The following story is written by guest contributor Lamont Lilly. He is a journalist, activist and organizer based in Durham, North Carolina.
By Lamont Lilly
It was late evening July 15th, 2013 when 19 year old North Carolina Central University 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. Lewis Little however, has been left to pick up the pieces of an experience truly worthy of a Lifetime Hardship Award.
On the evening of June 20th, 2013 Lewis Little and five of his friends left The Mews apartment complex to meet up and socialize with additional acquaintances at 414 Melbourne Street in northeast Durham. As they arrived by car, they spotted a body of an adult male lying in the street. After departing from their car, 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, Lewis Little called Durham police. The man on the ground was 25 year old Michael Lee, who was obviously in critical condition as he laid there wheezing his last few breaths. Worried and confused, Little and his friends stood beside Lee, as a small crowd of community members began to gather.
When Durham police finally arrived, they attempted to gather information on what exactly had transpired. Lewis Little, his friends and several others were questioned about what they may have seen or heard. Shortly after, Lewis 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 at the Durham Police Department’s 505 West Chapel Hill Street headquarter location. Officer K. Hempstead locked Little in handcuffs and placed him in the back seat of his police 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, Lewis Little vehemently declared his innocence.
After hours of tedious questions and waiting in the interrogation room, Lewis Little was ordered to “strip down” and remove all articles of clothing in front of male and female officers. His keys, clothing, cell phone, shoes and watch were all confiscated. Little was outfitted in an oversized white paper jumpsuit. Investigators took fingerprints and DNA samples. Lewis Little 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 the magistrate that he was the individual who initially called the police. He explained how he even waited with the body until police came. To no avail, Lewis Little was issued a $1,425,000 bond. He was booked, processed and outfitted from the paper jumpsuit he was wearing into a Durham County Jail orange one piece. 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 – no friends, no family, no campus activities or summer school classes.
While unjustly incarcerated for a series of crimes he did not commit, Lewis Little was only able to speak to a few people – his mother, the NAACP and his court appointed attorney, Alexander Charns. While Little 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. Lewis 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, Lewis Little went from calling the police to being arrested and stripped of his human rights. In the case of Lewis Little, here was a young man found guilty until proven innocent – no jury needed, only the police department.
To Little’s surprise one evening, he was informed by a correctional officer that he was being released in a few minutes and to gather his belongings. After a month of degradation, humiliation, slander and complete embarrassment, local college student, Lewis Little was finally released and greeted by a small group of close friends and family members. Little’s mother was informed that his $1,425,000 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 North Carolina Central University, where Lewis Little is majoring in Mass Communications.
Prior to this humiliating debacle, Lewis Little 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, Little is having difficulty finding employment. Though his charges have been dismissed, they are still present on his record. Little’s 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,” Little 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.”
Presently, Lewis Little is back in classes for the spring semester of his sophomore year. Five months after Little was wrongfully incarcerated for crimes he did not commit, the word of his horrific experience is just beginning to buzz around campus. Students are upset and have organized a small support group. Unfortunately, it looks like the Durham Police Department has done it again – more abuse and more brutality.
No, Mr. Little, this is not justice. Maybe the Durham Police Department will make this right by sponsoring the remainder of your education. Then again, maybe not.
[Special Note – Please research the following names and their unfortunate contact with the Durham Police Department: Stephanie Nickerson (25), assaulted in 2012. Jose Ocampo (33), killed in 2013. Carlos Riley Jr. (21), framed in 2012. Derek Walker (26), killed in 2013. Jesus Huerta (17), killed in 2013. Protesters tear-gassed at vigil, December 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/20/