Exonerated by DNA and Now Capital Punishment's Most Important Critic

Article excerpt

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. …