Attorney: DNA tests show death row inmate innocent

Associated Press, July 29, 2003

PHILADELPHIA – DNA evidence proves that a man on death row since 1983 for rape and murder is innocent, a defense attorney said Monday.

Nicholas James Yarris, 42, of Philadelphia, who is on death row for the murder of Linda Mae Craig, 32, of Boothwyn, was convicted based on blood evidence now proven unreliable, a confession he contends he did not make and erroneous witness testimony that put him at the scene of the crime, attorney Christina Swarns said.

Recent tests show that Yarris’ DNA did not match physical evidence left on the victim’s clothing and under her fingernails, said Swarns, of the Federal Defender Association of Philadelphia. The association said that Yarris is the first person on death row in Pennsylvania to be cleared by DNA testing.

In the late 1980s, Yarris – who has maintained his innocence – was one of the first prisoners in Pennsylvania to demand DNA testing. Test results done in at a state police lab in 1992 were inconclusive. After Yarris exhausted his state court appeals, federal defenders took over the case and in 1997 demanded new tests, which were completed last week by a private lab in Richmond, Calif., Swarns said.

Each piece of evidence kept by the Delaware County District Attorneys Office – gloves left in the victim’s car, the victim’s underwear and skin samples from under her fingernails – was retested and each piece excluded Yarris, Swarns said.

“He fought so long and so hard. We always knew he didn’t do it, we always stood by him,” his mother Jayne Yarris said, choking back tears. His father, sister and an alibi witness during the trial also were in attendance but did not comment.

Swarns said that it likely was Yarris’ last chance to prove his innocence through DNA testing, because previous tests and less-than-ideal storage conditions left “very minute pieces” of physical evidence to work with. He also was in his last round of court appeals.

“The results establish what Mr. Yarris has been asserting, claiming, screaming to anyone who would listen for the last 21 years,” she said. “He has wrongly spent half his life on death row.”

In a statement, Delaware County District Attorney G. Michael Green’s office said it would review the tests.

“Today, it is clear the DNA testing results in and of themselves do not establish Yarris’ innocence, nor do these results indicate a wrongful conviction. The DNA testing results do warrant our further investigation,” the statement read.

Yarris’ attorneys have submitted the test results to U.S. District Chief Judge James T. Giles, along with a request for their client’s release. The judge likely will hold a hearing with lawyers for both sides to determine what happens next: whether or when Yarris should be released, if he should be retried or whether additional investigation is needed.

A jury in July 1982 convicted Yarris, then 21, of first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery. Prosecutors had argued that Craig, who worked part-time at the Tri-State Shopping Mall in Claymont, Del., resembled a girlfriend of Yarris’ who had jilted him.

He was sentenced to death in January 1983 and is on death row at the Graterford state prison near Philadelphia.

Witnesses testified that Yarris stalked Craig – who was working part-time at the mall to earn Christmas money – for 10 days, abducted her in her own car from the parking lot on Dec. 15, 1981, and drove her across the state line to Pennsylvania.

Her battered body, with a half dozen stab wounds to the chest, was discovered the following day by children making a snowman in a church parking lot in Upper Chichester, Delaware County, not far from her home.

Craig had three children with her husband, Arthur Craig. A message left at a phone listing for an Arthur Craig in suburban Philadelphia was not immediately returned Monday.

In 1985, Yarris dashed away from deputies, who had stopped to let him use a service station restroom, while being taken to a courthouse in Media for a hearing on an appeal of the murder conviction. Amid a nationwide manhunt, he was picked up in a stolen car by Florida authorities 25 days after his escape.

“The fact that after 21 years Yarris was lucky enough to have this evidence discovered is by no means proof of the system working,” said Jeff Garis of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty.

“The true killer has escaped justice, a young man’s life was destroyed and the limitations of our justice system have been exposed.”

According to the group, there are 239 people on death row in Pennsylvania, the fourth-largest number in the United States. Three people have been executed in the state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Swarns said she knew of no other capital cases in Pennsylvania currently awaiting new DNA test results.

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