Murder conviction at 15: ‘I swear on my life I didn’t do it’

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — A man convicted of committing murder when he was 15 said Monday that he could only imagine the pain the victim’s family experienced, but he was unequivocal in stating his innocence: “I swear on my life I didn’t do it.”

Johnny Small’s comments came at a hearing Monday that could lead to his release. A Superior Court judge will consider whether Small should have been convicted now that a childhood buddy, David Bollinger, recanted testimony accusing Small of killing Pam Dreher in 1988. An autopsy report indicated Dreher was shot in the head at point-blank range while she was lying down.

Judge W. Douglas Parsons is hearing the matter without a jury.

State lawyer Sandra Wallace-Smith said Small never claimed innocence in several written statements trying to get courts to re-examine his case.

A man exonerated by DNA evidence after 18 years in prison, Dwayne Allen Dail, also testified Monday that he was freed with the help of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission. He said Bollinger learned about his exoneration in 2012 and then contacted the commission about his now-recanted testimony.

Bollinger has said he testified only because prosecutors promised his charge would be dropped in exchange, and threatened the death penalty if he didn’t cooperate.

Bollinger said after meeting Dail at a party, hearing his story of wrongful conviction and the help he received from the innocence commission, “I knew right then I’d found a way to at least come forward to someone.” He approached the commission shortly thereafter, Bollinger said.

Bollinger said he repeated a story pinning the crime on Small that was fed to him by a homicide investigator on the Dreher case. Bollinger said he confided to his grandfather, a former police officer and FBI agent, about the lie police told him to tell.

“He told me to go along with the story. He knew I would get into trouble, and he didn’t like Johnny,” Bollinger said. Bollinger said his grandfather sat in on some of his interviews with Wilmington police, and Bollinger went to live with his grandfather after he was released from jail.

Charges against Bollinger were dropped after Small’s appeals through state courts failed.

Small is now 43. The judge could toss the conviction, order a new trial or uphold the conviction.

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 say in court papers that 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.”

State lawyer Jess Mekeel said the judge shouldn’t now believe that Bollinger’s story — which he stuck with for years through grillings on witness stands — is fiction.

At a time when podcasts and TV programs tell the stories of people wronged by a flawed justice system, “innocence is in vogue now, and this case is quite a story,” Mekeel told the judge. “I think you’ve also heard the phrase, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. This is a good story. The facts will get in the way.”


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