DURHAM — The doors of the jail cell slammed shut.
One bed. One toilet. A tiny window at the top of the wall.
Lewis Little, 20, said the clamping of the door when it closed shut still echoes in his mind. Several times he tried to push it open, but it wouldn’t budge.
He jumped up and grabbed the ledge of the window to pull himself up to peek outside, but his arms were not strong enough to hold him up for long.
“I was going crazy,” he said. “It was like slavery.”
Little was arrested in connection with a home invasion and placed under a nearly $1.5 million bail. The mass communications student at N.C. Central University had never been in jail before. He hadn’t even been arrested until the day he picked up the phone to call the police to do what he said he thought was the right thing to do.
He was released after 24 days for lack of evidence.
Police Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh said that once the witness’ statement began to show inconsistencies, “We took the appropriate steps to get this man out of jail.”
One summer night
On June 20, 2013, Little said he and five friends were heading to one of their houses to hang out. Taquan Lassiter, the driver and friend whose house they were going to, drove down a hill beside his house on Melbourne Street and saw a man lying face down in the street.
We are aware of that, the operator told Little. Police were on their way.
He hung up the phone. Little and his friends got out of the car and asked the man if he was OK.
The man, Michael Lee, was struggling to breathe. Little couldn’t see blood. Wheezing, the man tried to lift his head but couldn’t.
With sirens blasting, police cars arrived. They taped off the scene as neighbors gathered.
According to statements, Ronald Snipes Sr. told police that four intruders had broken into his house looking for his son, Ronald Snipes Jr. At least one had a gun. He told police that one of the intruders was a black man with dreadlocks, wearing black shorts with a red stripe down the side. He told officers that he saw him outside in the crowd and pointed to Little.
Brenda Snipes, the wife, told officers that she tried to run to the kitchen. The intruders held her at gunpoint. When her son came out of the back room, the intruders released her. She said she got on the floor and heard gunshots.
Lee, who was one of the intruders, was shot and died outside.
Little said a police officer walked out of the house and toward the crowd. Little stepped up to the front of the crowd because he was the one who had called the police.
“I was going to try to explain the situation, but before I knew it, he just turned me around and just arrested me, not saying anything,” Little said. “I asked him what was wrong and he said, ‘You’re just coming down to answer some questions.’”
At the precinct, after being handed a paper that listed his rights, he said he requested a lawyer. He said he has watched enough television shows to know not to talk to the police if you’re innocent.
Little said he asked what was going on, and officers said he was being charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, felony conspiracy, first-degree burglary and first-degree kidnapping – crimes he said he did not commit. With his bond set at $1,425,000, he knew there was no way he would get out anytime soon. His family was not rich.
“A million dollar bond? Come on now, it’s not like I was picking daisies in there,” Little said. “I was freaking out.”
“Point blank period, I was guilty before I was even innocent,” he added. “You can’t get me to say anything I did was wrong. I did nothing.”
What police say
The police say they, too, did nothing wrong.
Officers were investigating a murder and home invasion, Police Chief Jose Lopez said.
“(Investigators) got a description of one of the suspects from the victim as far as what he looked like and what he was wearing,” Lopez said.
“It was a specific description,” Marsh added. The description was a man with dreads and black shorts with a stripe down the middle.
The victim said he saw the suspect in the crowd and pointed to Little, who matched the description. He was wearing black shorts with a stripe down the middle and also wearing flip flops, which Lopez said was not typical dress.
Lopez said Little declined to speak to officers and requested a lawyer, and they arrested him based on probable cause.
Little said he declined to speak to officers out of fear that they might try to arrest him for a crime he did not commit.
“A lot was going through my head, but I kind of just knew at the end of the day that I didn’t do anything, so I didn’t think I had anything to worry about,” Little said.
Lopez said that if Little or his friends had given statements to officers, he might not have been arrested.
But Lassiter, the friend, said after speaking with Little’s attorney, Alexander Charns, that he and most of the friends in the car that night went to headquarters later that week and gave written statements to the investigator.
“We’ll get back to you,” Lassiter recalled the investigator saying.
Those statements are not part of the public record.
