Barry Saunders

He tries to find peace, not anger, after an unfair conviction and 28 years in prison – Saunders

Johnny Small, right, walks back in to the courtroom on a hearing at the New Hanover County Courthouse in Wilmington, N.C., Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. A judge on Thursday ruled that the North Carolina man who was convicted of murder as a teenager and was imprisoned 28 years ago did not get a fair trial and allowed him to go free.
Johnny Small, right, walks back in to the courtroom on a hearing at the New Hanover County Courthouse in Wilmington, N.C., Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. A judge on Thursday ruled that the North Carolina man who was convicted of murder as a teenager and was imprisoned 28 years ago did not get a fair trial and allowed him to go free. AP

Here’s a tip: If you want to contact Johnny Small, don’t text him.

I thought the dude had changed his mind about talking to me when I didn’t receive a reply to a text confirming our scheduled interview, but when I called him up he was eager to talk.

He just hadn’t mastered that whole texting thing, he said.

“The only thing I know how to do is answer the phone,” Small said, laughing loud and long. I laughed loud and long, too, because that’s also just about all I know how to do.

Of the two of us, Small is the only one who has a good excuse for being challenged by even rudimentary modern technology. When he got locked up in prison 28 years ago for murder, texting wasn’t even a gleam in some inventor’s eye.

One of the men whose testimony helped put Small away, David Bollinger, contacted the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence several years ago and said that he’d been pressured to lie against Small on the witness stand and now wanted to retract. Executive Director Chris Mumma and the center did what they do, got to work looking into his case. A judge ruled that Small didn’t receive a fair trial. He was released last week under electronic house arrest while prosecutors determine whether any new charges will be filed.

Small’s case has received international coverage. I just read a story about it in a London newspaper. He’s living with a family member in Wilmington, must wear an electronic bracelet and can’t leave the house, but to him, his new digs are heaven. “It’s better than that damned cage I’ve been living in,” he said.

As for Mumma and the innocence center members?

“They ain’t nothing but angels, every last one of ’em,” he said.

Small was cool with his new circumstance, but angel Mumma, when I spoke with her Friday, was very angry that there are any restrictions put on his movements.

Advances in crime-scene investigation technology and the work of organizations such as the innocence center have led to many people being released from the joint after doing 10, 20 or 30 or more years for crimes they didn’t commit. The sheer numbers make it easy for the cases to start running together, to lose their individuality.

As someone who’s been locked up four times for crimes he didn’t commit – the longest period was for three days, which you may say is no big deal, but you try it – I know how frustrating it is to have your freedom taken unfairly. What made Small’s case especially compelling to me, though, was the fact that it was his best friends who testified falsely against him. Not even as a journalist, but merely as a fellow dude who knows what a rarity real friends are, I just had to know what that does to a man’s soul.

“That hurt me to my heart,” Small said, the pain still catching in his throat nearly three decades after he watched his friends take the stand and testify against him. “I never really fit in with a lot of people growing up, but I finally linked up with Ray, David, Mike and Devon. We were almost all the time together. We just clicked.

“Here I am, giving my trust to these guys that I think are my friends, and they turned on me when they know I didn’t even do nothing.” Here, he paused for several seconds, both to let the emotions inside him subside and to find the right words. “Man. Whew. Good Lord. It’s a hard feeling to describe, especially when your best friends betray you like that, especially when you never really had no friends.”

Unlike you or I, Small didn’t lie in his cell fantasizing about the medieval forms of torture he’d like to visit upon them if he ever got out. He instead prayed for his ex-best friend, Bollinger.

Say what?

“I prayed for the Lord to touch his heart, let him come forward and tell the truth so I can go home and see my mama. But it was just a little too late. If he’d done it about six months earlier, I’d have got to see her and spend a little time with her.

“The main thing that hurts me the most,” he said, sobbing, “is that I lost both of my grandmothers. I lost my mom this year. Those three women fought so hard just to see me come home, and they ain’t even here to enjoy it with me. I would give anything just to have them here.”

Small cries the kind of cry you probably can’t cry in prison without repercussions when he talks about the women who never doubted his innocence.

Listening to him tell his story between sobs and tears just grabs your heart strings and rips those suckers. I wanted to tell him that I’d bet his grandmamas and mama were watching when he got out. I didn’t, but I will now: they saw you, bro.

Sleep comes hard, Small said, and when it comes, it’s fitful. He said he got five hours of sleep the night before we talked.

“I still wake up thinking they’re gonna come snatch me up and throw me back in that cage. That’s what wakes me up, that’s what scares me.”

Nobody has apologized – not his friends, not the cops who allegedly forced them to rat him out – but he isn’t holding his breath waiting for anyone to. “If they do, they do. If they don’t, they don’t,” he said. “I was wrongly done, but I still don’t hold no animosity toward anybody. I don’t hold no hatred. That don’t do nothing but eat you up inside.”

Small said an older inmate known as “Papa Nate” taught him about “giving it to the Lord.”

“That’s what I had to do, because it was consuming me, destroying me.”

He said he thought a few times about committing suicide by guard. “You know how sometimes you’ll get so frustrated, so down and out that it’ll cross your mind?” he asked. “I thought about just running and jumping on the fence and making them shoot me down. You think about it because people don’t believe you and think you’re a freaking monster, but my heart wouldn’t let me do it.”

Self-preservation and the teachings of Papa Nate helped dissipate his anger, but so did the realization, he said, that his friends who testified against him were victims, too.

“They were kids just like I was,” he said, “but you got these officers and detectives threatening them and coaching them on how to write a statement. That ain’t right, man. Doin’ that to a kid! Really? We were all kids, and you’re sitting there throwing pictures down in front of us of an individual who’s just been murdered? Do you know, Mr. Saunders, I still have nightmares about that, of that detective throwing those pictures down in front of me?”

Small contends that a Wilmington Police Department detective threatened to charge Bollinger with the murder if he didn’t roll over on Small. Bollinger said his grandfather, an ex-cop and former FBI agent, encouraged him to make the deal with the law to spare himself, to spin a fractured fairy tale about how he’d driven Small to the pet shop on July 13,1988 and waited outside while Small went inside and killed Pam Dreher.

Now that Small is out – close enough to see the beach but still unable to legally walk along it – he said, “I’m just looking forward to the simple things, to feel the sand on my feet. I haven’t felt that in 28 years. I got to see my nieces, my nephews, my great nieces and great nephews ...”

The tears really came, now, like those ocean waves on the beach he sat looking at but couldn’t touch. Small couldn’t talk anymore. The thought of all he’d missed was too painful.

I couldn’t listen anymore for the same reason.

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