- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

Pennsylvania defense lawyers disclosed yesterday that DNA testing clears a death-row inmate of rape and murder, and implicates two unidentified men.

Nicholas Yarris’ conviction in 1982 for kidnapping, raping and killing Linda Craig, 32, was based in part on semen of his blood type on the victim’s clothes and a disputed confession.

His guilt seemed reinforced when 1992 DNA tests did not clear him and destroyed evidence in the process.

“Finding that the sperm on Mrs. Craig’s underpants is not Mr. Yarris’ renders this supposed confession irrelevant,” said Christina Swarns, supervising assistant federal defender in Philadelphia.

Mrs. Craig, a mother of three, was kidnapped in her car Dec. 15, 1981, from the Tri-State Shopping Mall in Claymont, Del., where she and Yarris worked during the year-end holiday season. Her beaten, stabbed body was found in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Chichester.

Despite the history, which also includes the condemned man’s sensational 25-day escape and flight to Florida in 1985, the Delaware County, Pa., District Attorney’s Office helped federal defense attorneys arrange new DNA tests for Yarris, 42, by Dr. Edward T. Blake, of Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, Calif.

Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Peri confirmed the findings yesterday, called cooperation with the defense “our duty” and said his office would provide a methodical analysis of the lab results.

“Today it is clear the DNA-testing results in and of themselves do not establish Yarris’ innocence, nor do these results indicate a wrongful conviction. The DNA testing results do warrant our further investigation,” he said in a statement.

The private laboratory recovered usable DNA from an unidentified man on skin cells found inside gloves in the dead woman’s car, on skin fragments gouged by her fingernails, and in dried semen on her clothes. The lab found semen from a second unidentified man, also not Yarris.

“He went through several earlier tests where material was tested and they couldn’t come up with anything. Now we have these stunning test results,” said Stuart Lev, an assistant federal defender and part of the team that asked Chief U.S. District Judge James T. Giles in Philadelphia yesterday to free Yarris after 21 years awaiting execution.

No action is likely until prosecutors respond in court.

“DNA testing has now established that Mr. Yarris is innocent; that he was wrongly convicted of rape, kidnapping and murder; and that he has wrongly spent half of his life on Pennsylvania’s death row,” said a written statement by the group, which handles federal court pleas for condemned prisoners in Pennsylvania.

Asked why the defense acted alone in seeking Yarris’ release if the prosecution was on board, Mr. Lev said: “We just got the last report on Friday, so they haven’t had time yet to fully analyze the results. They have been very cooperative throughout the entire process.”

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, welcomes what he calls an exoneration but regrets that such cases have become too common to command broad news coverage.

“The death penalty is coming apart at its seams, but the exonerations, which I think are the most penetrating of the criticism, just aren’t getting reported,” Mr. Dieter said yesterday.

The Yarris case is different because Yannis was one of the earliest death-row prisoners to seek DNA vindication. When he got his first chance in 1992, testing was inconclusive, an outcome that sealed convictions in other cases. New tests were requested in 1997, when federal defenders took the case.

“The prior test raises the potential the state could claim he had this test and it cannot do it again, and some of the evidence was lost in the testing process. But, fortunately, there was this realization that advances in technology and the ability to use even smaller amounts of evidence made this a relevant pursuit,” Mr. Dieter said.

DNA testing was not available when Yarris was tried in 1982. The jury learned that his type B blood was consistent with the semen in Mrs. Craig’s underpants.

Yarris’ claim of innocence was countered by a jail guard’s testimony that he admitted to the crime, and included a description of the car and knowledge of the rape that prosecutors said was not available publicly.

Defense attorneys contended that this information was reported in news outlets and contained no new knowledge.

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