I heard about Tony Yarbough from a friend. Her brother had taken on his case, pro bono, in the hope of trying to prove that Tony was innocent of the three murders he had been found guilty of committing. It was a noble act, but a true moonshot. At the time, the best hope of freeing Tony would be finding the real killer. That made finding the proverbial needle in a haystack as easy as a Biblical camel passing through the eye of the needle once its found. It was more like a Mars shot than a moon shot.
But the Mars landing actually happened. DNA evidence found on the fingernails of Tony’s murdered mother not only cleared Tony, but connected the dots to the most likely real perpetrator of the crime.
Suddenly, a man who was sent to prison for 75-years-to-life when he was 18, had a genuine hope of freedom. In November he went back to court, anxious that the ruling necessary for his release would come. Now in December, the 21st holiday season this man who has steadfastly claimed his innocence for all of those 21 years, is back the notorious Attica supermax facility, doing time. He’s waiting. And waiting.
Because New York doesn’t allow inmates to correspond with other inmates, Tony and I could not write each other directly. Instead he wrote to my family and friends who enthusiastically wrote to him on my behalf. For Christmas he received a package of goodies from my daughter. An eighty-something man with a heart of gold who sent me a weekly encouragement card when I was inside jumped at the chance to send the same to Tony. Soon he bought Tony a TV, which, as I told him, is akin to buying him a Mercedes. Nothing is more lavish than a TV in prison, especially in a horrid supermax where life is lived almost entirely inside a 5×9 cell. Soon Tony was calling my penpal “Dad” and they exchanged warm letters of encouragement. “Dad” urged Tony to prepare for his release any way he could long before it seemed imminent that he would actually win his freedom.
Tony calls me his brother, and yet we’ve never met. We’ve never heard each other’s voice. Our bond was simply the stenciled letters we both wore on our chest. “INMATE” it said for me, and still does for Tony.
When I first reached out to Tony I had no idea of his situation. My friend assured me he was innocent. I assured her I didn’t care. It’s like the old Shawshank line that everyone’s innocent in prison. “My lawyers fucked me.” I only knew she had asked me to reach out to him and I did. Then I asked my support system to include them, and they did. In each and every letter Tony sent in response to my circle of support, he started by proclaiming his innocence. We all responded assuring him it didn’t matter. Now, it seems almost certain he has been telling the truth all along. While that should make us all relieved, it simply makes us sad. His life has been stolen.
This Thanksgiving I received only my second direct letter from Tony. It was a card, “to my brother,” he wrote. Tony is ever mindful of the censors. He didn’t write much other than to say, “I have so much I need to tell you.” He urged me to sign up on his phone roster, but New York still only allows calls to home numbers. I don’t have a home number or access to one. Such a simple thing bars us still from direct communication. He urged me to call his lawyers. He badly wants me to know he’s innocent. I do. I’ve read the papers:
A year before Tony’s case become public, I read a lengthy expose in the New York Times about how a retired Brooklyn detective was having virtually every one of his convictions reconsidered because of bogus detective work. One example that sticks in my memory was one particular prostitute who testified in half a dozen or more homicides as a witness, and received payments from the detective for doing so. As a judge noted, she must be the most unfortunate person in the world to witness such carnage or something in the testimony didn’t measure up.
Now I learn Tony may be one of those cases being reviewed. The intense backlog caused by this one rogue detective may just be costing Tony even more time from enjoying his long deferred life. One bad cop. Hundreds and hundreds of lives forever altered. He likely will never face criminal charges despite sending men to prisons for hundreds of years — presumably on the basis of manufactured evidence.
Do we really believe this is the only detective in America who made a career of such practices? Consider that. Consider the piles upon piles of innocent years served in prisons across the country.
My friend Tony sits in prison, waiting freedom on his life. How many others who didn’t have the blessing of a high-powered New York attorney take his case on a pro-bono basis sit waiting, wrongfully convicted, without a hope of ever being vindicated.
If you want to write my friend Tony here’s the address:
Anthony Yarbough, DIN #94A23756 Attica Correctional Facility Attica, NY 14011-0149