|One month a slave: The case of Lewis Little|
|Published Thursday, February 13, 2014|
It was late evening last July when 19-year-old N.C. Central sophomore Lewis James Little was finally released after a month of incarceration for a murder he did not commit. Several charges against Little, including first-degree burglary, first-degree kidnapping, three counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and felony conspiracy have all since been formally dismissed as an honest mistake. Little, however, has been left to pick up the pieces of an experience truly worthy of a Lifetime Hardship Award.
On June 20, 2013, Little and five of his friends left The Mews apartment complex to meet and socialize with additional acquaintances at 414 Melbourne Street in northeast Durham. As they arrived, they spotted a body of an adult male lying in the street. They approached the body “to find out why someone would just be laying in the street like that.” Little and his friends were careful to observe without touching or disturbing what appeared to be a potential crime scene. After prompting the man to get up several times and inquiring about his safety without a response, Little called Durham police. The man on the ground was 25-year-old Michael Lee, who was obviously in critical condition. Worried and confused, Little and his friends stood beside Lee as a small crowd began to gather.
When police finally arrived, they attempted to gather information on what exactly had transpired. Little, his friends and several others were questioned about what they may have seen or heard. Shortly after, Little found himself singled out by Durham Police Officer K. Hempstead and questioned more abrasively. Without explanation, Little was then informed that he was being detained for further questioning.
Hempstead locked Little in handcuffs and placed him in the back seat of his squad car. Little was taken to a Durham Police Department interrogation room and read his rights. Though investigators attempted to intimidate Little as they interrogated him, he vehemently declared his innocence.
After hours of tedious questions and waiting in the interrogation room, Little was ordered to “strip down” and remove all articles of clothing in front of male and female officers. He was outfitted in an oversized white paper jumpsuit. Investigators took fingerprints and DNA samples. He sat there handcuffed to a steel chair until daylight the next morning. After the department’s morning shift change, he was taken to the Durham County Jail, where news cameras and reporters were waiting to catch a glimpse of his face.
Upon speaking with the magistrate, Little attempted to explain that there must be some mistake of identity. He informed them that he was the individual who initially called the police. To no avail, he was issued a $1.4 million bond. Officially an inmate, Little was taken upstairs to a section called “23 and 1,” where he was only allowed out for one hour a day to walk around indoors. He remained there for the entire weekend before being transferred to general population that Monday night. Unable to afford bond, Little was there for an entire month.
He was only able to speak to his mother, the NAACP and his court appointed attorney, Alexander Charns. While he sat incarcerated, the friends he was with the night they discovered the body, wrote statements on his behalf attesting his whereabouts. Little’s friend who resided across the street from where Michael Lee was killed had been living there for more than 15 years. Little had visited that home hundreds of times.
During Little’s one-month jail stint, he was basically kept in limbo of how he had mysteriously been singled out and falsely apprehended. In a matter of minutes, he went from calling the police to being arrested and stripped of his human rights.
To Little’s surprise, one evening a correctional officer informed him that he was being released in a few minutes and to gather his belongings. After a month of degradation, humiliation, slander and complete embarrassment, he was released and greeted by a small group of close friends and family members. His mother was told that his bond was officially recalled. After his release, Little’s charges were dismissed. The District Attorney who presided over his case apologized for the inconvenience. The Durham Police Department offered no comment. Little’s release was just in time for the first semester of his sophomore year at NCCU.
He had never been in any trouble with the law – no misdemeanors, no felonies, no nothing. He was a stellar student at Southern High School’s School of Engineering and has always been engaged in the community. Now, he is having difficulty finding employment. Though his charges have been dismissed, they are still present on his record.
His classmates and professors are empathetic but don’t know where to begin. “I’m still trying to get myself straight,” he said. “I was ordered to strip naked for crimes I did not commit. I walked into the Durham County Jail with no shoes on and metal shackles on my hands and feet. You never forget an experience like that.”
Little is also concerned about his reputation being destroyed. “You used to couldn’t Google my name on the Internet, now you can. According to the reports, I broke into someone’s home, kidnapped them and killed a man last year. And that’s not true at all,” he said. “I’m a college student who looks forward to learning every day. Who’s going to repair my name? Who’s going to take my mug shot off the internet? This is not justice.”
Five months after Little’s wrongfully incarceration, word is beginning to buzz around campus. Students are upset and have organized a small support group.
Maybe the Durham Police Department will make this right by sponsoring the remainder of his education. Then again, maybe not.
Durham-based activist Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace and organizer with Workers World Party. Follow him on Twitter @LamontLilly.
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