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Nicholas Yarris Speaks After Being Released From 22 Years on Death Row

StoryFebruary 11, 2004
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On Jan. 16 Nicholas Yarris walked from a state prison in Pennsylvania after spending two decades on death row. DNA had proven his innocence. He joins us in our studio today and we hear Mumia Abu Jamal discuss the Yarris case. [Includes transcript]

On January 16 death row prisoner Nicholas Yarris walked out of the State Correctional Institution at Greene County, Pennsylvania after spending 22 years on death row in a solitary 12-by-7-foot jail cell. He was 42 years old.

Yarris was wrongly convicted of rape and murder in Pennsylvania in 1982. The conviction was overturned in September when DNA tests unavailable in the 1980s proved that genetic material found under the victim’s fingernails, on her undergarments, and in a pair of gloves possibly worn by the killer was not his.

Yarris is the first death-row inmate in Pennsylvania cleared by DNA testing.

Despite his exoneration, Yarris remained jailed for weeks while authorities recalculated prison sentences he received in Florida for crimes he committed after escaping from sheriff’s deputies in 1985, while the murder case was on appeal. A Florida judge credited him for the time he had served and ordered him set free.

The federal appeal was effectively his last option, and the latest DNA test required the destruction of the last physical evidence in the case.

After spending half his life in prison, Nicholas Yarris is a free man.

Another Pennsylvania prisoner–Mumia Abu Jamal has been on death row for 20 years after being convicted in 1982 of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

A journalist, Black Panther, MOVE member, and outspoken critic of police brutality, racism and the death penalty, Mumia Abu Jamal has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.

Over the last two decades, Abu Jamal has written regular commentaries on local, national and world affairs. In July 2003, the Prison Radio Project recorded this about Nicholas Yarris’ case.

  • * Nicholas Yarris*, former Pennsylvania death row inmate.
  • Mumia Abu Jamal, radio commentator and Pennsylvania death row inmate recorded by Prison Radio.


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AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now! Nick Yarris. Can you talk about the day you learned about the D.N.A. test?

NICHOLAS YARRIS: There were actually three results. The first one came in April of 2003, when we got D.N.A. from the killer’s gloves, not only from the killer himself, which turned out to be the other two tests, but from a second female and a possible another unsolved murder. From April until July, the remaining testing began. And we got D.N.A. from this spermatozoa, which was pulled from the victim’s underwear. That was the big one. That matched the killer’s gloves. Until they then, they said the gloves D.N.A. was meaningless, they could have belonged to anyone. That was July 2, 2003. I began my D.N.A. efforts. I was the first man in the United States to ask for D.N.A. testing in 1988. In February of 1988, I was the first man to ask for D.N.A. testing. For 15 years, I had an unbelievable ordeal and battle to fight for these tests. We had willful destruction of evidence. We had deliberate denial of access to the laboratories that eventually used the D.N.A. successfully. All along, I just had that enormous breath-holding contest until July 2 of 2003, and I just let it out. And it was unbelievable day. I was completely stripped of all the will to hold onto that day. Because I knew from then on I was free. It took another six, seven months to actually be free. They would drug me out and did petty, vicious things to me, but — I didn’t let it bother me.

AMY GOODMAN: You tried to escape from the sheriff’s deputies, who had arrested you?

NICHOLAS YARRIS: No. I was en route to court on appeal. I was actually being given a review by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court when we stopped at a restroom and I escaped.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever think you would be exonerated?

NICHOLAS YARRIS: I mean this with the all sincerity. I really did believe in my chances when D.N.A. began, but there were times I have been through five inconclusive D.N.A. tests. I have been through six different forms from RFP fingerprinting to mitochondria and I have been through so many gamut of belief disbelief, heartening, disheartening moments. The pull and strain that can come about in an ordeal is unbelievable as you chase a goal but yes, I did believe that I would succeed.

AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu Jamal talked about you in a commentary, fellow prisoner on death row in Pennsylvania. Over the last two decades, he has written regular commentaries that we have aired, in fact, because we have aired these commentaries, we were pulled off all of the public radio stations in Pennsylvania only airing on public access TV, DU-TV in Philadelphia, but this is what he had to say about your case.

