Freedom beckons for man convicted as teen

2016-08-07 17:57
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Wilmington - Johnny Small was just 15 when police came to arrest him in 1988 - so young he assumed he was in trouble for a curfew violation.

Instead, police charged him with first-degree murder of a woman who owned a tropical-fish store - a place Small says he'd never even visited.

Chance at freedom

He was convicted and sentenced to life behind bars, mainly on the testimony of co-defendant - a friend who once lived with Small's family.

That man, David Bollinger, has since recanted. Bollinger says he testified only because prosecutors promised his charged would be dropped in exchange and threatened the death penalty if he didn't cooperate.

Now, at 43, Small has a chance at freedom.

A hearing is scheduled to begin Monday for Small, who has always maintained his innocence. The judge could vacate the conviction, order a new trial or uphold the conviction.

Small "has spent his entire adult life and part of his childhood in prison for a crime he did not commit," a defence motion says.

Now, he's grateful his one-time friend, Bollinger, came forward, even though it took decades, he said in an interview at New Hanover County Correctional Centre.

"He's doing what he thinks is right, what he knows is right," said Small, adding that he hasn't communicated with Bollinger since his former friend testified. "And I'm happy for that. But am I going to jump for joy? No. Because he should have."

If Small is released, he'll be in a world that he's seen only on television. Before prison, he listened to music on cassette tapes. He's never used a cellphone or Facebook. He has driven a car, but not legally, he said, breaking into one of his few smiles during the interview.

He's made no big plans if he's released other than seeking therapy, leaving Wilmington and getting a job.

New trial

Defence attorney Chris Mumma is hopeful Small will go free - no physical evidence tied him to the death of Pam Dreher at her fish shop - and Mumma says in court filings there's "absolutely no remaining evidence of guilt in the case."

Prosecutors declined to comment, but in responce to defense motions say the latest evidence "does little other than discredit or impeach witness testimony, making it insufficient to support a claim for a new trial and certainly does not support outright dismissal of the case."

A record number of people falsely convicted of crimes - 149 - were exonerated in 2015, 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 US.


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