One in a series on issues pertaining to the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
On Jan. 16, 2004, Nicholas Yarris walked out of prison a free man after 22 years on Pennsylvania's death row.
Yarris, now 54, is one of 15 people in the United States - and the only person in Pennsylvania - to be released from death row after being found not guilty of a capital murder by means of a DNA test.
"I'm kind of a walking encyclopedia on the death penalty," Yarris joked during a recent phone interview from his home in California.
In 1981, Yarris, 20 at the time, was driving with a friend in what turned out to be a stolen car. A Chester police officer pulled Yarris over and the encounter turned violent, the officer claimed. The incident ended with Yarris being charged with the attempted murder of a police officer.
Yarris said the charges against him were trumped up and when the case went to trial, he was acquitted of the attempted murder charge. He was convicted of theft for stealing the car.
A drug addict, Yarris struggled with withdrawal while in prison. In an attempt to get himself out of prison, he made up a story about knowing who killed Linda May Craig, who had been kidnapped from a parking lot of the Tri-State Mall in Delaware. Her body was found the next day, and it was determined she had been raped.
When police could not connect the person Yarris had claimed killed Linda May Craig to the crime, they began to suspect Yarris Soon, a prison informant claimed that Yarris had confessed to the murder.
Following a brief trial in 1982, a Delaware County jury convicted Yarris and sentenced him to death for the murder and rape of Linda May Craig. Though in 1984 while in transit between prison and the Delaware County Courthouse, Yarris escaped and was placed on the FBI's most wanted list.
He said life on the run was not for him and thought he would have been shot to death if police found him first.
"I didn't kill the woman. Why am I running?" he asked.
After 25 days on the run he called his parents, told them where he was and turned himself in.
For the next 20 years, Yarris would sit on death row waiting to die.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, there are 182 convicts sitting on death row in Pennsylvania.
State Correctional Institutes Graterford and Greene house the death row inmates, and executions are performed at State Correctional Institute Rockview.
While many wait for their appeals to proceed or for their sentence to be carried out, no one has been executed in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gary Heidnik was executed by means of lethal injection in 1999, and before him Keith Zettlemoyer and Leon Moser, convicted of killing his former wife and 2 daughters on Easter Sunday in a Lower Providence church parking lot, were executed by the same method in 1995. All 3 men had given up their appeals process and asked to die.
The last person in Pennsylvania to be executed involuntarily was Elmo Smith, a Bridgeport man sentenced to die for the rape and murder Mary Ann Mitchell, of a young woman from Roxborough, whose body was found in Lafayette Hill. He was executed in the electric chair in 1962. He would be the last person in Pennsylvania to be executed by the electric chair.
Between 1915 and 1962, 350 people, including Smith, had been executed using the electric chair.
In 1990 the electric chair was taken out of the State Correctional Institute Rockview and was no longer the official method of carrying out the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Lethal injection has become the method by which death row inmates are executed, but it has scarcely been used, partially because the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections does not have the drugs necessary to perform the executions. Pennsylvania uses a "3-drug cocktail" to perform lethal injections. The 1st part - fast-acting barbiturate - is very difficult to obtain, according to Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said in a press release.
The state does not currently have the drugs needed to perform lethal injections, but if it needed to purchase the drugs, it would be an open process, Wetzel said.
"We would get it legally, ethically and appropriately," he said.
In January, Gov. Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty until a study by the state Senate is completed and reviewed.
With the moratorium in place, when a defendant is up for execution, the governor will issue the condemned a temporary reprieve lasting until the study is completed.
"Today's action comes after significant consideration and reflection," Wolf said when he announced the moratorium. "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.
"Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania. Recognizing the seriousness of these concerns, the Senate established the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission to conduct a study of the effectiveness of capital punishment in Pennsylvania. Today's moratorium will remain in effect until this commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed satisfactorily."
That study was supposed to be completed by 2011.
Yarris, the man released from death row, said he thought something would have been done in Pennsylvania shortly after he left prison, not almost 10 years later.
