WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — 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.
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 defense motion says. Now, he’s grateful his one-time friend, Bollinger, came forward, even though it took decades, he told The Associated Press in an interview at New Hanover County Correctional Center.
“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.
Defense 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 she says in court filings there’s “absolutely no remaining evidence of guilt in the case.”
Prosecutors declined to comment, but in response 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 U.S.
Bollinger called the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence in 2012, saying his testimony was false. Small’s defense motion lays out other discrepancies, including problems with the Crimestoppers call that lead police to Small and Bollinger.
At trial, Bollinger testified that he had no deal with prosecutors. After the state Court of Appeals upheld Small’s conviction in 1991, the charge against Bollinger was dropped. Bollinger’s attorney declined to comment to The Associated Press.
Small says he doesn’t blame Bollinger anymore. “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.”
Tropical Paradise owner Dreher was 32 when she died of a single gunshot wound to the head. The AP reached her brother, Mark Alan Smith, who declined to comment. Her husband, David Dreher, couldn’t be reached.
Reports at the time of Dreher’s death said police believed robbery was the motive — $173 was missing from the register — but her purse and jewelry were left behind.
Margie Hilburn, 95, who lives across the street from David Dreher, remembers Pam Dreher as “a lovely person … and it broke David’s heart when he found out that somebody killed her. “
Small has endured his own losses while imprisoned. His mother died in February, and Small attended her funeral with two correctional officers.
“It’s hard enough living here day by day, knowing she’s gone,” he said, holding back tears. “So I can only imagine what Mrs. Dreher’s family is going through.”
AP National Writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner.