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DNA exonerates death row inmate

State won't retry Nicholas Yarris for 1981 Delaware County murder; he's first in state to use genetic test to escape death penalty

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

By Cindi Lash, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Pennsylvania death row inmate became the first in the state to be exonerated by DNA evidence after prosecutors announced yesterday they would not retry him for the 1981 rape and murder of a suburban Philadelphia woman.

Associated Press
Nicholas Yarris is the first Pennsylvania death-row inmate to be cleared by DNA evidence.

Standing in shackles before a Delaware County judge, Nicholas James Yarris, 42, smiled broadly at his parents, Jayne and Michael Yarris, and said he bore no ill will toward investigators and prosecutors whose efforts have kept him on death row for half of his life.

"Despite the 22 years that the commonwealth did its best to kill me, I used the opportunity to become a good man," Yarris said in court yesterday. "I wish you well."

After reading a newspaper article about DNA testing in 1989, Yarris became one of the earliest of the nation's death row inmates to seek the testing to prove his innocence. He is the nation's 112th death row inmate to be exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and one of about a dozen to accomplish it using DNA evidence.

As his mother wept, Yarris' relatives embraced and expressed hope that he could be released from prison in time to celebrate Christmas at home.

Whether that will happen is uncertain because Yarris' attorneys first must convince authorities that the time he's spent in Pennsylvania prisons satisfies sentences for offenses he committed in Florida after he escaped from prison in 1985.

A Miami attorney will argue on his behalf that the 30-year sentence he faces in Florida was based on his status as a convicted killer and should be recalculated.

"That's what everyone wants, to have him home for the holidays," said assistant federal public defender Michael Wiseman, who assisted with Yarris' efforts to win his freedom.

Yarris could not speak publicly after yesterday's hearing in Media because he was quickly transported to the State Correctional Institution Greene in Waynesburg.

"He was very happy, but he didn't get to walk out of the courtroom, so it was a little anticlimactic," Wiseman said. "But he said he had no bitterness toward anyone involved in it all. He was quite gracious. I'm not sure I would be so gracious."

Jacqueline Larma, Associated Press
Jayne Yarris, left, and Sissy Whalen, cheer as they leave the Delaware County Courthouse yesterday. Yarris' son, Nicholas, spent 20 years on Pennsylvania's death row for a murder that DNA evidence suggest he did not commit.
Click photo for larger image.

Yarris was scheduled to stand trial a second time in January on charges that he assaulted and fatally stabbed Linda Mae Craig, 32, of Boothwyn, after abducting the mother of three from a shopping mall in December 1981. Prosecutors argued that he killed her because she resembled a girlfriend who'd dumped him.

That conviction was vacated in September, however, after DNA tests showed that traces of semen found on Craig's underwear, and skin found under Craig's fingernails and on gloves near her body, could not have come from Yarris.

Delaware County Deputy District Attorney Sheldon Kovach yesterday told Common Pleas Judge William R. Toal Jr. that his office lacked evidence to proceed with a second trial.

Prosecutors declined to say if they still believe Yarris was involved in the slaying, but said they will continue to seek the person whose genetic profile matches the DNA samples. Craig's family could not be reached.

Investigators have compared the DNA samples to those of other possible suspects, but haven't found a match. Now they will ask the FBI to compare the samples against those in its Combined DNA Index System. So far, the FBI has not done so because the testing that ruled out Yarris was done by a private firm rather than its own lab.

Assistant District Attorney Joseph J. Brielmann said prosecutors and police put together a fresh team to re-examine evidence in Craig's death after learning in August that Yarris did not leave the DNA found at the scene. The DA's office also joined with Yarris' attorneys in asking the court to throw out his original conviction, based on the DNA test results, Brielmann said.

"They have not uncovered enough information to proceed against Mr. Yarris," he said. "In fairness to Mr. Yarris, we requested that the prosecution be dismissed. The appellate process has worked in this instance."

At a news conference after the hearing, Delaware County District Attorney G. Michael Green said he might be willing to offer an apology on behalf of his office to Yarris "in a private way." But he and Brielmann would not go so far as to call the case a miscarriage of justice.

"The question is, does the system work in Pennsylvania? I would say [yesterday's] action proves that it does," Green said.

That stance outraged Yarris' supporters -- many of them opponents of the state's death penalty -- who said his case provides horrifying evidence that innocent people could be unjustly convicted and executed in Pennsylvania.

"Clearly the problem of wrongful convictions of those facing the death penalty has not gone away," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

"Unless executions are halted while this crisis is studied more closely, the risk of executing innocent people will remain unacceptably high."

Jeff Garis, executive director of the 8,000-member Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty, renewed his organization's call for Gov. Ed Rendell to impose a moratorium on the state's death penalty. Too often, Garis said, it is imposed on defendants who are minorities or are too poor to afford adequate legal counsel.

"At the very least, whether you support or oppose the death penalty, I think we can all agree that an innocent person shouldn't go through this experience. We need to examine the system and make sure that what happened to Nick Yarris doesn't happen again."


The Associated Press contributed to this report. Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

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