This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. Some of these stories contain content that may disturb some of you, so if you’re at all squeamish, don’t read them. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
Brooklyn teen Anthony Yarbough was just 18 when he arrived home one night in 1992 to find his mother, sister and sister’s friend lying dead in pools of their own blood. They had been stabbed numerous times and strangled with electrical cords. When the police were summoned to the scene, they apprehended Anthony and his 15 year old friend, Sharrif Wilson, with whom he had been out that evening. The two men were openly gay – something Anthony’s mother disapproved of. It was this fact alone that cast suspicion on Wilson and Yarbough. Not one drop of blood had been found on either suspect. No scratches or bruising, no torn or bloodied clothing. Nothing tied the boys to the crime, other than Yarbough’s relation to and discovery of the bodies. In fact, the body of Annie Yarbough indicated a struggle and scrapings were retrieved from under her fingernails. Despite the fact that the state of her corpse suggested she had scratched her attacker, and neither of the boys had any wounds, police continued to question them.
Yarbough’s mother, Annie, was also well known to have had a serious drug problem and to keep company with questionable people. In fact, she had been threatened the night before she died. Completely disregarding this, police kept their sights on her son and his friend as the only suspects in the case.
After hours upon hours of interrogation, threats, and coercion, Wilson finally confessed to the crime and implicated Yarbough as his accomplice. He was offered a deal. If he would testify against Yarbough, he would get a reduced sentence and perhaps be out on parole in just a few short years. He was still a child, unable to fully grasp the gravity of his accusations against his friend, and took the deal. Yarbough was sentenced to 75 years to life, while Wilson got 9 years to life.
In 1999, while Anthony Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson were still imprisoned, Migdalia Ruiz, also a known drug addict running with a questionable crowd, was found near Sunset Park in Brooklyn, stabbed and strangled with an electrical cord. Scrapings were retrieved from under her fingernails as well.
12 years into his time in prison, Wilson received a letter from Yarbough’s aunt, asking for the truth.
“Did you do it?” She asked. “Did you kill my sister?”
Wilson, whose cooperation and confession had not gotten him the parole he hoped for, decided it was finally time to tell the truth. “No,” he wrote back. “No, we did not kill her.” His guilt bubbled over as he explained to his friend’s aunt why he had testified against Yarbough. Over the past 12 years, he’d had to live with himself knowing he lied about their guilt. Not only had he snitched on his friend, but he did it while fully aware of the fact that what he was saying was not true. He was ashamed of himself; angry at himself and had begun to let himself go in prison. When he entered, he was a thin, healthy 15 year old boy. He was now nearing a few hundred pounds.
In 2005, Wilson finally recanted his testimony and confession, claiming he had been coerced by police and fed details about the murder that had not been made public. He said it out loud: We are innocent.
Five years later a new District Attorney was elected in Brooklyn. Kenneth Thompson took office and immediately began to tackle a pile of cases that he feared were wrongful convictions. During the 80s and 90s, New York City police had been accused of misconduct, corruption and laziness, and it had resulted in dozens upon dozens of cases in which the convictions were, at best, questionable. Anthony Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson’s were two of the convictions in question. In 2013, the DNA evidence from under Annie’s fingernails was finally sent for testing. It came back as a match… but not to Wilson or Yarbough. Instead, it matched the DNA evidence found in the case of Migdalia Ruiz, whose murder happened while Yarbough and Wilson were locked up. The men were clearly innocent.
After 22 years in prison, Yarbough and Wilson were freed. Wilson now weighed a life-threatening 400 lbs. He went to live with his sister, who had only been six the last time they saw each other. After 11 months of getting to know his niece, marvelling at the developments in tech that had occurred while he was locked up, and trying to lose weight, Wilson passed away from acute respiratory distress in hospital at the age of 38.
If you found three slain bodies upon arriving home, would you call police? Why? What would you hope the police would do if you called them? I think most people would hope that the police would arrive, collect evidence and interview those on the scene. I think many of us would insist the police investigate all likely leads and try their hardest to pinpoint the real perpetrator. I think we all hope that the police would not ignore evidence or promising leads. Ultimately, we would want the police to stop that killer in his tracks, preventing any more people from becoming his victims. We would hope, beyond anything else, that the person who committed this heinous slaughter is no longer roaming the very same streets we live on.
Certainly, the very last thing we would want the police to do is create more victims. That’s exactly what they did in this case, though. Perhaps the police who interrogated Anthony and Sharrif were homophobic and figured pinning this crime on two gay kids would at least get them off the street. Maybe police were fueled by racial prejudice. Maybe they were in the pocket of local drug gangs, and didn’t want to pursue a lead that would have these gangs investigated. Maybe they were just unconcerned. A drug-addicted single black mother and two black kids weren’t worth their focused effort.
No matter what drove the police to ignore critical evidence and lack thereof, to pursue the conviction of two gay, black teens for a crime they did not commit, one thing is clear: directly resulting from the cops’ misconduct are three new victims… that we know of. Anthony Yarbough had 22 years of his life stolen from him. Sharrif Wilson had 22 years of his life taken as well, and was forced to life with a crippling guilt.
Worst of all, Migdalia Ruiz lost her life to a killer who could have been behind bars had the police decided to follow the more likely of the two leads they had in a triple-murder on Coney Island in 1992.
This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at email@example.com. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
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If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org