Nicholas Yarris: Incarcerated Until Proven Innocent

DNA Evidence Exonnerates Death Row Inmate

Interior views of traditional prison
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On December 16, 1981, Linda May Craig, a young sales associate who worked at the Tri-State Mall in Pennsylvania, was abducted in her car as she left work. When she did not arrive at home, her husband called the police. The following day, the victim's body was found - beaten, stabbed, and raped - in a church parking lot a mile and a half away from her car. She was still clothed, but 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.

Sperm samples and fingernail scrapings were collected from the victim's body by investigators. Police also collected gloves believed to have been left by the perpetrator from the victim's car.

Four days later, police stopped Nick Yarris 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.

Yarris 'Not Excluded'

While still in custody, Yarris accused an acquaintance of committing Linda Craig's murder to gain his freedom. When this alleged suspect was eliminated by investigators, Yarris became the prime suspect in the murder investigation.

Conventional testing performed on the collected evidence could not exclude Yarris as a suspect. Prosecutors also relied on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and identifications by the victim's co-workers, who identified Yarris as the man seen harassing the victim before her murder, to convict him. Mrs. Craig had complained of being stalked by other men at the mall, and mall employees had seen men other than Yarris lurking in the vicinity of the mall near the time of the abduction and murder. However, in 1982, Nicholas Yarris was convicted of murder, rape, and abduction. He was sentenced to death.

Yarris always proclaimed his innocence. In 1989, he became one of Pennsylvania's first death row inmates to demand post-conviction DNA testing to prove his innocence. It started with the gloves found in murder victim Linda Craig’s car after she disappeared. They sat in an evidence room for years before anyone thought to test them for biological material. Rounds of DNA testing of various pieces of evidence were conducted during the 1990s, but all failed to produce conclusive results.

Last of the DNA Used Up

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 sperm found in the victim's underpants. DNA profiles obtained from the gloves and the sperm evidence appeared to originate from the same person. Nicholas Yarris was excluded from all biological material connected with this crime by these tests.

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 and the first ever in Pennsylvania.

Yarris still had a 30-year sentence in Florida to serve, but on Jan. 15, 2004, Florida reduced his sentence to 17 years (time served) and granted his release. The following day, Nick Yarris was finally freed from a Pennsylvania prison after spending more than 21 years behind bars for a crime the DNA evidence says he did not commit.