BY JEFF DEENEY Hearty and much-deserved congratulations go out today to Nick Yarris, whom the Inquirer reports received a heaping settlement in his wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against Delaware County. You might remember Yarris from the searing 2006 documentary, After Innocence, which profiled wrongfully convicted men exonerated by the nonprofit Innocence Project, a national coalition of legal clinics that advocates for the release of prisoners who can be conclusively proven innocent by DNA evidence.
Yarris got tangled up with the law as a young drug addict in the early ’80s and through a series of unfortunate circumstances and bad decisions (which you can read about in detail here) wound up on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a tangled and tortured tale that wound up with Yarris advocating for his own execution after being locked up for 20 years and being pronounced terminally ill with the Hepatitis C he contracted behind bars. Even after his release, Yarris claims he was hounded by Delaware County prosecutors and feared having a damning third felony conviction pinned on him by resentful authorities. He subsequently fled to England, where he now lives and is reportedly happily married and raising a daughter. Dennis McAndrews, the Delaware County prosecutor handling Yarris’s case, had these encouraging and uplifting words to say to the Inquirer regarding the civil settlement: “The settlement in this case was made, over my strenuous objection, by the insurance carrier without the consent or approval of those who prosecuted this case.” As a Delaware County assistant DA helped prosecute Yarris. “We believe that a civil jury should have decided this lawsuit.” McAndrews said that the county’s insurance carrier “made a business decision” to settle, and that the evidence introduced at Yarris’ trial supported the conviction.
In his view, McAndrews said, the DNA evidence “does not exonerate” Yarris at all. I’m not sure what theory Dennis stands on that he feels trumps conclusive scientific proof of Yarris’s innocence, but I’m sure it’s interesting, whatever it is. If Yarris’s case of wrongful sentencing to death row was an isolated incident, it would be less soul-destroying than the truth, which is that the Innocence Project has exonerated no fewer than 210 defendants wrongly convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape. It points to a fundamental breakdown in the justice system, usually centered around a prosecutor’s reliance on the notoriously unreliable reporting of eye witnesses. Eyewitness accounts clearly no longer suffice as the only proof required for sentencing a person to death, though to me this clear unreliability on the behalf of the justice system suffices as reason to abolish the death penalty altogether. I realize there are a lot of people (like prosecutors in dear, dirty Delco) who probably don’t see it that way. The Innocence Project lists nine cases of successful exonerations in the state of Pennsylvania, three of which besides Yarris’s are of local interest. You can read a little bit more about them, here: Dale Brison of Chester County; Vincent Moto of Philadelphia County (also profiled in the After Innocence documentary); Bruce Godschalk of Montgomery County.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.