Life on the row: 'Abject Misery'
Susan Behringer, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said the department does not take a stance in the death penalty debate. Its role is to house the offender and carry out the death sentence if it is ever taken that far.
Those on death row spend their entire lives there, save for an hour a day for recreation, but even they are not placed with general population for their brief exercise.
Those who can afford a television and cable can buy it for themselves, Behringer said.
The death row Yarris remembers was one rife with violence. When he entered Pennsylvania's state prison system in 1982 he was more or less sentenced to live in hell, he said.
Shortly after his 1982 conviction, Yarris was taken to State Correctional Institute Huntingdon just outside of Pittsburgh. There he was placed in a disciplinary unit, where he said he lived in silence because of a "no talking rule."
"I did not want to live anymore," Yarris said.
In 1995 Huntingdon was closed, and he was housed in a facility in Pittsburgh until 1998, when he was moved to death row at State Correctional Institute Greene.
He said throughout his time he was beaten by corrections officers, contracted illnesses that he was not treated for and was at times beaten by other prisoners.
One beating from a guard resulted in 11 broken bones in his hands. He said to save his humanity he would say "thank you" to the guards after they attacked him.
Through the plethora of bad experiences he said he found some hope through reading. One officer took pity on him and gave him books. From then on, he said, he spent most of his time on death row reading. Yarris said he learned early on that an education was important, and during his time in prison he read thousands of books. He compared the idea of freedom to being hit with a tidal wave.
"I had to prepare for it," he said.
That said, in 2002, just 2 years before Yarris would be exonerated, he gave up his appeals and in 2002 asked to be put to death.
"Lingering in hell is a lot worse than being executed," he said.
While he openly talks about the abuse he suffered at the hands of prison guards and even other prisoners, Yarris called his time on death row "the greatest adventure of my life."
On July 1, 1988, he married a woman while he was in prison. He says that marriage taught him how to love and how to accept love.
"I made an effort to cherish every nuance of life," Yarris said.
Yarris said he learned about DNA testing while incarcerated in the 1980s and wanted a test to prove that he had nothing to do with the killing of Craig. However, for years he was denied the opportunity to have a test completed from the evidence collected at the scene of the murder.
Finally in 2003 a test of the killer's glove left at the crime scene proved that Yarris was not the killer. Yarris maintained that on the night Craig was killed, he was having dinner with his parents, 26 miles away.
He said when he learned he would be getting out of prison he was put in a solitary cell for his own safety and for the protection for the officers. Yarris explained the officers acknowledged they broke him during his decades on death row.
"They told me 'We believe you'll be so full of rage that you'll want to kill one of us,'" Yarris said.
Almost immediately after being released from prison, Yarris left the United States and spent the next 9 years in the United Kingdom, where he met his 2nd wife and had a daughter.
He knew that adjusting to life would be difficult, but said when he went to England he began speaking in Hyde Park. Shortly after he arrived in the United Kingdom he began working with organizations on criminal justice reform in the United Kingdom.
"I want to be a productive citizen," Yarris said.
During that time, Yarris sued the Delaware County District Attorney's Office, seeking compensation for time he wrongly served in prison. At some point, he said, he was having problems with his wife and did not want to deal with the possibility of a trial. He said he gave the Delaware County District Attorney's Office 30 days to settle for $4 million. If they wouldn't take the settlement he would take the case to trial in federal court and seek $23 million.
At the last minute the Delaware County District Attorney's Office agreed and paid out the $4 million settlement to Yarris.
"I gave $1 million to my attorney and set up a trust fund for my daughter," he said.
Yarris' daughter, 9, lives in England with 2nd his ex-wife.
Present: "I don't have time to be bitter"
Yarris is married for the 3rd time and is working on a movie based on his book, "7 Days to Live." He is also working on a television series in which he will interview exonerated inmates called "Dead Man Talking."
In December, Variety.com reported that Yarris is working with Lucy Rice on a film based on his book.
Yarris said it's taken him a while to adjust, but he'ss not angry at anyone.
"It's not been an easy road," Yarris said. "I don't have time to be bitter."
Source: Times Herald, Dan Clark, September 12, 2015
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