MUMIA ABU JAMAL: This is Nick’s turn. For over two decades, Nicholas Yarris has been living a nightmare inside of a nightmare. It is surely nightmare enough to live on death row, a world of the death where one is locked in a cell 22 hours a day, 48 hours on the weekend. There are in fact worse things — imagine being thought a rapist and murderer. What if one was innocent? For over 22 years, Nick has been insisting on his innocence, but few have cared to listen. For the last ten years, he fought for D.N.A. testing. But the tests came back marked unconclusive, that is, until now. Recently, lawyers filed a motion in the pending habeas corpus proceedings. According to the motion filed by Christina O’Swan, “one thing is clear, Mr. Yarris should not be required to spend another moment behind bars much less on death row, he is innocent of this offense and should be freed,” she wrote. His lawyers wrote those words because they received the results of the D.N.A. test performed by a D.N.A. Expert of national renown, Edward Blake of Forensic Science Associates in California. They took three samples from the murder rape victim, a 32-year-old mother, Linda Maycraig. The test involved sperm taken from her body and skin from her fingernails and evidence from a glove the said rapist used during the attack. None of the evidence matched. Since 1981, the prosecutors have claimed that Yarris gave a jailhouse confession. That evidence, too, seen as worthless as the physical evidence. The D.A.s in Delaware County are unwilling and unable to let Nick go. They have announced that they will fight his release. An incredible statement, D.A. Gene Michael Green “D.N.A. testing results themselves do not establish Yarris’s innocence nor do these results indicate a wrongful conviction?” Not surprisingly, Yarris, remains under the harrowing conditions of death row, it is up to a judge again. Meanwhile, Nick Yarris longs for an end to the 21-year nightmare may it not be long in coming. From death row, this is Mumia Abu Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you ever heard that commentary?

NICHOLAS YARRIS: No. But it sounds like the yard. We used to talk — when he and I were sentenced to death on the same day, he in Philadelphia, I in Delaware county, we have been friends for 22 years now. We met in 1982. We spent 12 years together at Huntington. I just heard him in the yard again, too. I didn’t know that people were doing these things while — because I was in solitary confinement even after the D.N.A. testing. I spent 8,057 days l locked in a box the size of your bathroom. I told you after the D.N.A. testing, they got vicious. These people in Green county prison and the other prisons I was held were just determined. They stripped me of all of my belongings. They took away religious medals, watches, and petty things. Left me in a cell with the light on 24 hours a day for the last seven months. I sat back and just decided at that point, no matter what they did, I was just going to sit back and just plan for today.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you make it?

NICHOLAS YARRIS: I don’t know. I think in all honesty, it comes from the strength of my parents. I have incredibly strong parents because I wasn’t the only traumatic thing that happened in their lives. I have lost my baby brother. I sleep on the couch where he overdosed. I live in their basement. I have an older brother who had open cranial surgery. He had many problems throughout his life. I had all of these things befall my parents. So, how could I cry about anything when they have suffered so much greater.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans now?

NICHOLAS YARRIS: I’m going on the lecture circuit. I’m hoping to have my book published. It’s on my website at You can just use Google. I have begun the second book. I hope to go on the lecture circuit and speak well of what needs to be spoken about. Hopefully, I have the poise, vernacular and dignity to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: The authorities saying D.N.A. doesn’t establish your innocence. Are you suing the government?

NICHOLAS YARRIS: Well, you know, honestly, everyone has been debating that, should I sue. Should I seek compensation? For me, my focus hasn’t even begun that, although I have been approached by legal defense lawyers in particular, asking me about filing the suit, right now my main goal is to heal my family. I’m 26 days old. I just got out. So, to put too many steps ahead of me is a problem. I came here to New York last night to speak at the play, “Exonerated.” Met with some friends. Met with my former attorney, Christine o’Swans, who is with the NAACP now, the Legal Defense Fund. I want to begin to set in place my goals. Because my goal or my dream wasn’t getting out. That’s the catastrophe. If you have that as your goal. My goals and dreams lie in the efforts that I will make from this day forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nick Yarris, I very much appreciate you joining us on Democracy Now. Nicholas Yarris just freed after 22 years in prison. Most of that time he was on death row, thousands of days in solitary confinement.

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