If you'd asked Nick Yarris how old he was, on May 17, 2004 -- his 43rd birthday -- he'd have told you, "121 days." For the rest of his life, Yarris will have his regular birthday and the day he was born again: January 16, 2004, the day he walked out of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Greene a free man after 22 years on death row.
That birth had a long labor of its own, starting probably at age 7, when Yarris was sexually assaulted by a neighborhood predator. By 18 he was a tough high-school dropout, using drugs to protect himself from, as he puts it, his core having been stripped away from him. He dealt drugs, robbed people. In 1981, at age 20, Yarris got busted in a stolen car, wrestled with the officer who tried to arrest him, and ended up in jail, where, desperate to get out from under the charges and going through cold-turkey withdrawal from methamphetamine addiction, he told police that he knew who had killed Linda Mae Craig, a Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, woman who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in 1981. He tried to pin the murder on a dead guy, but the guy was alive and well, and had a good alibi. So the police came after Yarris; awhile later, a jailhouse informant sought Yarris out and then told police that Yarris had confessed to him. Yarris was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982.
In 1988, he became one of the first prison inmates in the country to push for dna testing, insisting that it would prove his innocence. Fifteen years later, on July 2, 2003, he heard that the DNA found on the victim's clothing didn't match his and knew that he was going home. For the first time, he broke down completely, and the guards put him in the shower so he could collect himself. When he got back to his cell, he was at peace with himself. He knew it'd be awhile yet, that these things move slowly, but that he would be free someday soon.
The district attorney in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where Yarris had been convicted, impaneled a grand jury to look into the case. It took another 120 days for the DA to finally drop the charges. But there were still outstanding charges against Yarris in Florida, too. (In 1985, on his way to a court hearing, Yarris had escaped from custody in Pennsylvania and found his way to Florida, where he'd robbed people and tried to get a fake passport to get out of the country.)
Eventually, the Florida authorities credited the time he'd served in Pennsylvania. On Monday, January 12, the guards told him to pack his stuff, he was going home. But the paperwork wasn't all done. On Tuesday and Wednesday they told him, "For real, you're going." On Thursday they said, "You're going in five minutes." Every day Yarris' family and friends heard on the radio that he was getting out. Friday at 8 a.m. the guards put him in a van and took him out a side sally port so he wouldn't talk to the press that was gathered in front of the tall, glass foyer of the visitor's entrance at the prison. But then word came that his Florida paperwork still wasn't done, so they took him back inside again. The delays were getting tedious, Yarris thought. As he waited in the intake unit at Greene for four and a half hours that Friday morning, guards from all over the institution came over to congratulate him on how he'd carried himself while in prison.
Finally the paperwork was done, and as Yarris went to sign the paper for the state of Florida, telling authorities where he was going to be living, he asked, "What if I don't sign it?"
"Please, Mr. Yarris," the woman signing him out said. "There's been enough drama for one day. Don't start."
Yarris took the 29-cent pen he used to sign that document with him as a souvenir. The prison officials didn't bother with the van this time, and it was just past noon when he walked out, greeted his parents and some friends.
His sister, who lived at the other end of the state and couldn't make it out to Greene that day, called their mother's cell phone. Yarris had never held one before. He started pressing buttons madly, not knowing that the "on" button meant "talk." He and his sister had been estranged for 20 years -- being in prison puts up lots of kinds of barriers between you and your family, and she had been ashamed, had believed he was guilty. But for a while now she'd known he was innocent, and when he heard her voice they started singing Bob Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street" together. It had been their song, back before his murder conviction.
Yarris went to his parents' hotel and just stood in the parking lot, staring out at the snow-covered landscape. He felt like he was breathing after holding his breath for a long time, like everything had a taste -- except the shrimp he ordered at the Cracker Barrel restaurant he went to with his family. He was too caught up in the strangeness of the world to taste those at all. He went outside with his father for a couple of minutes and noticed how loud the world was -- the whisper of the tires of passing cars was very loud to him.
Back inside, he asked if his father had one of the new $20 bills with all the fancy stuff on it, and when his father gave him one to look at, he pocketed it.
"What're you doing?" his father asked.
"Duh!" Yarris said, and the whole family laughed. That became their punch line for the day -- a few minutes later he tried to use his souvenir pen, and it didn't work. "Duh!" they all said, laughing.
It was time to drive the five and a half hours home to Philadelphia. Yarris was on the cell phone most of the way, calling friends. When they got to his parents' house the press was there, waiting for him. He sneaked inside to put on his Eagles hat, then came out to talk. Dealing with the press didn't bother him until later, when he sat with family members to watch the news coverage and saw himself on TV.
"I thought I looked old, and it really bothered me," he says. "I felt like a stranger in my own skin. It bothered me that [my family members] were watching me."
That night, at his parents' house in Philadelphia, it was hard to reconnect with all the strangers who were his family, to meet nieces and nephews for the first time. Yarris felt bad because everyone in the family wanted to hug him and he had no idea how to tell them how hard it was to deal with people touching him. No one had touched him for 14 years -- death-row inmates aren't allowed physical contact with anyone -- and he felt as if his body were vibrating from all the hugs. One niece kept touching him with her cold hands, and he'd overdramatize how cold they were, and the kids would laugh. That was amazing.
