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WILMINGTON, N.C. – A judge says a North Carolina man who was jailed as a teenager for murder 28 years ago can be released from prison once he posts bond.
North Carolina Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons ruled Thursday that there was not enough evidence to justify 43-year-old Johnny Small's conviction for the 1988 murder.
Parson's decision came after Small's teenage buddy testified this week he was pressured by police to testify at the murder trial that both were at the scene. David Bollinger says a Wilmington homicide investigator made up the story and his grandfather pressured him to lie on the witness stand.
Small has been imprisoned since the 1988 murder of Pam Dreher in Wilmington. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while she was lying on the floor of her tropical fish store.
About 150 people falsely convicted of crimes — a record number — 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.
Parsons' decision came after Small's teenage buddy said he was pressured by police to testify at the murder trial that both he and Small were at the scene. David Bollinger says a Wilmington homicide investigator made up the story and his grandfather pressured him to lie on the witness stand. Bollinger said he could no longer keep quiet and was ready to face the chance of being prosecuted for perjury on the witness stand nearly three decades ago.
State attorneys argued that Small deserved neither a new trial or to be freed from prison.
Bollinger, 47, said he testified falsely at Small's trial because prosecutors promised charges he faced would be dropped in exchange and threatened the death penalty if he didn't cooperate.
Bollinger said he was driving to an automobile auction in South Carolina with his boss about the time Dreher was killed and didn't drive Small to the scene, as he testified at the 1989 murder trial. He said he lied then because he was afraid that since he was an adult he could get the death penalty, and a Wilmington police detective told him Small could get out of prison after turning 18. Bollinger said he confided to his grandfather, a former police officer and FBI agent, about the lie police told him to tell and was told he should stick to the story.
Small's attorneys said without Bollinger's testimony, prosecutors never could have convicted Small of a crime that would have required planning by a more mature mind than the drug-taking, car stealing, juvenile delinquent Small admitted to being at age 15. No gun, fingerprints or blood-spattered clothing were found tying Small to the crime.
Small and Bollinger were arrested three months later while attending the county fair after police got a Crime Stoppers tip from one of their former classmates.
Nina Raiford said she was walking past Dreher's shop when she saw Small exiting, then saw a news report about the slaying the same night. She didn't report what she saw until after Crime Stoppers offered a reward and she spoke to a school counselor two months later, Small's attorneys said.
Punch-clock records from the fast-food restaurant where Raiford worked show she didn't quit work the night of the slaying until after she described spotting Small, his attorneys said.
Raiford stuck to her story throughout the years and didn't report seeing Small at the murder scene earlier because she knew he was wild and a bully and feared the younger boy, state attorneys said.
Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio.