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23 Years On Death Row – and Innocent

I have the luxury of working from home as I please, however I’m not an advocate of daytime TV. So it was purely by fluke that last Friday, I became transfixed by an interview on ”This Morning” with a very serene, unassuming man called Nick Yarris, whose plight I can’t seem to get out of my mind …

how many innocent people remain on death row today

In 1982, at the age of 21, Nick Yarris was wrongfully convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder and was condemned to death. He protested his innocence – well, most ”cons” do, don’t they? That old chestnut. In 1988, he was the first death row prisoner in the United States to demand DNA testing to prove his innocence. Fifteen years later in 2003, he successfully obtained the DNA results needed to prove he was wrongfully convicted. In January 2004, after spending twenty-two years in solitary confinement, Nick walked out of prison a free man with the $5.37c that the prison authority had given him … minus compensation or even an apology.

I found this story almost incredulous – surely in the latter part of the 20th Century, the “Law” couldn’t make errors like this? I Googled Nick Yarris and over the past couple of days I’ve uncovered a huge trail of exonerated prisoners, serving anything from 6 to 22 years behind bars – for crimes they did not commit. I’ve just watched a documentary called ”After Innocence” which took some fancy footwork to find and download – if you’re interested the website is http://www.afterinnocence.net. I found watching it incredibly harrowing and quite distressing and yip, I cried – a lot – as I watched how the US legal system had mistreated these eight men – and these are just the tip of the iceberg of the number of people actually exonerated after DNA evidence proved their innocence years later. Some haven’t even had an apology. One man, Wilton Dedge, was kept in prison for four more years after the DNA findings because of legal technicalities. It’s just unbelievable. It’s reassuring to know that there is a group of people helping these exonerates back into society and also working to free those who are innocent and still on death row; they do some great work and you can read about the atrocities they deal with http://www.innocenceproject.org/.

Anyway, I digress from what inspired me to write this blog in the first place – the plight of Nick Yarris and his disposition. I don’t know about you, but if I’d been in “the pen” for 22 years for a crime I didn’t commit and had consistently pleaded my innocence, if I’d lost all of those years of my life, encountered the pain and indignities he’d endured at the hands of prison staff and inmates and suffered the sensory deprivation of solitary confinement, I’d be rabid and demented; I’d be a frothing dog baying for the blood of someone I could blame to take my anger out on. Or would I? Maybe it’s not possible to make that assumption, never having been in that situation.

When Nick was released, he was asked if he was angry. He said: ”I’m as happy as can be! I sat and ate ice cream and laughed at the moon! I’m joyously happy! Why would I be angry when I have been given the most profound gift of my life? I’ve been given this wonderful gift I’ll never take for granted! Everyone seems to be rushing through their lives, wishing they had just two minutes to do all the things they want to get done. Here we are with this beautiful sunset and I don’t think anyone in here has noticed it. I am living a dream right now. I used to dream about being able to sit at a table with another human being, have a normal conversation and have a meal with normal cutlery, and have normal moments. Despite everyone’s expectations of bitterness and anger or the inability to let go of what happened to me, I am focusing on all the good things. I am a good man now and I want the world to know that people can be redeemed. People can change. The act of finding sanity in the house of insanity is humility. You have to let go of all the ego; it gets stripped away from you and then you try and resurrect something from whatever you find, whatever you have left. You have to try and find that one good thing inside yourself that is everything to you and try and build on that.”

Nick’s redemption comments refer to his alcoholism and the meth habit he had prior to prison and the petty crimes he committed to fund his habit.

So, eight years later I’m watching Nick Yarris on ITV. He’s a humble man; he’s retained his positive, peaceful attitude and has an aura of serenity in the face of the adversity which he’s encountered since his release. It’s warming to know that he has a wife and daughter; he’s also settled in the UK. He wrote a book some years ago, “Seven Days to Live: The Amazing True Story of How One Man Survived 21 Years on Death Row for a Crime He Didn’t Commit” which seems to be like gold-dust now – I can’t find a copy however my search will continue.

How does someone who’s suffered such a traumatic injustice, who’s has so much life taken from him, maintain such a positive outlook and be grateful for the small things that most of us are so oblivious to in our own worlds of often sham and drudgery? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question – though clearly Nick recognises the importance of living with dignity and grace rather than being eaten up by a bitterness and anger which would achieve nothing but take his very soul away leaving the empty carcase of a broken man. That’s a choice he’s made – and it’s a choice we’re all capable of – nobody can make us become anything; we are what and whom we choose to be.

I have incredible admiration for the strength of character Nick demonstrates … food for thought the next time the going gets tough, eh?

Be outstanding …

FAZ COLBHIE