APU’s brand-new Department of Criminal Justice welcomed ex-inmate Nicholas Yarris to share his 21-year battle with the Pennsylvania legal system.
On Oct. 29, in the Felix Event Center VIP room, Yarris informed students of the many horrors he faced during his years behind bars.
In 1981, Yarris, 20 years-old at the time, suffered from a brain disorder and was high on methamphetamine while operating a stolen vehicle in the city of Chester, Pennsylvania.
These controversial events led to a violent altercation between the intoxicated young man and a highway patrolman who pulled him over for the traffic violation. This run-in with the law cost Yarris the next two decades of his life.
Yarris’ case presents an ideal oppertunity for students and faculty in the new Department of Criminal Justice to discuss procedure and ethics. The criminal justice degree is a new APU major that critically studies and analyzes the need for social control in society, in areas of study like police work, criminal law and procedure, risk analysis and response and investigative processes and procedure.
Five days before Yarris’ arrest, a woman was abducted in her car after her work shift ended. Her body was later discovered two miles from where her car was parked in a church parking lot. The woman was sexually assaulted, beaten and stabbed. The only evidence was a pair of gloves left on the front seat of the woman’s car.
Though Yarris had no knowledge of the crime, he was framed by the police for the murder of the identified woman, Linda May Craig.
During his conviction, Yarris explained to students many of the unfair elements that occurred throughout his three-day trial.
With missing files, contradicting statements and no solid evidence against him, Yarris was found guilty for the murder of Craig. He received the death sentence, in addition to another 30-60 years.
As a result, he was placed into a maximum-security cell in solitary confinement, where he remained for 12 years. The average survival rate for that specific unit was five years.
While in prison, Yarris was assaulted and ridiculed by both the prison guards and the other inmates. These attacks included being hit by objects thrown into his jail cell, being stabbed, getting his throat slashed, getting punched in the face by prison guards, being forced by officers to fight other inmates in prison cages and being beaten on his 22nd birthday for singing “Happy Birthday” to himself in his cell.
“The demeaning manner in which I was spoken to was the overriding thing that changed my heart, because I realized that nothing I said had value,” Yarris said. “I was a mute, and people treated me like a monster.”
Because of his anger and fear of not being released, Yarris devoted his time in prison to educating himself. He said that one prison officer took pity on him and gave him a few books, which sparked his passion for learning.
“I began this wonderful in-depth education that led me to become really confident,” Yarris said. “I went on an amazing journey, all for the hope of one thing: that on the day that they executed me, I could quote something so beautiful [that] would prove to them I had erased the scumbag they thought I was, [and replaced him] with somebody I cared about. I wasn’t doing all this education to get out, I had no chance,” he added. “I had a terrible burden of just trying to find something about myself that I could care about.”
After a prison escape with other charges in 1985, Yarris gained another 30 years on his record and was sent back to Pennsylvania, where he received a four-minute beating by officers as punishment.
“They did all kinds of horrible things to try to break me, and what I did in response [was] I enrolled in university and started educating myself,” Yarris said. “[They] can’t break me.”
In the following years of Yarris’ sentence, he educated himself on forensics and DNA testing.
“Education gives you enough separation from realizing that you’re not what other people make you out to be,” Yarris said.
On Feb. 20, 1988, he was the first inmate in U.S. history to request DNA testing to prove his innocence. For another 15 years, Yarris battled endless back-and-forth appeals to and rejections from the Pennsylvania legal system to get the DNA testing done.
Years later, Yarris was finally proven innocent on July 2, 2003, through DNA samples of the killer’s gloves that were left in Craig’s car. Neither of the two DNA samples presented matched up with Yarris’.
By January 2004, after 21 years of incarceration, Yarris was a free man.
“The only thing that will make me not be bitter is the fact that I am truly, hopelessly in love with being positive,” Yarris said. “Everything [that was] done to me I saw as a small payment God asked me to make, to finally be a nice person who could like himself.”
In closing, Yarris encouraged students to become all that they aspire to be, no matter what field of study they choose and to be genuinely good human beings.
“Every one of you is smarter than me, more capable and brighter than me and I expect every one of you to kick my a– in life,” Yarris said. “If I can come back from being someone so broken, and you don’t have those boundaries, I want all of you to beat me. I want you to make me look like my efforts were small, because I know you’re smarter than me.”
Yarris is now married and has a published book entitled “7 Days to Live,” a full account of his personal experience, which he signed for students at the event. A 95-minute documentary about Yarris’ life will premiere on Nov. 15 in the United Kingdom.
Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice Dr. Deshonna Collier-Goubil expressed the importance of this new major in light of Yarris’ story.
“Mr. Yarris shared his struggles within the criminal justice field, but then he also talked about having integrity and being the best that you can be,” Collier said. “That’s the message that we want. That’s the type of graduate that we want to produce out of our department.”
“I think the criminal justice system is in a place where the world is critically watching, and the way that we’ve dealt with things in the past is not going to fly in the future,” Collier added. “We have to have leadership—people with ethics—which I think is perfect for Christian students.”
The Department of Criminal Justice has admitted just over 30 students. In both the fall and spring semesters, the department is accepting freshmen and sophomores, but will be open to all applicants by next fall.
Freshman criminal justice major Gabriela Gonzalez reflected on Yarris’s message in relation to her major.
“What stuck out to me the most was his message of positivity,” Gonzalez said. “Twenty-one years on death row can really take a toll on one’s soul, and he surpassed the anger and frustration for those that treated him unfairly and put that fuel to a greater purpose of informing and educating young minds about perseverance.”
“Nick Yarris was so inspiring to me, and his call to action for all us students really captured my heart,” Gonzalez added. “This man, who doesn’t really know me or anyone in that room, wants to see me succeed. Not only that, but he wants me to surpass his accomplishments, because he believes that I can do it. It was astonishing to me; the whole seminar was awakening.”
Another student who was moved by Yarris’ story was freshman criminal justice major Ashley Lucas. Lucas was impressed with Yarris’ vocabulary and stage presence.
“I was shocked to hear that he was mute for two years, and that people on death row were not even allowed to speak,” Lucas said. “It broke my heart to hear that he was beaten for singing ‘Happy Birthday’’ to himself. It’s ironic, because I and so many other people are moved by every word now. I wanted to jot down every word he said.”
Lucas hopes to work within the prison system to properly rehabilitate people—especially juveniles—stuck within the system.
Nick Yarris’ hope was that his message would inspire students to care enough to do what’s right, even in times when some people may lack the courage.
“I don’t care what field that you enter,” said Yarris. “[Just] be a good person.”