WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A man who was released from prison in August 2016 after spending nearly three decades behind bars in a 1988 murder in Wilmington has filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the officers who investigated the case and the City of Wilmington.
Johnny Small was just 15 years old when he was charged with first-degree murder in the July 13, 1988, killing of Pamela Dreher, 32. Dreher was found shot in the head inside her Wilmington fish store with $175 missing from the cash register. Small was arrested more than three months later after a teenage acquaintance said she saw him in the area of the murder.
Following a week-long hearing in August initiated by his childhood friend, David Bollinger, recanting his trial testimony, a judge found it "more than abundantly clear" Small did not receive a fair trial. Three weeks after the hearing, District Attorney Ben David dismissed the charges against Small.
Bollinger said he was coerced into creating a fabricated confession that implicated Small in the killing.
"The defendants threatened that they would charge Bollinger with murder and make sure he got the death penalty unless he implicated Plaintiff in the crime," the lawsuit, filed Wednesday, states.
The court also found the testimony from the girl who claimed to see Small near the murder was not credible, testimony from other teen witnesses was heavily influenced by police, the defense was not provided with evidence favorable to Small, and the state's argument that Small had access to a gun was false.
The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, who took up Small's case after being approached by Bollinger in 2012, located a previously undisclosed note in the Wilmington Police Department's file that proved Small did not have access to a gun, according to the lawsuit.
"[The note] eviscerated any suggestion that the murder weapon the Defendants alleged Plaintiff used could have been the murder weapon. The NCCAI also located a host of additional undisclosed evidence in the WPD's homicide file, documents that never before been turned over to the prosecution or defense," the lawsuit states.
While in prison, Small lost his mother and his grandmothers.
"Growing up in prison, Plaintiff was deprived of the opportunity to finish school; get a job; have a family and experience fatherhood. In short, he was denied the ability to live life as an autonomous human being," the lawsuit states.
The suit says Small was physically assaulted in prison, and also suffered medical illnesses and injuries that were not properly treated.
"The decades that Plaintiff spent wrongfully incarcerated were spent inside a 10 x 10 cell, entirely at the mercy of others. He witnessed unspeakable horrors during his incarceration: locked up with the most vicious of prisoners, Plaintiff saw inmates being beaten and stabbed to death, raped, and assaulted on a regular basis," the lawsuit states.
The suit requests a trial by jury, and seeks compensatory and punitive damages, costs and attorneys' fees.
In December, Small requested then-Governor Pat McCrory pardon him, which would make him eligible for state compensation for his wrongful imprisonment and allow him to apply to the court to expunge his record. An inquiry to Governor Roy Cooper's office was not immediately returned.