(TriceEdneyWire.com) – Antonio Yarbough spent the first two days of freedom largely at a loss for words. But the three words he said quietly over the phone in the hours immediately following his exoneration for the 1992 murder of his mother, his sister and a family friend, spoke volumes about the man’s character and faith.
“God is just,” he said.
“Just” is the root of the word of justice, which arrived for 39-year-old Yarbough 22 years late on Feb. 6. That’s when a Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice found Yarbough and his co-defendant, Sharrif Wilson, 37, innocent.
Once freed and the injustice reversed, Yarbough was repeatedly asked how it felt. Leaving the courtroom the first day; then facing TV cameras the next day, he remained pretty much at a loss for words.
By the third day he still struggled to grasp the changes in his life. But, it was the first day he said he could relax, hanging out with his closest friend, Eric Barden.
“I’m just trying to figure it all out. I was 17 when this happened. Everything is so big out here,” Yarbough said. “I’m still finding my bearings, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t think about it until I got out. I have no place to stay. I have no bank account. It’s extremely weird.”
“But I got him,” Barden said, who helped Yarbough find a temporary place to stay with his own family.
While bitterness at the injustice would be normal, Yarbough has steadfastly clung to his faith over the last several years through the emotional ups and downs of hope rising and falling and the courts dragging on despite significant evidence that pointed to both men’s innocence.
In September, Yarbough wrote a few friends that he hoped he’d be released any day, admitting fear that he had nowhere to go. As Christmas approached another trial date loomed. Another missed opportunity passed. Yarbough spent another Christmas in Attica. He wrote friends about a Jan. 7 hearing, asking for prayers.
“God is good,” he wrote.
The court again refused his release. Then finally, the day of justice arrived.
“Tony is a great client because he is honest with me and communicative and was always realistic despite horrendous circumstances,” defense attorney Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma said in an interview following the court decision.
An era under scrutiny
Police conduct in Brooklyn during the precise time of Yarbough and Wilson’s conviction has come under intense scrutiny in the past year. Yarbough is not the first to win long-awaited freedom. In March 2013, David Ranta, 58, was freed after serving 22 years for a murder he steadfastly claimed he did not commit.
In May the Brooklyn district attorney’s office ordered a review of more than 50 murder cases, all assigned to retired Det. Louis Scarcella. By reopening the case court officials recognized the growing suspicion of the detective’s tactics during the time of the 1980s and 1990s when Scarcella was a celebrated homicide detective. But as Yarbough’s case shows, spurious convictions were rampant in the department and went far beyond one rogue detective.
Yarbough and Wilson had been unjustly convicted when they were teens, caught in the grist of a police machine with a reputation of acting with impunity. Exactly how many innocent people remain unjustly incarcerated is unclear. The investigation continues.
On June 18, 1992 Yarbough, then 18, and Wilson went to the West Village in Manhattan. They returned home to Coney Island in the morning. Yarbough entered his house and saw a grisly murder scene. All three victims had been stabbed multiple times and strangled with an electrical cord. Yarbough said he ran screaming from the house yelling, “They’re all dead.”
He found his uncle. Together they called the police.
The conviction of Yarbough, who had no criminal record, was based entirely on the forced confession of the then 15-year-old Wilson, a confession Wilson later recanted in writing.
“Right now I don’t know where to start. Cuz I’m confused. Let me clear your mind. We are innocent. We never did anything,” Wilson wrote in 2005, recanting his testimony against Yarbough. “Yes I did turn state’s evidence on (Yarbough) not to hurt him. But for one I was 15 years old and scared… My lawyer kept telling me that if I didn’t do (it), Tony would do it for me.”
The officers sought no other suspects or no other clues. They hammered the teens for a confession.
“They solved a triple murder in one day,” Yarbough said, reflecting back. “They didn’t have a motive. They still can’t say why they only wanted us.”
“I was tired as was Tony. The police told me that if I said Tony did it they would let me go. Stupid me, I said OK,” Wilson wrote.
Yarbough’s first trial ended in a mistrial. The second trial he lost after Wilson’s taped confession was shown.
Yarbough was sentenced to 75-years-to-life and sent to the notorious Super Max prison at Attica. Yarbough’s faint hope for exoneration languished for nearly 20 years until Margulis-Ohnuma agreed to take on his case pro bono. Margulis-Ohnuma is a prominent New York defense attorney. As a member of the Criminal Justice Act he volunteered his services for those who can’t afford an attorney. Yarbough was one of these cases.
“I got involved in the case when Tony’s Attica bunkmate, Eric Barden, came to see me in 2008 and told me about it. I was moved to take it on because the circumstances overwhelmingly suggested innocence and there was no proof of guilt except the confessions,” Margulis-Ohnuma said.
Initial attempts to reopen Yarbough’s case in 2010 failed, but the district attorney’s office agreed to test DNA evidence. DNA discovered under the nails of Yarbough’s mother linked to an unsolved murder case committed in 1999 when Yarbough was already in custody.
The legal process for exoneration ramped up but dragged on for Yarbough, who repeatedly went back to court, each day hoping for his freedom. Finally, the day of justice arrived.
“The day they were released was the culmination of five years of work that was, until recently, pretty thankless,” Margulis-Ohnuma said. “But I happen to love law and legal analysis, so it would always be worth doing no matter what the outcome. I have gotten five years’ worth of thanks and compliments in the last 48 hours, and I could not be happier.”
After a celebration with Margulis-Ohnuma and friends, Yarbough went with his friend Barden to get some basic supplies.
“I’m buying me some sneakers right now,” he said over the phone. “But I’ll have a phone tomorrow.”
It would be the first phone number he could call his own. Later that night he went on CNN with Piers Morgan still at a loss for words.
“What was the first thing you wanted when you got out,” Morgan asked him.
“New York air,” he said.
Rediscovering life among the living
Over the last two years as Yarbough’s hopes for exoneration grew, he began to prepare for life on the outside. He worked toward his GED and wrote letters to several people who had heard about his case and offered support.
Among those was Al Sloan a California man in his 80s who had heard about Yarbough through a friend of a friend. Sloan sends postcards of encouragement to a dozen or so people every week. He began writing Yarbough in 2011. Yarbough wrote him back. The pair grew close. Sloan encouraged Yarbough to prepare for his release.
When Sloan heard Yarbough was free, he breathed a sigh of relief. Still, his concern remains.
“That young man has so many obstacles ahead of him. The state of New York put him in prison. They need to ensure he gets on his feet now,” Sloan said.
Yarbough left prison with about $80 and his meager belongings.
“Right now he needs housing and a job,” Margulis-Ohnuma said in an email.
The attorney has been taking donations for Yarbough through his personal Paypal account. The obstacles facing the man who turns 40 on Valentine’s Day are tremendous, his attorney said. Most programs in New York are geared to offenders, not innocent men.
Eventually, Margulis-Ohnuma believes, both men will be compensated by the state of New York.
“In the meantime they desperately need moral, spiritual and financial support to recover from the 7,903 days that were taken from them and, in Tony’s case, from the vicious massacre of his family,” Margulis-Ohnuma said.
Yarbough said he still hasn’t been allowed to grieve the death of his family. He didn’t know where his mother and sister were buried.
All in good time, he said. Still it was prominent on his mind to be grateful: “Tell everyone I said thanks man. I’m blessed.”
Note: Tony’s financial challenges remain significant. He has his own place, a small basement apartment. He is looking for work and planning a return to school. Donations are encouraged and can be made to the paypal account of his attorney, firstname.lastname@example.org