Nick Yarris was convicted in 1982 of a rape and murder he did not commit and was sentenced to death in Pennsylvania. He was one of the state’s first death row inmates to demand post-conviction DNA testing to prove his innocence. Yarris spent 21 years in prison—many of which he spent in solitary confinement—until in 2003 DNA testing of crime scene evidence excluded him as the perpetrator and his conviction was vacated. He was released in 2004.
In 2007, Yarris began working with film director David Sington on Fear of 13, a documentary in which Yarris recounts the story of his ordeal, from the time he was wrongfully arrested to when he was exonerated and released. The Innocence Blog sat down with Yarris to speak about the film, its impact and Yarris’ hopes for the future.
(This Q&A was edited for clarity.)
Innocence Blog: Where did you get the idea for a documentary about your story?
Nick Yarris: I wanted to do this interview-style of documentary after appearing in the 2004 film After Innocence, which is largely about the Innocence Project and its work to free people using DNA science. When I saw my part in this wonderful film, made by former Cardozo law students [former Innocence Project clinic student Mark Simon produced the documentary with Jessica Sanders], I recognized that, if done right, I could demonstrate a fine example of what exonerees are all about: being positive in life!
A profound feature for all the many exonerated men and women I note, is how so many are truly positive and full of hope.
IB: How long did the filming take?
NY: The film took eight years to complete and was made from 22 hours of interview-style talking that I did. We built a set in London in 2007, and I sat in the made-up setting of my old prison cell and spoke to the world like I spoke to myself for many years.
IB: Do you go to screenings of the film? If so, how would you describe audiences’ reactions?
NY: I’ve been to screenings in London, New York and elsewhere and for me to appear at the end of the film is so rewarding for the audience as they then can share in my life being realized to a better, more meaningful level. I have been astounded by the many wonderful reactions and I now wish to go to universities across the United States to share the film and do Q&A sessions afterwards.
IB: The film has done very well. How do you feel about the film’s reception?
NY: I have to say that I am blown away. The film is being called so many wonderful, positive things. I have wonderful messages sent to me from people across the globe to my professional Facebook account (or Twitter) telling me how the film has impacted their lives. What is really amazing is how many police officers tell me how proud they are of me and how they want me to know that they are better officers since seeing the film.
I get letters from people who are terminally ill, people who have childhood trauma, people battling drug addiction . . . they all come to me with wonderful hope-filled messages about this film changing their lives. I make sure to be gracious to each one and I have so many rewarding feelings from the effort.
IB: What kind of impact do you hope this film will have?
NY: My hope is that the film goes beyond criminal justice issues. The point of the film is that we live our lives as events, but we have to share them as memories. . . .and in this one way, the story that we tell to others is really the story we are telling ourselves. I so want the story that I tell to be one that holds a meaningful message about myself just as we all want in life.
IB: Are there any other projects on the horizon?
NY: I have a new book written in 2016 titled Monsters and Madmen. My first book (now also titled Fear of 13) is being re-released by Penguin/Random House Publishers. I also wrote a new stage play based on my new book, which I hope to bring to New York City for the stage there. I finally have a new fictionalized TV show in development called Dead Man Talking, which I am really excited about because it is like Breaking Bad meets Oz.
Meanwhile, I want to do the one thing I love most: I want to go back to speaking at universities and share with young people how powerful and dynamic they can be. I am already setting up speaking engagements in California this September, but I want to do New York City and the East Coast as well.
The Innocence Project in New York City is where heroes of mine work. These are the many folks who never went to jail but they live a life fighting injustice. That one mere fact, that they do this not because they, like me, were wronged; they do it because it is the right thing to do—and it simply astounds me. I will always do whatever I can to show respect of this.
My good friends Maddy deLone, Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and the many students and professionals who make up the Innocence Project as an organization are awe- inspiring to me!