January 10, 2008
By Stephanie Farr & William Bender, Philadelphia Daily News
Nicholas Yarris spent 22 years on Pennsylvania's death row, convicted in 1982 of raping and murdering a Delaware County woman then dumping her body in a church parking lot.
For those lost years, he has now earned $500 a day.
Yesterday, Yarris, 46, received the last installment of a recent $4 million cash settlement in a malicious-prosecution lawsuit against Delaware County.
The civil suit was first filed in U.S. District Court in 2004, eight months after Yarris was released from prison, having spent 8,057 days there - the first man exonerated by DNA evidence from Pennsylvania's death row.
Now, Yarris must learn how to live a life not entwined with prisons, courts and that now-ambiguous word - justice.
"As far as I'm concerned, the justice system is no longer a part of my life, and that's very strange to me because it's been a big part of my life since 1981," he said when reached by phone yesterday at his home in England, in a suburb of London.
While in Delaware County Prison in 1981 for an unrelated crime of which he was later acquitted, Yarris, then a self-proclaimed "20-year-old junkie," lied about knowing who had killed Linda Mae Craig, a mother of three from Boothwyn, who was raped and slain after she left her job at the Tri-State Mall in Delaware on Dec. 15, 1981.
In hopes of obtaining bail, he identified as the killer a man he thought was dead. However, the man turned out to be "very much alive" and had a very real alibi.
For his false claim, Yarris became the prime suspect in Craig's death. Prosecutors developed jailhouse witnesses who said they'd heard him confess to the crime and civilian witnesses who said they had seen him at the mall before the murder.
According to Yarris, the witnesses were conned into lying by prosecutors and detectives seeking a conviction.
He was sentenced to death in 1982 after a three-day trial and five hours of jury deliberation.
In 1985, while being transported for a destruction-of-evidence hearing, Yarris escaped, and remained on the lam for 25 days before turning himself in.
As the science of DNA evolved, Yarris pushed for it to be applied to his case.
But in 1993, he contracted hepatitis C in prison and by 2003 he was diagnosed as "terminal."
He essentially gave up his fight when he asked a judge to expedite his execution.
"I asked to be murdered," he said.
"After watching and hearing three other men die from this horrible disease, I wanted to control my death rather than linger in suffering."
But within a year, one last effort by his attorney resulted in forensic testing that proved that the DNA of the human skin and secretions found on and about the victim did not match Yarris' DNA.
A federal judge demanded that Yarris receive a new trial, but Delaware County prosecutors decided not to pursue the case. Yarris walked out of prison a free man in January 2004.
Eight months later, he filed a $22 million civil lawsuit against Delaware County, claiming that investigators and prosecutors had fabricated and destroyed evidence in his case.
The county's insurance company, and not county officials, agreed on the $4 million settlement, county solicitor John McBlain said.
"The insurance companies can negotiate a settlement if they so desire and the county cannot trump it," McBlain said.
"To this day the county and the district attorney's office does not believe that any of its employees committed any wrongdoing in the prosecution of this individual."
Joseph Brielmann, D.A. spokesman, agreed.
"The county of Delaware, the Office of the District Attorney and the prosecutors and detectives named in Mr. Yarris' suit adamantly maintain they are not liable for the claims he asserted," Brielmann said in a written statement.
Yarris disagrees - strongly - but says he does not hold ill will against those who put him in prison.
"You know how many people prayed for me to come home? At some point, I owed them," he said.
"What's the point of coming back from hell if you go home and bring hell to everyone's life? There's no point in getting out if I take that prison cell with me."
Yarris' father, Mike, who lives in Philadelphia's Eastwick section, and who says he can still recite the "whole trial, backwards, if you like," was not so forgiving of what prosecutors put his son and his family through.
"We went through this stuff for 22 years," Mike Yarris said. "Whatever money he gets is not enough."
Today, Nicholas Yarris lives with his wife, Karen, and 21-month-old daughter, Lara Rebecca, in St. Albans, a London suburb. His hepatitis is inactive and he works closely with Reprieve, a British charity fighting for English citizens facing the death penalty around the world.
He also tours independently, visiting colleges and universities, sharing his story, trying to get students interested in law careers so that they can reform the system.
HarperCollins is slated to publish his book, "Seven Days to Live My Life," this year, and he has sold the movie rights to his story.
Yarris, who was homeless at certain points after his release, said he's going to be "prudent" with the settlement and invest it in his daughter's future.
As for the case of Linda Mae Craig, Brielmann said District Attorney Michael G. Green "remains steadfast in his resolve to solve the homicide."
Craig's son, Arthur Craig Jr., who now lives in Indiana hauling cars for the Teamsters Union, said he still thinks Yarris was tied to the crime, despite his legal exoneration. "I believe he was involved," he said. "Is there anything I can do? No.
"God will sort him out."