21 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit
Like many prisoners on death row, Nick Yarris held on to his innocence throughout his stay. As a twenty-year old drug addict, he ended up behind bars after a traffic violation. Hoping for a sentence reduction he provided false information with regards to the rape and murder of Linda Mae Graig. His plan backfired and Yarris was convicted for the crime himself only to be released 21 years later. MO* interviewed a free man.
Pennsylvania, US, 1981. Two unrelated events take place in a span of five days. First the missing 37-year old Linda Mae Craig was found raped and murdered. A couple of days later Nick Yarris opposes himself to his arrest after a traffic violation. This gives rise to a first false accusation that will eventually lead to his death sentence.
Yarris is the first convict ever on death row who saw his freedom restored thanks to DNA enquiry. At the beginning of the eighties the only forensic evidence was based on blood group enquiry. Together with fifteen percent of the American population Yarris has blood type B+, just like the real murderer of Craig.
After an almost endless struggle his request to use DNA enquiry in the investigation was granted permission and Yarris was found innocent at the age of forty-two. In the meantime, he had been spending over twenty years on death row.
Unfortunately Nick Yarris’ story is not a unique one. Already hundred-forty men on death row have left prison an innocent man, just the way they entered it.
The US have executed 1200 convicts over the last forty years. Given the fact that American courts do not open investigations posthumously, we can only guess whether all of these men were really guilty or not.
Yarris was invited to Brussels by the Sant’Egidio Community on the occasion of Cities for Life, an international day against the death penalty - November 30 - on which this year 1800 cities around the world light their monuments, supporting the campaign that wants to abolish the death penalty worldwide.
He who expects a broken man, is mistaken. In front of us we find a lively Yarris with a clear goal: enjoy the remainder of his life to the fullest.
Yarris is incredibly ambitious as well. In 2008 he published the book Seven Days to Live and currently a movie about his life is being made. ‘Ten years of hard work are being rewarded with the kindness and professional help of many in making this movie. It shows me that if you are willing to hang on, good things can come your way.’
Yarris played a part in the movie After Innocence that came out in 2005 and sought to draw attention to the issue of the wrongfully convicted people spending time in prison.
‘I was a drug addict, a thief and a liar’
‘I made up a story and told the police that I could help them solve a murder. When they found out I was lying, they set me up for the crime.’
Yarris: It seems appropriate to me to start by telling you my story. I got arrested in December 1981 at the age of twenty by a police officer who had made up a complaint about me. I was a drug addict, a thief and a liar. The officer claimed that I had hit him, taken his weapon and had tried to kill him.
They put me in prison in solitary confinement, and I went crazy. I was only twenty years old and I didn’t have anything going for me. I kept thinking nobody was going to believe me.
At that moment I did the dumbest thing I ever did in my life. I made up a story and told the police that I could help them solve a murder.
When they found out I was lying, they set me up for the crime. The prisoner in the cell next to me told them that I had confessed the crime to him.
He himself was accused of robbing the house of the prosecutor. The guards gave him a preferential treatment, he did not get punished for the theft and his girlfriend was allowed to smuggle drugs into prison for him. All this just to get him to testify against me.
When my process began for the original complaint, the attacking of the police officer, I was found not guilty by a jury after a deliberation of twenty minutes. The prosecutor, Barry Gross, and the same judge took over the other case. That way three months later I was standing trial for murder.
‘They didn’t care about justice, about right or wrong, about the twenty-year old man that stood in front of them, or about the woman that got killed.’
It was a Tuesday afternoon and three days before the 4th of July, the national holiday. The judge thanked the jury and told them that he acknowledged that everyone was worried they would not be able to go home on Friday to celebrate. He promised them that the trial would end in time. That was the first thing he said to the jury.
They didn’t care about justice, about right or wrong, about the twenty-year old man that stood in front of them, or about the woman that got killed. They were worried more about their own spare time than about my life.
When they were to deliberate about my fate, the jury went to The Wagon Wheel Restaurant. They told the waiters that they would not eat their dessert until they had come to a conclusion. Eventually they gave me the electric chair.
People that once cared about me - my former babysitter, my baseball coach - everyone let me down when the sentence was given. The first two years of my imprisonment I was subject to a regime of complete silence. If I spoke in my cell, someone came and hit me. If I talked to another prisoner, the punishment was even more severe.
After a failed attempt to escape, I had no more hope to go back home. I decided to educate myself, despite everything they did to me, to be able to cite something so beautiful on the day of my execution. They would see that I had already killed the drug-addicted thief, the scum that had walked into prison. I would take away the right from them to kill that man.
‘I wish I had the ability to capture what it was like to find rain upon your face when you haven’t felt it for years.’
How long did it take until bitterness and anger took over, after you were free?
Yarris: That did not happen. Thanks to the efforts I had put into developing myself, during several years, I could distance myself from it.
Look, it was not easy. The thing I struggled most with, was survivor’s guilt. At the age of twenty, I got into prison and the next two decennia I grew and developed together with other prisoners.
I created a bond with them and acquired a certain status within the group. I got two fellow prisoners released by helping them with their trial. I helped men survive. I cared about them, they cared about me, that was my identity.
But then I walked out, into a new world, totally unknown to me. People looked at me like I had to be crazy because of what had been done to me. Meanwhile I left my friends behind, my safety and the place that had become my home.
I have news for you. There were times in there when it was so beautiful I can’t even describe it. If I were a poet, I wish I had the ability to capture what it was like to find rain upon your face when you haven’t felt it for years.
President Obama recently stated that the US is founded on justice, based on the rule of law. Do you agree?
‘We no longer make justice happen. We try to keep an industry running instead.’
Yarris: It is true, but it is not the whole story. The country is shaped and ruled by laws, but it is also being governed by people and they have the tendency to abuse the laws.
Do you know what the fourth biggest industry is in the US? Penology. Our fourth largest industry runs on the fact that people need to be imprisoned, that is the problem.
For every prisoner, there are fifty jobs. We no longer try to make justice happen but we try to keep an industry running. What I’m saying is that our whole system of justice has become one big industry.
And that has taken its toll, also on the other side of the bars. The highest numbers of suicide, spousal abuse, drug abuse and domestic violence are found amongst prison staff.
We take people with a military background and give them a job in a prison without any support on psychology. This is mad if you consider one out of five prisoners has psychological problems.
The illusion of safety
You were clearly innocent. What was the advantage of having you behind bars?
Yarris: It is all about keeping the public opinion calm and creating an illusion of safety. The goal of the death penalty is to be a deterrent to potential criminals. Death is the worst thing one can be threatened with.
You can imagine that they begin a trial like this with a lot of publicity. That makes it even harder to take their accusation back later on, since this does not come without a loss of face.
Look, I think that I am living one of the best lives now: I have a girlfriend, went to the Californian sun and will soon see all my dreams come true. If you want me to sit here and cry, tough luck (laughs).
Listen to the full interview with Nick Yarris (Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5). Find out everything about his troubled youth, including abuse and addiction, how he was wrongfully convicted, how he became temporarily blind in prison due to insufficient medical attention in prison, and how the use of DNA as evidence was only granted in his case when he had requested to die.
This article was translated from Dutch to English by Ellen De Saegher.