The scene has become a staple of the evening news: An innocent man walks out of prison and into the glare of television cameras, his family by his side. For Nicholas Yarris, that moment came shortly after 1 p.m. on January 16, 2004, when he was freed after spending more than two decades in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s death row.
After the news cameras disappeared, another struggle awaited him: the battle to create a new life for himself at age 42. The documentary After Innocence, which won a special jury prize at Sundance and opens at the Quad this week, chronicles his post-prison journey and that of six other wrongfully imprisoned men.
From his new home in England, Yarris spoke to the Voice about his first 630 days of freedom.
How did you feel in those very first hours after leaving prison? The strongest sensation was the assault on my senses from having lived 23 years in a controlled environment—being inundated with temperature change, barometric change, noise. I liken it to all those times you see a music video in which the central character stands in complete passivity while the world rushes around him.
How did you feel when your family touched you? The last contact visit that I was permitted while still on death row was in November of 1989. I did not touch another human being until December of 2003. I waited 14 years to be held by my family. When you’re not touched for that long and someone puts their hands on you, this surge of warbling energy goes through you and makes you aware of being in contact with something you never realized was gone until it was taken for a very prolonged time.
What kind of job did you get after leaving prison? Because I was not guilty, I was not entitled to any parole services. So I was not given any job training or job placement. I went to work scrubbing Budget shuttle buses at the Philadelphia airport for an ex-felon at $5 per bus. He was the only one that would hire me. So I worked beside a toothless heroin addict named Butch, and the two of us scrubbed these buses at $5 a bus in freezing-cold January weather.
Did you get any money from the state of Pennsylvania after your exoneration? When I was released from prison, I got $5.37 of my own money and was told goodbye.
How did you feel the first time you saw After Innocence? I cried. I cried for Mrs. Dedge [the mother of another exonerated man], who was sitting next to me. I know that woman waited 22 years for her son, and there isn’t anything different between her and my mother. I held her hand a lot, and I cried.
Nearly 650,000 people leave prisons across the country every year. How do you think your homecoming experience differed from theirs? It’s completely different. I’m one of only 14 human beings sentenced to death that have been exonerated by DNA testing. After I sought DNA testing in 1988, they deliberately tried to destroy the evidence that later on proved my innocence. It took me 15 years to get out. I am so different in so many different ways from the average person being released because the government tried to kill me. That’s what propels me to speak all over the world.
I heard that you recently married a woman you met while giving a speech in London about the death penalty. What are your days like now? I came out of prison after 23 years and realized I was a stranger in my own life, I was a stranger to the family who had lost me, and I was a stranger to everything around me. I gave up everything that was close to me—in terms of my family—for a family with Karen. She came along and gave me a whole world that removed me from everything that was going to tear me apart.
I remember they had me filling out documents in prison like, “What do you want us to do with the disposal of your remains?” Now I’ve got the gift of a child on the way. I’ve got one of the greatest lives you can imagine. I ride around on a motorcycle, I have pets, I have the love of a woman, and I’ve got a country that doesn’t want to kill me.
For more information about Nicholas Yarris, visit his website, nickyarris.com