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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

'I spent 23 years on death row before DNA proved my innocence'

Nick Yarris
Convicted of murdering a young woman aged just 20, Nick Yarris, now 56, spent more than two decades in a tiny cell, until new evidence freed him...

I was 20 when I was sentenced to death. My life had been on a one-way path to self-destruction for years. I don’t remember too much about my early life, but I think I had a happy childhood, growing up in Philadelphia in a loving family with five siblings.

But at age seven I was attacked by a teenage boy from the neighbourhood. He hit me over the head and raped me, leaving me with what I now know is brain damage. 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.

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. 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. It was a stupid thing to do – I realised that as I awaited trial, looking at life in prison. But as I sat alone in the cell, I did something even more stupid. 

I was given a newspaper and I read it repeatedly. One story in particular seemed to speak to me and I had to keep reading it. I became obsessed with the murder of a young woman, Linda Mae Craig, and I cooked up a crazy story, thinking I might get a more lenient punishment if I helped police solve the crime.

It all happened so quickly, like a train started rolling that I couldn’t stop. A police officer walked over to my bed and I just started telling this story, that a drug addict called James had killed her.

I thought James, who I had lived with briefly, was dead, so I could trade this information. But James was alive – with an alibi. It was three days before they started accusing me of the killing.

Despite me having nothing to do with the crime, an inmate told them I’d confessed to him, and a police groupie made up lies to say she’d seen me stalking her. They made out I was psychologically unsound.

I had three alibis: my mother, father and sister, and they were treated as if they were lying for a monster – people rang them in the middle of the night to torment them, and once someone spat in my mum’s face, calling her a mother of a murderer.

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.

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. It only took them an hour to sentence me 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.

My family came to see me twice a year, driving four hours to visit – I made a real effort to make sure they didn’t see me suffer. I started reading books, even the dictionary, to teach me how to speak properly. I didn’t want to stutter on my execution day.

There were several appeals, but I ruined it all by escaping after three years inside. I was being transported to court and we stopped to use the rest room. There were two sheriffs and I managed to get away. I out-ran a helicopter, got on the aeroplane and went to Florida.

Being free was crazy, going from isolation to being at Coco Beach for Spring Break where there were 20,000 college students partying. I met a girl called Vicky and we dated.

I pretended to be a normal human, sitting down at her family dinner table while the police were hunting me. There I was, an escaped Death Row prisoner, playing patticakes with Vicky’s little sister at the table.

I planned to run away to Suriname, but I just couldn’t handle the fear. Everywhere I went I expected someone to put a gun to my skull and shoot me. I saw my photo on the 10 Most Wanted list and that was enough for me. After 25 days, I turned myself in. Vicky’s mother told police I was the politest young man, and I’d brought nothing but smiles to the household.

It was brutal going back to prison. I was ‘Red Xed’, meaning at no time could a human hand touch me. I spent 14 years like that. If I went out to exercise, they put 50,000 volts of electricity around my stomach, controlled by a device the guards would play catch with to torment me.

The guards beat me senseless, broke many bones in my face to punish me for my escape. One time they beat me so badly my retina detached. My cell was 9ft by 6ft. I knew the other prisoners by voice. If we emptied the water from the toilet, you could have a conversation through the piping with the person in the next cell.

I formed bonds with the other prisoners, writing letters to their lawyers and helping them with their legal work. The officers said it made me dangerous, and put me in a mental cell – a lot of men went on hunger strike, angry on my behalf.

Years before, I’d been acquitted of the original charge of kidnap of a police officer. But it took them 15 years to give me a DNA test for Mrs Craig’s murder – I watched other men walk free while I waited. They found traces of two other men on Mrs Craig’s clothes and in her car, and none from me. Being cleared was a bittersweet moment, and even my lawyer revealed he’d always thought I was guilty.

The world on the outside was tougher than I imagined. I felt allergic to fresh air, and my feet hurt from wearing shoes again. I didn’t know how long I was going to live, so I did everything as fast as I could. Ten months after I was released, I went to Europe and I spoke in front of the UK Parliament against the death penalty.

I’m not angry, because I don’t take what happened personally. I’m happily married and living on the Oregon coast now. I’ve a knack for being a dad to my three little girls. I’m the best playmate you could ever want. I do a lot of charity work to help young people find the correct education in life. I want everything I’ve gone through to be for good, somehow.

In a lot of ways, the 14 years of freedom have been harder than my years on Death Row. Inside prison, everybody shows their true face, so you know who you’re dealing with. Out here, everyone shows you a façade, and it’s a let-down when you find the reality is not the same.

Linda Craig’s killer has never been found, and I think about it often – I am wracked with guilt about how the lie I told affected the case. I hope that one day DNA will help solve her case, just like it did mine.

Source: Daily Mirror, Rosie Hopegood, July 1, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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