Freed man files wrongful conviction lawsuit against Wilmington, WPD

Wilmington, NC (WWAY) — A man who was released after spending more than 25 years in prison for a 1988 murder has filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the officers who investigated his case.

Johnny Small was a teenager when he was arrested in 1988 for the murder of Pamela Dreher.  Small spent more than 25 years in prison for murder, while continuing to deny his role in the crime.

Small’s former best friend and a key witness in the original trial came forward saying that he lied on the stand. David Bollinger said that a detective forced him to testify against Small. Bollinger said the detective threatened him with the death penalty if he did not do as he was told.

The lawsuit said the officers coerced the State’s main witness, David Bollinger, into falsely inculpating Small by unlawfully threatening to prosecute Bollinger for murder and make sure he got the death penalty if he did not point the finger at Small.

“Then, to bolster Bollinger’s fabricated testimony, the Defendants coerced a series of kids — 15 to 10 years old — into falsely implicating Plaintiff.”

The lawsuit also claims the officers buried evidence that would have undermined the remainder of the State’s case against Small.

“Evidence that completely contradicted the State’s other main witness, Nina Raiford, and that demonstrated that the alleged murder weapon could not have been the murder weapon at all. None of this was disclosed to the prosecutor.”

The lawsuit also said that the NCCAI located a previously undisclosed note in the Wilmington Police Department’s file, which eviscerated any suggestions that the murder weapon the officers alleged Small used could have been the murder weapon. THe NCCAI also located a host of additional undisclosed evidence in WPD’s homicide file.

Johnny Small returned to court in August.  After hearing several days worth of testimony, Judge Douglas Parsons ruled to vacate Johnny Small’s life sentence.  He was sent home on house arrest, while the District Attorney’s office determined whether to retry Small for murder.

The lawsuit said in September 1988, after hearing about the reward money, Nina Raiford called Crime Stoppers. Raiford apparently told Crime Stoppers that sometime between 5 and 6 p.m. as she was walking home from work, she saw Small come out of the fish store and get into a brown car driven by “someone else.”

“The problem with Raiford’s account, however, was that it was demonstrably false: Raiford was working at McDonald’s until 5:53 p.m., making impossible for her to have been at the crime scene either when the murder occurred or shortly thereafter.”

The lawsuit said, even though Small has been exonerated, the damages to him from his wrongful conviction are enormous. Small was incarcerated from age 15 to age 44. It said growing up in prison, Small was deprived 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 also said Small witnessed unspeakable horrors during his incarceration locked up with “the most vicious of prisoners.” It said Small saw inmates being beaten, stabbed to death, raped, and assaulted on a regular basis.

The lawsuit claims Small’s rights were violated and he sustained injuries including loss of liberty, physical injury and sickness, and emotional pain and suffering. In turn, Small is requesting a court enter a judgement against the City of Wilmington and the officers from the Wilmington Police Department, awarding compensatory damages, costs, attorneys’ fees against each defendant, along with punitive damages against each of the individual defendants.


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