As Americans, we trust that justice always prevails and an innocent man will be vindicated. Sadly, however, that’s not always the case.
As a young man, a Philadelphia native found himself the prime suspect in a murder case after telling police a small lie. He thought it wouldn’t take long for the truth to prove his innocence, yet it wasn’t until he had served 22 years on death row that the truth was finally revealed.
An Idyllic Chilhood
After his birth in 1961, Nicholas James Yarris grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia in a home that he shared with his parents and five siblings. His first few years of life were idyllic as he was raised by two loving parents. However, that happy childhood didn’t last.
The Happy Days are Over
Yarris had a happy, normal childhood but that all changed when he was just seven years old. While out in the neighborhood, Yarris was approached by a teenager who was also from the same neighborhood. What the teenager did next changed the course of Yarris’ life forever.
The teenage boy hit him on the head so hard that Yarris later learned the blow had given him brain damage. After attacking him, the teenager proceeded to rape the seven-year-old. Rather than tell his parents about what happened, Yarris stayed silent and tried to forget about it.
However, the unresolved trauma didn’t go away. Instead, it manifested a few years later when he was a teenager and got into drinking, doing drugs, and getting involved with petty crime. The once sweet boy was on a downward spiral and no one understood why.
A Downward Spiral
“I began a downward spiral as a teen, and my parents blamed themselves. I was out of control and became involved in petty crime and drugs,” Yarris said. One day, Yarris and a friend stole a car for a fun. When they got to a garage, however, the owner knew the boys must have stolen the car and offered to pay them $200 for it.
Yarris and his friend happily accepted the money and then started stealing more cars to sell them. The pair used the money to pay for drugs and alcohol, which they were quickly becoming addicted to. “The chaos came to a climax when I stole a car while high. When I got pulled over by the police, we got into a scuffle,” Yarris said.
“The officer pulled out his gun and somehow it discharged. Later, he made up a story and said I tried to kidnap and murder him.” As a result, Yarris was charged with stealing a car, driving under the influence, kidnapping a police officer, attempted murder of a police officer, reckless endangerment, possession of a firearm, robbery, and resisting arrest.
For those charges, Yarris faced life in prison. While he wasn’t guilty of many of the charges, he knew it was his word against a police officer’s word. As a drug addict and criminal, he knew his word wouldn’t mean much in court and believed he was going to be found guilty.
A Desperate Plan
“It was a stupid thing to do – I realized that as I awaited trial, looking at life in prison. But as I sat alone in the cell, I did something even more stupid,” Yarris said, according to the Mirror. The young man was desperate to reduce his sentence and came up with a crazy plan to do it.
The Murder Case
Yarris had no idea that he would soon be acquitted of those charges after the officer’s story couldn’t be substantiated. While in custody, Yarris had been given a newspaper to read and learned about a young woman, Linda Mae Craig, who had been murdered. “I cooked up a crazy story, thinking I might get a more lenient punishment if I helped police solve the crime,” Yarris said.
Yarris told the police that the killer was a man named Jimmy, a drug addict who he had lived with for a short time in the past. At the time, Yarris believed Jimmy was dead. “I was just desperate, a drug-addled kid who didn’t know what to do to get out of jail,” Yarris said.
The Prime Suspect
However, Jimmy was very much alive and had an alibi when the police tracked him down. Three days later, the police made Yarris their prime suspect. His mother, father, and sister provided an alibi for him, but everyone believed they were just covering for Yarris.
“The trial, four months later, lasted three days. Everyone spoke over the top of me and used words and terminology above my understanding. Watching my family in the witness box was awful – decent, honest humans ground to nothing,” Yarris said. “They showed a photo of the victim on the autopsy table with six stab wounds in her chest. I knew after they showed those photos and none of the jury could look at me any longer, that I was going to be found guilty.”
The Death Sentence
After just an hour of deliberations, the jury announced they found Yarris, who was just 21 at the time, was guilty of rape and murder. For those crimes, they sentenced him to death. “I was sent to the worst prison in Pennsylvania. On my first day, I was beaten senseless. They put me in solitary confinement, and although I went on to do 8,755 days of solitary in total, the first two were the hardest. I almost went mad, beating my head against the wall,” Yarris said.
A Living Hell
During his time on death row, most of which was spent in solitary confinement, Yarris was beaten by guards and forced to fight other inmates at times. From 1989 to 2003, Yarris was never touched by another person. During those 14 years, he would lie on his arm until it went numb and then touch his face imagining it was someone else.
Paying For His Mistakes
However, Yarris didn’t spend much time being angry at his situation. While he didn’t commit murder and rape, he knew he hadn’t been an upstanding citizen either. “I was not a righteous person, so I wholeheartedly flung myself into paying for the misdeeds that I did as a young man – for every window I broke, everything I stole, every drug I took, everything I did wrong in my life,” Yarris said, according to Raconteur.
Hitting The Books
Yarris spent as much time as he could reading and studying. He was sure he would be put to death for a crime he didn’t commit and just wanted to be able to make an eloquent final statement. Sometimes, Yarris read three books in a single day. According to Yarris, he read approximately 9,400 books while in prison. When Yarris read about DNA technology being used to solve crimes, he petitioned to have his DNA tested. At the time, it gave him a small amount of hope that his name would be cleared. Yet his request was met with delays and setbacks. After a few years, Yarris got tired of waiting.
Life Begins At 42
“In 2002 I was ready to be executed and I asked to drop my legal appeals so that the execution process would be carried out,” Yarris said, according to BBC. However, a judge decided to order one more DNA test. The results of that test showed that neither of the two DNA traces collected from the crime scene matched Yarris’ DNA. After 22 years on death row, Yarris’ innocence had finally been proved. In 2004, Yarris was finally exonerated for the crimes he had been found guilty of. “My ordeal ended on January 16th, 2004, and my life began on January 16th, 2004. At the age of 42, I began life,” Yarris said.
Life After Death Row
Yarris, who was awarded $4 million for the wrongful conviction, struggled to adjust to normal life after decades in prison, yet he overcame the challenges. He’s since written a book, “The Fear of 13,” which is also the subject of a Netflix program by the same name. In them, he campaigns to abolish the death penalty. He’s even spoken in front of the United Nations and European Union, as well as given speeches at thousands of schools about his life.
A Life Saver
Since his release, Yarris has been married several times and has become a father. “I genuinely believe that being on death row for 22 years ultimately saved my life. It was the greatest adventure of my life, and I survived it. … If I hadn’t have gone to prison, then my life wouldn’t be as good as it is now. I never look at it in a negative way.”