Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate exonerated by
DNA in the United States, is pressing to end capital punishment in
Maryland, the state that sought his execution.
Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, a beefy, crew-cut man whose blue T-shirt
read "Witness to Innocence," took the microphone in a church hall
here and ran through his story of injustice and redemption one more
time. Twenty years ago, he walked out of a Maryland prison, the
first inmate in the United States to be sentenced to death and then
exonerated by DNA.
About 60 activists against the death penalty listened with rapt
attention, preparing to descend on state legislators to press their
case. Maryland appears likely in the next few weeks to join the
growing list of states that have abolished capital punishment. Some
longtime death penalty opponents say no one in the country has done
more to advance that cause than Mr. Bloodsworth. But ending
executions in Maryland, the state that once was determined to kill
him, would be a personal victory.
Even for proponents of capital punishment, Mr. Bloodsworth's tale
is deeply unsettling. In 1984, he was a former marine with no
criminal record who had followed his father's profession as a
waterman on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. A woman glimpsed on
television a police sketch of the suspect in the rape and murder of
a 9-year-old girl outside Baltimore. She thought it looked like her
neighbor Kirk, and she called the police.
From there, with the police and prosecutors under intense
pressure to solve the crime, it was a short route to trial,
conviction and a death sentence for a man whose Dickensian name,
after all, seemed to imply guilt.
"I was accused of the most brutal murder in Maryland history,"
Mr. Bloodsworth, now 52, told the church audience. "It took the jury
two and a half hours to send me to the gas chamber."
Only after nine years in the state's most decrepit and violent
prisons did Mr. Bloodsworth, through his own perseverance and some
aggressive lawyering, manage to get the still-novel DNA test that
finally proved his innocence in 1993.
Even then, prosecutors publicly expressed doubt about his
innocence. "Nobody knew what DNA was then -- it was sort of shaman
science, a 'get out of jail free' card," he said in an interview. It
took another decade -- and, again, Mr. Bloodsworth's own dogged
efforts -- before officials ran the DNA from the murder scene
through a database and identified the real killer, who is now
serving a life sentence. He bore little resemblance to the
description that the police had compiled from eyewitnesses.
Mr. Bloodsworth said he kept pursuing the test to clear himself
once and for all, but also to find the killer of the girl, Dawn
Hamilton, who was found in the woods stripped of clothing from the
waist down, her head crushed with a piece of concrete. "This was a
ghastly, horrific thing," he said.
Even after his release, Mr. Bloodsworth could never quite escape
the false charges that had threatened him with execution. He tried
to return, he said, to "a normal life," but he was haunted by what
he had learned about the justice system.
"If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody," he said.
He threw himself into work against capital punishment and for
justice reform, first as a volunteer speaker and later as a
professional advocate. Last month he began work as the advocacy
director for Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based coalition of
exonerated death row inmates who push to end capital punishment. …