Johnny Small was just 15 when he was sentenced to life after being convicted of killing 32-year-old tropical fish store owner Pamela Dreher in 1988.
An autopsy report indicated Dreher was shot in the head at point-blank range while she was lying on the floor of her store in Wilmington.
But no gun, fingerprints or blood-spattered clothing were ever found to tie Small to the crime.
The only thing detectives had to go on was the testimony of a childhood friend David Bollinger who had pinned the crime on Small, claiming he'd driven him to the scene of the murder.
Now Bollinger has recanted that story, he had been pressured by police at the time to testify that both he and Small were at the scene.
He added that a Wilmington homicide investigator made up the story and his grandfather pressured him to lie on the witness stand.
Bollinger said he was finally coming forward with the truth because prosecutors promised charges he faced would be dropped in exchange and threatened the death penalty if he didn't cooperate.
'I'm sorry. I was forced to do something I didn't want to do and I can't take it back,' Bollinger told Small, a broad-shouldered man with freshly shaved head.
On Thursday, North Carolina Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons ruled there was not enough evidence to justify Small's conviction for the 1988 murder and allowed him to go free.
The judge said he didn't see proof of the 43-year-old's innocence, but he did find evidence that Small did not get a fair trial.