Johnny Small was just 15 when the police came to take him away — so young that he thought he was in trouble for curfew violation. So imagine his shock when he was told he was going to be on trial for murder.
Small was just 16 years old in 1989 when a North Carolina judge sentenced him to life with an additional 16 years in prison for the murder of 32-year-old Pam Dreher, who owned a tropical fish store — a place that Small maintained all through his trial he never visited.
What’s doubly horrifying was that there is a significant possibility he would never have been convicted at all if not for the testimony of his then 20-year-old friend and co-defendant David Bollinger (who happened to live with Small’s family at the time), who now claims he lied about Small’s involvement in the murder to save his own skin.
Small, 43, and Bollinger, 47, faced each other on Monday for the first time in nearly three decades since the murder trial during which Bollinger gave his reasons for lying during trial.
Bollinger said he testified against his friend because he was threatened by Wilmington Police Department Det. James Lightner, who said Bollinger would be charged with Dreher’s murder and receive the death penalty if he didn’t cooperate.
If he pinned the crime on Small, however, prosecutors promised his charges would be dropped and he would be free. Bollinger also stated he told his grandfather, a former police officer and FBI agent, about the incident, but he was told to stick to the story.
Bollinger said he decided to come clean after he met Dwayne Allen Dail, a man who was falsely imprisoned for 18 years on charge of rape, at a party.
Small, who maintains his innocence to this day, says he just want to be free and 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.”
However, despite Bollinger’s denial of the testimony and the absence of physical evidence connecting Small to the murder, some still do not believe Bollinger is telling the truth now.
“Innocence is in vogue now. I think you’ve also heard the phrase, never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” Assistant Attorney General Jess Mekeel said to appeal Small’s motion be dismissed. “This is a good story. The facts will get in the way.”
Mekeel believes Bollinger is just telling another story and reopening Small’s case would result in a threat against the American legal system.
“They jeopardize the stability and reliability of our justice system,” added Mekeel.
However, Mekeel is talking about a legal system that needs a overhaul if it continues to imprison people in spite of their innocence.
It’s uncertain whether Small can gain his freedom as prosecutors claim 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.”
As for Bollinger, he says he understands the state will prosecute him for lying under oath, but once again, he has succeeded in saving his skin at least a little by getting Small to sign a waiver that he won’t sue his old friend.
Small says he has stopped blaming Bollinger.
“I just let it go because it was hurting me more than it was doing anything,” Small said. “I was hurting myself. Carrying around all that hate, what's it going to do? It's going to destroy you.”
The hearings are expected to last throughout the week.