Life after death row
Stitched up for a rape and murder he didn't commit, Nicholas Yarris spent 22 years on death row, where he was led around on a leash and maimed by a warder. Now free, he told Nicci Martel why he won't allow himself to be bitter.
AFTER one of the shortest murder trials in Pennsylvania's history, Nicholas Yarris was sentenced to death. He was convicted despite no evidence, no confession, no eyewitnesses and a credible alibi.
He spent the next 22 years on death row in one of America's toughest prisons before DNA evidence proved without doubt in 2003 that he had not abducted, raped and killed young sales assistant Linda Mae Craig.
A year later, at the age of 42, he was freed.
'I think I owe it to everyone not to be bitter. Too many people have been through this experience and not had the chance to get their life back. I've lost so much time – I can't waste what time I have left feeling angry,' said Nicholas, who was in Guernsey to speak to local psychology students at a conference on crime.
'I now have a beautiful wife and daughter, but only six years ago I was ready to die. It's hard to believe that I have a life now and I'm living it.'
It is difficult to reconcile the man before me with the extraordinary story of his past. Nicholas today is charming and brimming with positivity – quite an achievement considering how badly justice failed him.
He's become a poster boy for anti-death-penalty lobbyists and as well as lecturing on the importance of education in rehabilitation, he is himself a campaigner for Reprieve, a human rights charity working to protect UK nationals from being executed anywhere in the world.
The contrast with his violent, drug-fuelled past couldn't be starker. He was, by his own admission, no angel.
Raped by a neighbour at the age of seven, Nicholas kept silent, fearing his attacker would harm his family.
Not telling anyone was, he said, the worst thing he could have done.
Guilt, shame and fear drove him to alcohol and by the age of 17 he was a methadone addict with a knack for getting into trouble.
On 16 December 1981, a complex chain of events began to unfold and Nicholas found himself at the centre of it.
That was the day that 30-year-old Linda Mae Craig was abducted in her car after having finished a shift at Pennsylvania's
Tri-State Mall. Her husband called police when she failed to return home and investigators soon found her yellow Chrysler abandoned in a nearby roadway.
The next day her body was found beaten, stabbed and raped in a church car park a mile-and-a-half away from her car. She had bled to death.
Sperm samples and fingernail scrapings collected at the time would later prove to be pivotal, as would a pair of gloves thought by police to have belonged to the perpetrator.
Four days later, in an unrelated incident, police stopped Nicholas for a traffic violation. The situation escalated into a violent confrontation which resulted in his arrest for the attempted murder of a police officer.
'It was ridiculous. This guy saw a junkie and started grabbing me and getting physical. It happened in seconds. Although it would take a jury less than an hour to decide I was innocent, the damage had already been done.'
While in custody and having been told he faced a lifetime behind bars, Nicholas panicked and told police that a dead rival had been responsible for Linda Mae's murder, which he had read about in the newspaper. He hoped it would get him out of solitary confinement and even out on bail.
The plan backfired when his accused rival turned up alive with a watertight alibi. He had misjudged the odds.
'The authorities had it in their heads that I knew too much about the murder, so I must have done it. I was totally demonised – the press portrayed me as an Ian Huntley character. People wanted my blood and I was a terrified 20-year-old boy. I was still a child.'
Forensic evidence could not rule Nicholas out of having committed the crime. Prosecutors used this, the testimony of a jailhouse informant plus identifications by the victim's co-workers who claimed seeing Nicholas at the mall to successfully argue their way to a conviction. In 1982 he was sentenced to death, initially by electric chair but later changed to lethal injection.
'I might have been in jail, but in a way I was protected behind bars. My parents were my alibis and living in society for them was barbaric – my mother was spat at in the face, my father was fired from his job, my brother was assaulted. They were abused by total strangers.'
What followed for Nicholas were more than 20 years of incarceration and torture. He suffered repeated abuse at the hands of one prison guard and showed me the deformed, bulbous mass on the upper side of his hand where it had been deliberately crushed.
The guard responsible was later promoted to sergeant.
'Human beings become something other than themselves when they are put in a position of imprisoning other people.
It destroys them, drives them crazy and can rob them of their humanity.
'When I was set free, all I could think about doing was asking that guard what he thought of my hand now. How did he feel that I was free?'
In 1989 Nicholas became the first death-row inmate in the United States to demand post-conviction DNA testing to prove his innocence. Successive rounds of testing on various pieces of evidence followed throughout the 90s, but all failed to produce conclusive results.
A breakthrough occurred in 2003 when a forensic doctor retested the gloves that had been found in the victim's car, as well as sperm samples found in her underwear. The two DNA profiles matched, but did not belong to Nicholas.
The prosecution's witnesses then soon admitted they had been coerced into lying by the case's lead detective and finally there was undeniable evidence of his innocence.
'They wouldn't release me until a year later because of a conviction I had for escaping prison early on in my sentence. I didn't dig a big hole and crawl my way out or anything. I was en route to a court hearing in Florida when we stopped to use public toilets.
'I was left unattended and I ran.'
For 25 days in 1985 he became the most hunted man in America and thousands of law-enforcement personnel were assigned to look for him.
But he kept on the move before finally handing himself in. The pressure of the chase was too much.
For escaping he had an extra 35 years added to his sentence, but in 2004 it was decided that it be reduced to time served. Hindsight revealed he never had been a murderer on the loose.
'Before my release I had not hugged another human being for 14 years. I was led around on a leash. Just to feel someone hold my hand or touch my face would have been the most wondrous of gifts.
'Even when I thought I would never be released, I was determined to discover humanity.
'That's why I educated myself – I studied psychology. I needed something to lift me out of my hole and give me some inner peace.'
With a $4m. compensation payout, an autobiography due out this year, not to mention a wife, a baby girl and a home in Watford, things have taken a phenomenal turn for Nicholas.
His new life was so unexpected and although he is grabbing it by the horns, there will always be a sound, a smell or some sensation that can transport his mind back to his solitary cell at a moment's notice.
Motown star David Ruffin's track Common Man hits that nerve.
For Nicholas, the song holds such unimaginable beauty and poignancy.
It marked the end of his first two years in prison when a fellow inmate broke strict silence to sing it to his lover, who was being transported elsewhere.
'Imagine not hearing a sound for two years and then in the dead of night you hear a voice singing.
'He was singing goodbye to the man he loved and it was beautiful. I knew the guards were going to be down any minute and I thought they'd probably kill him. The most remarkable thing happened – the sergeant simply said, "let him finish his song", and he did.'
Nicholas, it seems, has only just started to sing.