EXCLUSIVE: ‘I swear on my life I didn’t do it’: Man exonerated after 28 years in prison for murder speaks for first time

“All they said was that I killed someone. Next thing you know they started throwing pictures in front of my face."
Updated: Jun. 5, 2023 at 1:00 PM EDT
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You can watch part one of this story in the video above and part two in the video below.

“I would wake up—cold sweats—wake up and jump out of bed like I was ready to fight.”

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Johnny Small is a long way away from the prisons where he spent most of his teenage years and much of his adult life. These days he lives in Florida on a 10-acre farm with his wife, 12 cats, 12 dogs, a couple horses and a donkey. But he’ll never forget what happened to him 35 years ago.

He remembers it like it was yesterday.

“They just slapped the handcuffs on me, and threw me in a car with a canine dog,” Small said. “All they said was that I killed someone. Next thing you know they started throwing pictures in front of my face. I mean it was a horrible scene.”

In 1988, Small was arrested and charged with killing a woman inside her store in Wilmington. In 2016, a judge ruled he did not get a fair trial, and after 28 years as a North Carolina inmate convicted of murder, Small was set free. The City of Wilmington was ordered to pay him 7 million dollars, but Small says what he gained will never replace what he lost.

For the first time since he was exonerated, Small agreed to an interview with WECT from his home in Florida.

“I didn’t understand why this was happening to me,” he told WECT’s Frances Weller. “I never went out of my way to hurt nobody. Yeah, I got in trouble in school for skipping class and I got the possession of stolen goods. None of my stuff that I ever got in trouble for was violent.”

Small recalls what hurt him the most after he was found guilty of murder.

“Seeing the look on my mom’s face and my grandmother’s face. And then having certain family members tell me to my face that they believed that I did it—that hurt.”

A tip to the Wilmington Police Department’s Crime Stoppers hotline linked Johnny Small to the brutal murder. On July 13th, Pamela Dreher was working at her fish store in Delgado Square, a little shopping center off Wrightsville Avenue.

Someone came in, shot her in the head and left her in a pool of blood. The killer took $173 from the cash register.

Small believes he was the victim of young people who were after reward money.

“Everyone that testified against me was teenagers.”

The main one, is his best friend David Bollinger. The tips to Crime Stoppers implicated Bollinger, too. He was also arrested for the murder, but he had a solid alibi—he was out of town. But he told detectives with the Wilmington Police Department that Small killed Dreher. Almost three decades later, he recanted his testimony which, in part, led to Small’s release.

In an interview with WECT in 2017, Bollinger says he was coerced into making up a story that implicated Small in the killing. Specifically, Bollinger claims Detective J.J. Lightner forced him to lie.

“He told me ‘If you don’t tell me what I want to hear, you will go to jail for this I will make sure you get the death penalty,’” Bollinger said in the 2017 interview. “He would be right there on the front row watching me die. I asked for my parents. I wasn’t allowed to make a call, I was told I didn’t need a lawyer—everything I asked to do I was denied so I eventually caved.”

Small says he had to live with that for 28 years—that his best friend lied on him. Bollinger, though, worked with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, which worked relentlessly for Small’s release.

Small says his mother and grandmother always believed he was innocent and that the truth would eventually come out. His mother was his biggest supporter.

“There’s only certain people in my family that actually stuck with me,” Small said. “I don’t know how I did it. ‘Bout the only thing that kept me going was my mom.”

His mom might have been convinced he would eventually get out, but he wasn’t. Small says he reached a point where he was convinced he was going to die in prison, either naturally or by force.

“There wasn’t a day that went by that when I went out on that yard I didn’t look at that fence and want to get on it and make them shoot me because I was tired of being in there. The only thing that stopped me was my Mama. And six months before I got out—that there was the hardest thing I ever had to do was when I lost my mom and I never got to spend time with her,” Small said in tears.

Small still struggles knowing his mother did not live to witness his release. Seven years a free man, Small says he’s still angry, very angry.

“Ms. Frances Weller, you have no idea the anger that is in me. I have a hefty bag here at home hanging on a tree. Whenever I get it, I just go out there and take it out on that.”

He says he still wakes up in the middle of the night recalling what he describes as violent times in prison.

“I would wake up—cold sweats—wake up and jump out of bed like I was ready to fight.”

Small credits his wife, Anna, for helping him get through the rough spots. He actually met her before he went to prison when they were both just 15 years old. They met at a jukebox joint off Wrightsville Avenue.

“I’ll never forget it,” he recalls. “I remember what she was wearing when she walked in.”

He had his doubts it would last because they lived too very different lives at 15. Small grew up in what back then was called the projects.

“She found out where I lived. I said ‘Oh boy, she ain’t gone want nothing to do with me no more,’ but I was wrong. She grew up in a good neighborhood. Her father owned some Shell stations down there.”

Anna’s family moved to Florida while Small was on trial. They lost touch but never forgot each other.

The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence found Anna. She was called to testify as a judge was deciding whether to exonerate Small.

He says 28 years after they first met, at that point in their early 40s, he says the feelings all came back.

“All the emotions and the feeling I had for her back then had come flooding back and I started crying like a little baby.”

Six months after he was released from prison they got married.

Small says Anna is the one who has encouraged him to be open and honest about where he’s been. He doesn’t hide that he spent 28 years in prison for a murder he’s adamant he did not commit. He even told his current employer when he applied for a job in the recycling business.

“My wife told me to be honest so I was honest about the situation,” he said. “That way if they found out, done a background check, that I was straight up honest with them.”

Small promised his mother that if he ever got out of prison, that he would leave North Carolina and never look back. He did just that. He loves life on his Florida farm. Life on the surface appears good, and, of course, there’s the $7 million to which he chuckles.

”So do you really think I seen all that? I didn’t see all of that. I can promise you that. I give you my word on that. I didn’t see that. I didn’t even see half of it.”

Small claims most of the money went to attorneys. He admits though everything he owns is paid for.

“I ain’t living all that great. But one thing I can say though my house is paid for, my property is paid for, all my vehicles are paid for. So as long as I’m able to pay my bills, that’s all I care about.”

But there are two things Small cares deeply about and he’s still waiting on them. One of them is a pardon from North Carolina’s governor.

“You only got one time to get proven wrong and it sticks with you just like out here now. Just because I was proven innocent and all of that, so you know how hard it is? It’s still on my record. I’m still waiting for the governor to clear it because I’m still stereotyped, ridiculed because of that,” he said.

Technically, Small was not declared innocent. Judge Douglas Parsons ruled there was not enough evidence for Small to have been convicted in the killing of Pamela Dreher.

Parsons signed an order for appropriate relief on Aug. 30, 2016. In that order, he wrote that “The Court does not find actual innocence in this case. I don’t know if Mr. Small did this or not. Whoever did this is a monster. I don’t know that he did or didn’t. What I am here to decide is did he receive a fair trial according to the North Carolina and United States Constitutions and it is more than abundantly clear to me that he did not.”

Small’s other wish is that the real killer is found.

“I would love to know who did it because that person that did it took my life as well.”

Pamela Dreher’s family still believes Small is the killer. He says he understand that.

“They’re going to keep that thought in their head. That’s just the way humans think. ‘Oh he was convicted the first time, he done it. He’s automatically guilty,’” said Small. “My heart goes out to that family.”

Small says he’s content knowing his mother went to her grave believing he was innocent and that he knows the truth.

“I swear on my life I didn’t do it.”