Exonerated from a Murder Conviction, Nick Yarris Speaks at APU

by Cynndie Hoff

What happens when the justice system fails? How does an innocent man fight that system, clear his name, and rebuild his life? Find out Thursday, October 29, 9:30-10:50 a.m. in the VIP room as Nick Yarris, wrongly convicted of murder, describes his journey through endless legal battles, 21 years of incarceration, and his re-entrance into society.

His nightmare began in Pennsylvania in 1981 when a routine traffic stop turned into an altercation and an arrest. With Yarris in custody, detectives questioned him about a young woman who had been raped and murdered just four days earlier. A combination of confusing testimonies, a questionable jailhouse informant, and archaic forensics techniques rendered Yarris the prime suspect in the case and eventually resulted in his conviction. Though he admits to being high on drugs that night and fighting off the police officer, he consistently and passionately proclaimed his innocence of the murder for years to come.

Finally, in 1989, he became one of the first death row inmates to receive a postconviction DNA test to prove his innocence. The process spanned a decade of failed attempts, inconclusive results, and agonizing delays before Yarris felt a glimmer of hope. In 2003, a final test excluded him from all biological material connected with the crime, and Yarris became a free man.

Although his story reveals a fascinating view of the criminal justice system and the inner workings of correctional facilities, it also gives an amazing glimpse of the instinct for survival, the power of persistence, and the eternal value of forgiveness. Nick Yarris experienced the depths of despair and isolation for more than two decades, yet emerged a kind and caring man eager and capable of contributing to his world in a productive meaningful way. His book, 7 Days to Live (CreateSpace, 2013), eloquently recounts his triumph over adversity, providing insight into the human condition and how to take responsibility for one’s life. He shares his mistakes and faults, describing how he made conscious choices to change from within. The compelling story also caught the attention of filmmakers and resulted in the recently released The Fear of 13, a documentary featured at the London Film Festival October 10 and 17, 2015, that follows Yarris’ life on death row and his struggle for freedom.

As he reflects on his ordeal, Yarris admits that one of the most challenging aspects came when he left prison and attempted to fit into society again. Family and friends had long since dissociated themselves from him, and reconnecting with new people proved discouraging. He knew firsthand about the struggles of ex-convicts and their alarming rate of return to crime and even suicide “We need to provide mental health treatment and emotional counseling to individuals upon their release,” said Yarris. “They need basic care, but more than that, they need help figuring out where they fit into the world again. Their ability to catch up socially is stunted, so the more group support they can access, the less isolated they feel.” He also advocates a change in the justice system to help avoid cases like his. “It’s not necessarily the law that needs changing, it is that we need more community oversight into convictions. We need a third part of the review process like in the United Kingdom and Canada where integrity units are used to check cases when someone claims innocence.”

APU students in the new Department of Criminal Justice tackle these very issues. “Our first cohort launched this fall with nearly 30 students seeking a variety of career paths, such as law enforcement officers, correctional officers, police chiefs, case managers, attorneys, forensic psychologists, private investigators, cyber security and prevention specialists, homeland security officers, and more,” said Deshonna Collier-Goubil, Ph.D., chair and associate professor. “Regardless of their goal, each benefits from looking critically at the criminal justice system, examining the theories of crime and justice, and learning to identify disparities and inequalities. As serious Christian scholars, our students must be able to evaluate every aspect of this discipline, including what happens to convicted felons upon their release at the end of their sentence. Our hope is to expose students to multiple views of the system from every angle. We are honored to have Nick Yarris give us his unique perspective.”

Looking forward to the opportunity to address students before they enter their careers, Yarris aspires to instill his insight and vision for the future of criminal justice. “I hope that the Azusa Pacific students come away knowing that the most important role they can play is to be the utmost professional within the system they are entering,” he said. “If you are going to be on the side of law enforcement, be outstanding. I hope also to show that I am more than an exonerated ex-prisoner, and that I represent the vast majority of those set free from similar ordeals. I want to show them that, in spite of it all, I am a positive and hopeful person, and that those of us who have been harmed by the worst of the criminal justice system, want it to be made better. I hope that my story inspire them to make a difference.”

Yarris’s book, 7 Days to Live, will be available for purchase at the event.

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer and editor living in Walnut, California. [email protected]