WOODLAND HILLS, Calif.—Nick Yarris spent 21 years on death row after he was convicted of the rape and murder of a woman he never met. If it hadn’t been for DNA testing, which cleared him in 2003, he’d still be behind bars waiting to die.
Instead he’s free, and on Tuesday he plans to vote in the California Democratic primary for a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who supports the death penalty.
He hopes the story of his time on death row, where he was stabbed by fellow inmates, suffered in solitary confinement, and faced abuse by prison guards, can convince her that she is wrong. His message: Even the chance of one innocent person being killed is too many.
“You can’t bring me back after you execute me and say, ‘Well, the DNA proved that Nick Yarris didn’t rape and kill a woman in 1981, but, in 1990, we executed him.’ That doesn't work,” Yarris told me a few days before the primary.
“There is no justice without life, and Mrs. Clinton needs to recognize that for her to continue to support the death penalty knowing that it is not fair and that the people at the end of it are just as broken as their victims, then we as a society are not electing the right person.”
But there’s the rub: Yarris, 55, feels Clinton is the right person. Her experience in world affairs and her time as a U.S. senator and first lady make her highly qualified to serve as president, he believes. She’s just wrong on the death penalty.
California voters will decide in November whether to abolish capital punishment in their state, but Yarris and other anti-death penalty activists are drumming up support for the repeal now because they don’t want the measure to surprise voters in five months. A repeal would take 750 people off death row and give them life without the possibility of parole. A January poll shows that Californians are split.
The last time California executed someone was in 2006. Many of the state’s death row inmates have been there for decades, according to The Washington Post. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a death row inmate who argued that it was unconstitutional to keep someone on death row for so long. In his dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the California system embodied three “fundamental defects” of the death penalty: It puts innocent people to death, it’s applied arbitrarily, and it’s plagued by long delays that undermine its very purpose.
One reason Yarris feels some voters support the death penalty is that they can’t connect a human face with society’s ultimate punishment. Minorities, people who can’t get a good lawyer, and people from low-income backgrounds are much more likely to be sentenced to death. Nationally, 43% of the country’s 2,943 death row inmates are black; most of California’s inmates are black.
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Yarris told me that when he was pulled over during a routine traffic stop in 1981, he was a drug-addicted, “poor white trash” thief from southwest Philadelphia. He got into a violent confrontation with the cop and was thrown in jail. In an effort to get out, he made up a story tying an associate on the outside to the the well-publicized rape and murder of a woman named Linda May Craig earlier that year. When the cops cleared the man he accused, they charged Yarris with rape and murder. He was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to death.
Yarris said all along that he was innocent; rounds of DNA testing during the 1990s yielded nothing conclusive. In 2003, a final round of testing on gloves found in the victim's car, on fingernail scrapings from the woman, and on other crime scene evidence ruled out Yarris for the first time.
Since 1973, 156 people on death row have been exonerated because of DNA evidence, witnesses changing their stories, or other exposed flaws in the justice system.
Yarris blames overzealous, revenge-minded prosecutors, politicians who want to look tough, and a society that assumes, incorrectly, that the threat of death will deter crime.
Clinton's opponent in the Democratic primaries, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, opposes the death penalty. Clinton last week indicated support for the Justice Department's decision to pursue the death penalty against Dylann Roof, the accused gunman in the slaughter of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church a year ago. Yet the death penalty has not been discussed at any significant length on the presidential campaign trail. It rarely even comes up during debates.
One exception was in March, when Ricky Jackson, a former death-row inmate who had been imprisoned for 39 years for a crime he didn’t commit, asked Clinton during a town-hall whether she’d consider changing her position on the death penalty. While she expressed sympathy for what happened to him, Clinton stood firm. “You know, this is such a profoundly difficult question,” she began.
And what I have said—and what I continue to believe—is that the states have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give any defendant all of the rights a defendant should have, all of the support that the defendant’s lawyer should have. And I have said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states, themselves, began to eliminate the death penalty. Where I end up is this—and maybe it’s a distinction that is hard to support—but at this point, given the challenges we face from terrorist activities, primarily in our country, that end up under federal jurisdiction, for very limited purposes I think that it can still be held in reserve for those.
Yarris was watching that night, and he was hardly surprised.
“I knew what Hillary was going to do,” he told me. “She was going to play it safe like she is trying to do with everything. You can’t be a leader if you can’t make change. Mrs. Clinton, please, have enough dignity to recognize that what your husband did in 1992 probably still haunts him.”
He was referring to Bill Clinton’s infamous flight back to Arkansas during his first presidential campaign to personally oversee the execution of a mentally unsound man named Ricky Ray Rector.
“Bill flew home and oversaw the execution of a human being so he could get into the White House,” Yarris said.
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In 1978, Ron Briggs thought he and his father, then-state Sen. John Briggs, were doing the right thing by expanding the state’s death penalty laws after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it nationally in 1976. Now, Ron, a retired member of the Board of Supervisors of El Dorado County, thinks he and his father were wrong. He is trying to convince his fellow Republicans in part by arguing that the death penalty is too expensive.
“My mission in the next six months heading into November is to garner Republican support,” Ron told me over the phone. “We have an initiative on the ballot. The initiative would replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. To house a death row inmate costs about $130,000 a year in California. To stick a guy in a facility for life without the possibility of parole costs $60,000 per year. Life without the possibility of parole takes away all of these attorneys. Once the death penalty is filed, that person automatically gets two attorneys attached to them for the rest of his duration until 20 to 30 years down the road. That’s what’s costing all of the money.”
California came close to repealing the death penalty four years ago, with a ballot initiative known as Proposition 34. It failed in a close vote, winning 47.2% support. But David Crawford, director of community outreach and education at Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco organization dedicated to the abolition of the death penalty, told me that he’s optimistic California voters will vote to repeal the death penalty in November.
“We’re kind of at a crossroads. All across the country, the death penalty is being stamped out, state by state,” Crawford said. “California came very close in 2012. And it's been back in the news: the botched executions, the drug shortages, boycotts by the international companies and all of these states that are trying to concoct their own drugs. So California is at a crossroads where we have to make a decision on whether we want to be like Oklahoma and Texas or the 19 states that have abolished the death penalty.”
Yarris wants voters in California in general, and Clinton in particular, to know how close he came to not even being alive to vote in Tuesday’s primary.
Life has been challenging since his exoneration in 2003, but Yarris told me he’s sustained himself speaking publicly on the ills of the death penalty. In the fall, he’ll start a full-time job with the California Innocence Project, which works to free the wrongly convicted. When Yarris is not speaking around the country, he’s working on a few book projects that are in various stages of production. He is also the subject of a film on Netflix.
On Tuesday, he’ll be at the polls and supporting Clinton, despite her support of a form of punishment that forced him to endure emotional and mental torture for a crime he never committed. He doesn’t feel he’s making a mistake.
In fact, Yarris says, he respects her and is willing to trust her, believes that she possesses the moral fiber to reverse her position. All she has to do, he says, is apply the care she takes with America’s most marginalized communities to people like him, people who were once just as helpless in a system that is fatally flawed.
“The first thing she should do is stop being like any other Democrat,” Yarris says. “Have the guts to actually say, ‘I’m making the changes that will not be popular because I recognize that no one is going to accept me unless I show I am a true leader.’”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.