DNA test said to clear death row inmate jailed 21 years in rape, murder case
July 29, 2003; By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette
For half of his 42 years, Nicholas J. Yarris has been on death row in Pennsylvania prisons, emphatically telling anyone who would listen that he didn't commit the 1981 abduction, rape and murder of a Delaware County woman for which he was convicted. He now may have scientific evidence that he has been telling the truth from behind bars for more than two decades.
Yesterday, his attorneys went to U.S. District Court in Philadelphia with what they claim is proof of his innocence -- long-sought DNA testing that they say exonerates Yarris from the crimes.They filed a motion for his release with U.S. District Chief Judge James T. Giles, claiming that a nationally recognized forensic scientist found that Yarris' DNA did not match sperm discovered on the victim's underwear or that of skin cells found under her fingernails and in gloves believed to have been worn by the woman's killer.
The sources of the DNA on the victim -- semen from two different men on the underwear, one sample of which was consistent with that on the gloves and under the fingernails -- are unknown, the report says.
Should the motion for release prevail, Yarris would become the state's first death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA testing.
Christina Swarns, one of Yarris' attorneys, said having all the DNA samples exclude Yarris showed there no longer was credible evidence linking him to the abduction, rape and murder of Linda May Craig, a married mother of three."It's huge. It's unusual we were able to get results from all three samples," said Swarns, of the Capital Habeas Corpus Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
She said she and other attorneys working on the Yarris case learned of the DNA results involving the gloves in April, and then on July 2, learned of the results from the underwear."That was a lightning bolt. Huge," she said of the semen DNA.And then, on Wednesday, they learned the results of the testing on the fingernail scrapings.A paralegal alerted Yarris, she said.
"Obviously, he was not surprised, but he was relieved," Swarns said.Yarris was among the first of Pennsylvania's death row inmates to request DNA testing to prove his innocence, doing so in 1989 after reading an article about it in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Destroyed or degraded evidence and the former limits of the science had blocked definitive testing in his case until now, Swarns said by telephone from Philadelphia before a news conference announcing the federal court filings."The technology available before wasn't as advanced as it is now. In a significant respect, that's what has hampered the ability to obtain results -- there was so little biological material to test," Swarns said.
The breakthrough for Yarris was development of PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, a chemical process that can multiply a sample of DNA found at a crime scene more than a billion times in about three hours. PCR makes it possible to analyze thousands of samples that would have been too small to work with in the past.
On his Web site, Yarris admits to having been an armed robber, a car thief, a drug seller, a methamphetimine addict, an escapee from jail -- in short a criminal but, he insists, not a murderer.Craig was abducted the night of Dec. 15, 1981, while leaving her part-time job as a sales clerk in the Tri-State Mall in Claymont, Del., about a 15-minute drive from her home in Upper Chichester, Delaware County. Her body was discovered by boys throwing snowballs in a church parking lot in Chester the next day. Investigators determined she had been stabbed six times, raped and beaten so severely that one of her front teeth was broken.
Yarris and his supporters maintain that his involvement in the case didn't begin until four days later when a Chester police officer pulled him over in a stolen car. Yarris, who claims he was on a methamphetimine binge at the time, fought with the officer, who claimed Yarris had tried to kill him with his service revolver, an allegation Yarris denies.
While in jail on that charge, Yarris saw a newspaper story on the Craig rape-murder and concocted a plan to trade fabricated information for his release. He decided to implicate a drug dealer who he heard had died of an overdose as being Craig's murderer.The plan went awry when the drug dealer turned out to be alive -- it was his brother who had overdosed -- and he had turned his life around and had an airtight alibi. Focus then shifted to Yarris.
He decided to lie again, thinking that suggesting he was involved only in the rape but not in the murder would help him. The cops didn't buy it and he was charged with committing all of the crimes himself.
Recanting his "confession" in the Craig case didn't work as a circumstantial case was built against him. Among the evidence was a blood test, much less definitive than DNA, that established him as being among the 25 percent of American men whose semen would have matched that found on the body.
Now, with the highly sophisticated DNA testing excluding him from physical evidence, Yarris and his attorneys are hopeful his days of incarceration will end soon.Just how soon that could happen is anyone's guess, Swarns said.
She said the Delaware County district attorney's office needs to review the DNA findings and will be asked to respond to the federal motion. Much depends on whether the office accepts the findings as proof of Yarris' innocence or decides to fight it.
Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org