system.
“This is an attempt to retry a 28-year-old case. Twelve jurors made that determination already. They heard the evidence. They concluded the defendant was guilty,” Mekeel said, according to WRAL.
Added Mekeel, “They jeopardize the stability and reliability of our justice system.”
Small’s family, though, maintains his innocence.
“The family has always felt he was innocent. We’ve never doubted that at all,” Angela Cain, Small’s sister, told WRAL. “Honestly, I’m ecstatic. I never thought I would see this day when he was back in court.”
Regardless of the outcome, one piece of Small’s heart can’t be repaired. Even if he is exonerated, his mother won’t be there to welcome him into her arms.
“That’s what kills me,” he told the Wilmington Star, weeping. “I finally got a shot and she’s not gonna be there to see it.”
The hearings are expected to last throughout the week.