Nicholas Yarris – Death Row Exoneree

“Hello, my name is Nick Yarris and I am 55 years old and I come from Philadelphia Pennsylvania. In 1981 I was arrested, charged and convicted for the rape, murder and kidnapping of a woman i’d never met.

Nicholas spent 23 agonising years, in solitary confinement, on death row, awaiting his own execution. An innocent man, guilty for a crime he didn’t commit. He was the first man in America to seek DNA testing to prove his innocence, but it wasn’t until 2003 that he walked out of State Correctional Institution, Rockview prison as a free man.

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Image source: innocenceproject.org

State: Pennsylvania

Charge and conviction: Murder, Rape, Abduction

Sentence: Death

Incident Date: 12/15/81, Conviction Date: 07/01/82, Exoneration Date: 09/03/03

Served: 21 years

Status: Exonerated by DNA


 His story: 

On December 15, 1981, a sales associate from the Tri-State mall in Pennsylvania was abducted from her car after her shift ended. Hours after she was meant to return home, her husband called the police and investigators located her car, abandoned on a roadway. The following day, a victim’s body was found – beaten, stabbed, and raped – in a church car park a mile and a half away from her car.

With clothes still on, the murderer had cut open her thick winter clothing to commit the sexual assault. The police determined that she had bled to death from multiple stab wounds in her chest. Biological materials, including sperm samples and fingernail scrapings, were collected from the victim’s body. Police also collected gloves believed to have been left by the perpetrator from the victim’s car. The biological evidence collected from the crime scenes would prove to be pivotal in the years to come.

Four days after discovering the body, police stopped Nicholas Yarris on a Pennsylvania roadway for a traffic violation. The routine stop escalated into a violent confrontation between Yarris and the patrolman and ended in Yarris’s arrest for attempted murder of a police officer. While in custody for this offense, Yarris accused an acquaintance of committing the Tri-State mall murder in a gambit to gain his freedom. When this suspect was ruled out by the police, Yarris became the prime suspect of the murder investigation. According to a detective’s statement, Yarris was asked: “Did you mean to kill her?” and apparently responded by saying “I never meant to kill anyone.”

Testing was performed on the rape kit, the results could not exclude Yarris. Along with the biological evidence, prosecutors relied on the testimony of an inmate, who told the guards that Yarris had confessed to him in the middle of the night that he killed the victim in question. This was a lie. 

In 1982, Nicholas Yarris was convicted of murder, rape, and abduction. He was sentenced to death.

For years, Yarris proclaimed his innocence, eventually leading to a long struggle for DNA testing of the crime scene evidence. In 1989, he became Pennsylvania’s first death row inmate to demand postconviction DNA testing to prove his innocence, and in 2003 Dr. Edward Blake conducted a final round of testing on the gloves found in the victim’s car, fingernail scrapings from the victim, and the remaining spermatozoa obtained from the decedent’s underpants. The results did not match Yarris. 

On September 3rd, 2003, based on Dr. Blake’s results, the court vacated Yarris’s conviction and he became the 140th person in the United States to be exonerated by postconviction DNA testing – the 13th DNA exoneration from death row.

Due, however, to a 1985 conviction for escape with connected charges in Florida, Yarris still had a 30 year sentence on his record and he remained in jail.

On January 15th, 2004, Florida reduced his sentence to 17 years (time served) and granted his release. The following day, Nicholas Yarris was finally freed from a Pennsylvania prison after spending over 21 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Information from innocenceproject.org

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