38-year-old man freed from prison by DNA evidence after 20 years dies a year later

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Sharrif Wilson, 38, died 11 months after being freed from prison. He had been wrongly imprisoned for more than 20 years. (Photo: CNN via WPIX)

NEW YORK (CNN) — When Sharrif Wilson was released after being wrongfully imprisoned for more than 20 years, he couldn’t wait to have a hot slice of New York pizza.

“I feel free. I feel great right now. I’ll able to do things that I [couldn’t] do for the last 21 years,” Wilson told CNN the day after his February 2014 release.

His freedom was cut short.

Wilson, 38, died Saturday night at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan after suffering from breathing problems and other health issues, less than a year after DNA evidence led to his freedom, according to a statement from his attorney’s office.

“They took him away from us. And we finally got him back,” Fatima Wilson, Sharrif’s sister told CNN affiliate WPIX.

Wilson was arrested in June 1992, along with his friend Anthony Yarbough, in the slaying of Yarbough’s 40-year-old mother, Yarbough’s 12-year-old sister and 12-year-old cousin in a Coney Island housing project.

Yarbough was just 18, and Wilson only 15, when they were accused of murder.

Brooklyn detectives placed Yarbough and Wilson into separate interview rooms and coerced false confessions from the two teens, who were later convicted in separate trials.

Yarbough, who was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison, also was released last year.

Yarbough’s attorney and the district attorney’s office began revisiting the case in 2010.

In 2013, new DNA evidence from under Yarbough’s mother’s fingernails matched sperm from the 1999 unsolved rape and murder of Migdalia Ruiz of Brooklyn, according to an investigation by the Medical Examiner’s office.

Yarbough and Wilson were already incarcerated when the 1999 rape and murder occurred, according to Adam Perlmutter, Wilson’s attorney.

“He was a healthy, young, 15-year-old-boy. And he came out a broken, morbidly obese individual whose health care wasn’t really well monitored and maintained by state prison authorities,” Perlmutter told WPIX.

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson said his office examined “newly discovered scientific evidence that was not available at the time of the trial.”

“Based on this new evidence, I believe a jury would have been more likely to return a different verdict,” Thompson said.

DNA frees North Carolina’s longest-serving death row resident

Wilson’s death recalls the case of William Lopez. After being wrongfully imprisoned for over 20 years, Lopez passed away at age 55 last September of a massive asthma attack, just days before a scheduled pre-motion conference for his $124 million lawsuit against New York City.

He had been out of prison less than two years, said Jeffrey Deskovic, whose foundation had worked with Lopez to help secure his release.

Lopez was convicted of a 1989 Brooklyn murder and sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison. He was released from prison in January 2013 after a key witness recanted her testimony, saying she had lied in exchange for leniency from the prosecution in her own pending cases, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Deskovic feels affected by both deaths, even though he never met Wilson in person.

“Lives are literally being stolen from these wrongful convictions,” said Deskovic. “What is it going to take for our government to finally pass legislation to prevent this? How many more lives are going to be impacted like this?”

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5 comments

  • Mid Century

    “After being wrongfully imprisoned for over 20 years, Lopez passed away at age 55 last September of a massive asthma attack, just days before a scheduled pre-motion conference for his $124 million lawsuit against New York City.”
    – Now that’s interesting.

  • Sue G.

    Some people that are wrongfully convicted of a crime are not always criminals. My son is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and he has never been arrested before.

  • Carol Emory

    I think it should be a requirement that all prisoners on death row, serving life sentences, or major stretches (like 50 years or more) should be DNA tested if material was collected at the time of the crime that wasn’t able to be tested in this manner before. You may find a lot of convictions being overturned. There were a lot of cops back in the day that were number crunchers, just interested in closing their cases to make themselves look good to the promotions board. They really didn’t care if they had the right person.