Nick Yarris, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for murder, sues publisher over abandoned life story
From death row to the high court. Book publishing giant HarperCollins is embroiled in a bitter legal dispute with a former prisoner who spent 21 years in solitary confinement in the US for a rape and murder he did not commit.
Nick Yarris, who was released from death row in Pennsylvania in 2004, is suing HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, at the high court in London for breach of contract over his life story, Seven Days to Live, published in 2008.
Yarris was sentenced to death in 1983 after being convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Delaware. He spent the next two decades in one of America's toughest prisons but was dramatically acquitted in January 2004 thanks to DNA evidence.
His harrowing account of the ordeal appeared in the book, Seven Days to Live, which was set to go on general sale in July 2008.
However, days before the release date, Yarris was arrested and charged with growing marijuana.
That prompted HarperCollins to swiftly halt the book's publication – but not before a number of copies had been passed to retailers, including Amazon.co.uk and high street bookstores.
It is estimated that more than a thousand copies of the book were purchased by readers around the world. Used copies are for sale online for between £35.99 and £81.55.
The marijuana-growing charges against Yarris were later dismissed.
Yarris said he was "humiliated beyond belief" when he was approached at Heathrow airport in 2009 by a woman who had read his book, which he claims had been distributed without his knowledge.
"I lost everything. Every dream was mine but not any more – now I earn less than the national minimum wage. If I get the courts to recognise me, I'll take the effort to re-release the book and go back to public speaking," he said.
He received £66,000 of an £100,000 advance from HarperCollins, but believes he missed out on at least £7.5m as a result of the dispute.
A spokeswoman for HarperCollins declined to comment beyond a short statement that said: "This case is without foundation and we will be defending it vigorously."
Yarris's legal claim for breach of contract and loss of opportunity has been formally filed at the high court in London.
He now lives near Spalding, Lincolnshire, with his partner.
His two-decade ordeal started on 20 December 1981, when he was 20. He was driving a stolen car when a police officer pulled him over for jumping a red light.
Yarris was high on methamphetamine and got into a scuffle with the officer, whose gun went off. He was arrested and placed in solitary confinement.
Alone in his police cell, Yarris read a newspaper article about the rape and murder of Linda May Craig, who had been kidnapped in Delaware near the border of Pennsylvania.
In a desperate attempt to plea-bargain his way out of prison, he concocted an elaborate plot to pin the murder on an associate who he believed had died.
But the plot backfired. The man he named had not died – it was his brother – and had a sound alibi. On 24 January 1983, Yarris was sentenced to death for the murder and rape of Craig.
After several failed bids to prove his innocence or bring forward his execution, Yarris was acquitted in July 2003 after a DNA test proved he was not at the scene of the crime.
He has spent the past 10 years public speaking, pleading with people to write to death row prisoners. He is currently writing a second book, Seven Days to Love, about life in England since his release.
• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email email@example.com or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly "for publication".