This is a documentary about a man called Nick Yarris, who in August 2002, after twenty years on Death Row, made a final plea. It was not to have a stay of execution or to appeal his conviction, but to exercise the only right he had: “A condemned man’s right to be executed”.
This ninety-minute documentary, which covers his entire life, grips you by the throat from beginning to end. At its foundation is a beautifully shot interview with Yarris, alternating between extreme close-ups as he whispered his stories and wider shots as he gestured. The first thing he talked about is what solitary confinement is like.
You look at your watch and instead of there being a face, there’s a calendar, and it flips. But then, if you look out the window, it takes all day for that sun to go down.
I always wanted to tell somebody that.
He spoke with such pitch-perfect passion that he might have been saying a Shakespearean soliloquy. But he wasn’t: he was a convicted murderer, serving a sentence of life plus ninety-nine years. For most of those twenty years on Death Row he was trying to get DNA testing that would prove his innocence.
Yarris is a beautiful orator, and the documentary works hard to unpick your preconceptions about him and to get you to listen. He only tells us about his crimes when we’re forty-five minutes in and he’s our friend.
Yarris offended in Pennsylvania, so at first he was kept in a prison designed by Quakers, and speaking was forbidden as part of the inmates’ punishment. Yarris would sit in his cell and would occasionally hear people shuffling or urinating, but little else. The guards liked to beat prisoners; to put enemies or men from different races in exercise yards so they provoked each other; once, a Puerto Rican was stabbed in the shower (“it’s when you’re most vulnerable“) and the guards escorted everyone away from the dead body — no justice — served them lunch, and left them to bicker over who got more.
Yarris was silent for two years in this prison, and then the guards found drugs in the choir room.
The foundation of the documentary is Yarris speaking to a camera, but there are also reconstructions of what he’s talking about. Here, we see a sparse, whitewashed prison.
Westley was a black man with light skin and green eyes, and Butch was black, dark, 6’4”, and 240lbs. Wesley and Butch were lovers, and Butch had gone to prison, so Welsey committed crimes and managed to join him there, where they found a new kind of freedom — since in prison, homosexuality is more of an accepted lifestyle choice. Westley was in the choir when the guards found the drugs, and since no one was talking, each choir member was being shipped to a separate prison the following day. The two men slept in different cells for the first time.
Lights were out, everything was quiet, and then all of a sudden, Westley started to sing. He sang a beautiful slow song with a beautiful soft voice, and then — Yarris made a little whistley sound with his mouth to represent the guards coming, keys jangling. The guards could have told everyone to be quiet, punched a few faces, and left. But they didn’t. They had heard the singing (which had now stopped), and they said, “if everyone is not silent after twenty minutes, they’re getting their head punched in.”
They gave them twenty minutes. And when Westley started singing again, another, higher-pitched, gentler voice accompanied him. Butch.
Butch had a big jagged scar that ran down the side of his face from someone trying to cut his head open. I was terrified of this man. To hear him sing in this beautiful voice as his way of showing love for someone who was being taken from him the next morning made me want someone to care for me in that place so much that they would sing, knowing that singing would have gotten their head beaten in.
They shipped Westley that morning at 3:55am.
They didn’t torture us with silence anymore after that.
The other powerful way that Yarris draws you in is being a stunning orator. He next tells us — with intricate and compelling action, sound effects, and different voices for the different characters — about his attempted escape from prison in 1985. His story includes the beautiful line:
— my feet split open, my calves erupted, my hamstrings were pulled —
to describe how he ran through the frigid cold of the Pennsylvania winter, shoes freezing and melting into the blistered skin on his feet, to a friend’s house for supplies. The cinematography is beautiful, but again, it’s his words that really grip you.
He eventually talks to us about his crimes. The ones he willingly admits to are vandalism, burglary, car-jacking, meth, assault, and more. But he remains adamant that he was framed for the murder, which he describes to us in detail. The bit that stays with me is that the woman, Linda Mae Craig, was murdered and then left in a graveyard overnight, when it snowed. Two children found the body, and thought it was a mannequin to play with.
Yarris’s request to have all appeals cease and to be executed came after a fifteen-year effort to get a DNA test, with a sequence of agonising mistakes and problems preventing anything actually being done. During this time, in a sequence in which his eyes go soft and his face flat as he thinks about it, he gets married.
You can only grow so far as a man until a woman teaches you enough about yourself that you can further develop… The other Nicky came out. The one I didn’t cringe in the mirror from. The one who wasn’t afraid.
(But at the heart of it I kept feeling dirty.)
He and Jackie married six years to the day after he was first sentenced to death in 1981, and she helped him with the endless appeals and DNA test attempts. But after the second time the DNA testing failed, she said she couldn’t handle it, and she left him.
Even though I was being told she was leaving, I still kind of liked that feeling of being left behind. I felt good for her leaving because I knew all along that I had stolen a lot of her life away.
And it’s then that he asked to be executed.
But his one right was refused to him, and the justice process was sped up just a tiny bit. When the DNA results finally, finally came through and he was found innocent, a guard found him curled up on his bed crying, and took him into the shower and gave him a chair to sit on. That shot, of a chair in a big shower room, was repeated throughout the documentary, and you feel a tiny fraction of the catharsis that he must have felt when its meaning clicks into place.
Two years later, he was released: 16th January 2004.
One other thing. From the opening credits to shortly before the end, there are occasional shots of a little boy running through the woods and a man coming out from behind a tree to approach him. When I started watching I thought it was a placeholder or a stock image intended as a metaphor, but it’s only at the end that Yarris goes back to the beginning and tells us a story about when he was a boy. And implicit in the sequence is the suggestion that the event was the catalyst for his bad behaviour and contributed to everything that happened later in his life.
So it turns out that the story had a happy ending. But Yarris’s eventual proven innocence is probably the reason that I allowed myself to be affected by the program and to write this. If he were a murderer and he were executed, would I have felt the same? Would the documentary have been made? Or would he have been killed and then forgotten about?