A North Carolina man who has spent most of his life in prison after being found guilty of murder will walk free after a judge determined there was not enough evidence to justify his conviction.
Johnny Small was just 15 when he was arrested in the 1988 murder of Wilmington woman Pam Dreher, who was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head at her tropical fish store.
Police at the time believed Dreher was the victim of a robbery turned violent, as $173 was missing from the register at Tropical Paradise, but her purse and jewelry remained on the scene, the Associated Press reported.
Small, who assumed he was in trouble for a curfew violation when police came to arrest him, said he had never been to the shop, but he was found guilty mainly due to the testimony of his co-defendant.
David Bollinger, who once lived with Small and his family, testified at the murder trial that they were both at the scene, but this week he took the stand to say that wasn’t true.
Bollinger said this week he was pressured by police to deliver the damning testimony, alleging a Wilmington homicide investigator made up the story and his grandfather pressured him to lie on the witness stand, AP wrote.
He claimed prosecutors promised his charge would be dropped in exchange for his testimony and that he was threatened with the death penalty if he didn't cooperate.
Due in large part to Bollinger’s testimony, Small was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, but on Thursday, North Carolina Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons ruled that there was not enough evidence to justify the conviction.
Smalls, now 43, can go free once he posts bond, authorities said. He told the AP he was grateful that Bollinger came forward, but the move comes after he’s spent 28 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.
“He's doing what he thinks is right, what he knows is right," said Small. "And I'm happy for that. But am I going to jump for joy? No. Because he should have."
The good news comes with the sobering reality that remains that a woman was brutally murdered in 1988, which is not lost on Small.
Small lost his own mother in February and was able to attend the woman’s funeral while flanked by two correctional officers.
"It's hard enough living here day by day, knowing she's gone," he told AP, holding back tears. "So I can only imagine what Mrs. Dreher's family is going through."