“What happened to Mr. Little was part of the judicial system, that he elected to invoke his rights and never asserted his innocence to us,” Lopez said. “And (he) never gave us information that through investigation would have cleared him that night. We have to go with the system that exists, and that system resulted in him being in jail for 24 days.”
Lopez said that it is not common that this happens, but it is not unheard of.
‘Like an animal’
Little appeared in court twice, chains around his ankles and arms.
“(The chains) made me feel like an animal,” Little said.
In court, his mother, Kesha Hester of Durham, listed his accomplishments and in an interview described how he watches his siblings when she is at work in the early morning hours.
“He gets them dressed and gets them ready for school,” she said. “He’s a good-hearted person.”
The judge banged the gavel.
“Send him back,” Little recalled the judge saying. “It doesn’t matter. We have to keep him in here.’”
“The judgment that he made, I was thinking, wow, that’s crazy. I was shocked.”
Friends describe Little as someone they look up to – a responsible college kid.
“He was a person everyone came to for advice,” Lassiter said. “I was mad because I knew he didn’t do it.”
Charns said he doesn’t understand why Little was arrested. His friends were at the scene, and they weren’t questioned.
“Mr. Little did what all good citizens should do but are often afraid to do,” Charns said. “He reported a crime. His reward was being charged with a serious felony offense.”
“Assistant DA Jim Dornfried and I had a number of discussions about the charges, including about the witnesses who were with Mr. Little that night,” he said. “Mr. Dornfried sorted through the evidence and took the ethical, honorable and necessary action. He dismissed the charges.”
Lopez said police still haven’t fully determined whether Little is innocent but are no longer investigating the incident.
“I believe he’s legally innocent,” Lopez said. “At least it has not been proven guilty.”
Dornfried defended the police.
“An eyewitness identified him,” he said. “If there was an eyewitness who pointed someone out as the suspect, and the police didn’t arrest him, then I’d have to question law enforcement.”
Dornfried said it’s not uncommon for someone to commit a crime and call the police to make it seem like they did not do it. And, in the case of the suspect being shot, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a cohort stayed behind to see if his buddy was OK.”
But Little said officers checked his phone and didn’t see a connection to Lee, the intruder who died.
After 24 days, police determined there were differences in the statement Ronald Snipe Sr. gave that night and the statements he gave later. Little was released in July.
Marsh said the police would have failed to do their job if they had not arrested Little after Snipes pointed to him.
“If I got locked up for something I didn’t do and I know I didn’t do it, I’d be pissed off too,” Marsh said.
“We don’t work to put the wrong person in jail,” he added. “We work very diligently to make sure the right people are properly identified, properly arrested and properly adjudicated. But we’re all human beings. Mistakes do happen.”
Lopez credited investigators for going to prosecutors.
“Quite frankly (investigators) could have continued based off what existed at that time,” Lopez said. “I’m pretty sure a grand jury would have indicted him for it.
“If we wanted to be malicious, and if it was about Mr. Lewis Little, he would be in jail right now awaiting trial, and you wouldn’t have a story.”
Ronald Snipes Sr. has since died. Efforts to reach Ronald Snipes Jr. have been unsuccessful.
In an interview, Brenda Snipes said the men were wearing masks and black outfits when they kicked her door down. She said she couldn’t tell what they looked like.
A tough time adjusting
The day Little was released, he was angry and felt he had been on a roller coaster. His attorney had told him he could be in jail for a year if the case went to trial.
He plans to sue the department. He feels he was racially profiled, that he was arrested because he was the nearest black male with dreadlocks.
“To me it just sounds like a whole bunch of excuses,” Little said. “It’s not right. It’s still my life, and I had to suffer for it.”
After his release, he had trouble getting a job – he applied to Lowe’s and Home Depot and could get only a seasonal position at UPS – because the charge is still on his record. He has returned to school, but adjusting has been tough. Classmates asked him what happened.
Little said he still suffers from that time he spent in jail.
“It’s taken so much out of me,” Little said. “I had my plan set out of what I wanted to be, and now I’ve lost a lot of ambition and confidence. I can never Google my name without my mugshot popping up.”
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1