Later, the family dispersed and Yarris went upstairs. He was supposed to sleep in his younger brother's bed. It was a hard reminder of something death row had taken from him: some kind of life with his younger brother, who had died of a drug overdose in August of 2002 (Yarris hadn't been allowed to go to the funeral). So he spent his first night of freedom in his childhood bedroom, hardly sleeping, visited by his younger brother's ghost.
In addition to having a new birthday, Yarris has a number for the rest of his life, a kind of badge of honor: He's the 112th person exonerated from death row since 1973, when executions resumed in the United States. As death-penalty supporters try desperately to fashion a system for executions that is at once fair, timely, and error-free, the ever-increasing number of exonerations (No. 114 was freed earlier this year) has raised public awareness of just how broken the current system is.
No formal studies have been done on the long-term effect of such awareness. In Texas, for example, polls show that while a majority of people believe an innocent person may have been executed in that state, a majority still support the death penalty. In Illinois, by contrast, the exonerations led then-Governor George Ryan to halt executions and, eventually, to commute all the death sentences in his state. But several of the states with the highest death-row populations seem to have the most arbitrary and unfair systems. Texas just executed a mentally ill man after the Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 5 to 1 for commutation; Florida has had 23 exonerations since 1973; and in Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the 200-plus people on death row are minorities.
While some much-needed reforms to the death-penalty system wind slowly through the legal process, some politicians are pursuing the perfect death penalty. In Massachusetts, the growing number of exonerations nationwide led Governor Mitt Romney, who has made reinstituting the death penalty a priority of his administration, to appoint a commission to come up with an infallible death-penalty system. The commission's proposal includes using DNA testing, the silver bullet of many exonerations, to ensure that any capital convictions meet a new "beyond all doubt" standard of guilt. With DNA testing available in only a fraction of murder cases, however, the proposal creates a penalty that would apply to so few murders that even death-penalty proponents question if it would be worth the time and expense necessary to create such a system.
Importantly, an increased awareness of problems in the death-penalty system has helped bring attention to broader issues in our justice system. Perhaps the two most common reasons for convictions of innocent people in capital cases have been mistaken eyewitness testimony and jailhouse snitches, who are routinely given deals by prosecutors in return for unsubstantiated stories. We have also been forced to focus on difficult realities: People do confess to crimes they didn't commit; the way police conduct lineups and show pictures to witnesses profoundly influences whom the witnesses identify; and the victims-rights movement is all too often a tool used by states to support some victims (those who want the death penalty) and ignore others (those who don't). Anti–death-penalty activists are now pushing for reforms in police identification procedures, in the use of jailhouse-snitch testimony, and in having all interviews in murder cases videotaped.
And so cracks spread through the foundation of our death-penalty system, a new one opening every time an innocent person walks off of a death row.
Nick Yarris doesn't sleep much, maybe four hours a night. So many decisions he needs to make seem to pursue him -- things like finding a job, getting himself some identification, opening a bank account. It's like being perpetually in the middle of deadlines, waking up and realizing there's so much to do, always. He got a job washing shuttle buses at the airport, but gave it up to focus on what really matters to him: giving speeches, meeting with any politician who will listen, going on any radio or TV show that will have him in order to help the innocent men he left behind. He spent a lot of time around convicted murderers, and his long conversations with two inmates, Walter Ogrod and Ernest Simmons, convinced him that they are innocent. Ogrod was convicted of the sexual assault and murder of a 4-year-old girl, Simmons of the robbery and murder of an 80-year-old woman.
"In order for us to accept the fact that Walter and Ernest are guilty," Yarris says, "we have to accept the fact that they had the ability to transform into cunning, conniving people and then go back into their everyday modes of mentally impaired men. There's just something genuinely, openly, honestly wrong with this."
The Ogrod and Simmons cases have other similarities. Ogrod came within one jury vote of being acquitted at his first trial in 1993, only to be convicted at a second trial in 1996 after a jailhouse informant came forward to testify against him. Simmons' case includes witnesses who testified against him in exchange for deals, another witness who admits now that she was pressured by detectives to identify him, and key physical evidence being withheld from his defense team during his trial.
So, while Yarris hopes to someday quietly publish a book about his experience and then "just fade away," he has, for now, given up his privacy to speak out about the system that almost killed him. In mid-May, after the scandal surrounding the abuse of Iraqi prisoners broke, Yarris had a chance to voice his concerns about the prison system more generally when he was interviewed about one of the U.S. Army reservists charged with abuse, Charles Graner, who had been a prison guard at Greene and had been accused of abuse there long before he ever went to Iraq. Graner's treatment of prisoners at Greene, according to Yarris and other inmates, involved physical abuse and sexual humiliation.
Yarris insists he isn't angry about his time on death row, that being put there was the greatest adventure of his life.
"People don't get that when I say it," he says. "But they don't know the gift I've been given." People tell him he seems to appreciate everyday things more fully than they do, that it rubs off on them: A friend notices the childlike joy Yarris gets from watching little kids play baseball; a lawyer tells him he loves to watch him eat because he'd forgotten how much he loved food.
In his 20s, on death row for something he didn't do, Yarris found a dictionary, a medical encyclopedia from 1936, and three novels. He started educating himself, taught himself German and psychology, became an expert in DNA testing and legal briefs.
So prison gave the damaged kid, the predatory adolescent, a chance to become a good man. It was, Yarris thinks, most likely the only way that that would have happened. "I can't sleep, I'm impatient," Yarris says. "But man, I tell you, every day of my life I'm happy."
Without DNA testing, that redeemed life would have been wrongfully snuffed out.