February 5, 2013
By Scott Shane
The New York Times
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — 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 nation 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 for him.
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.
The movement to end the death penalty has garnered more support from politicians and the public as it has shifted from moral condemnation of capital punishment to a more practical argument: that mistakes by witnesses and the police inevitably mean that innocent people will be executed. While DNA gets the limelight, of 142 prisoners sentenced to death and then exonerated in the last 40 years, just 18 were freed over DNA evidence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
Use of the death penalty has been steadily declining, and 17 states no longer have it on the books, with 5 of them abolishing it since 2007, said Richard C. Dieter, the center’s executive director. Executions dropped to 43 last year from 98 in 1999.
“These innocence cases are the biggest single factor, because it has spread doubt throughout the system,” Mr. Dieter said.
Mr. Bloodsworth, a tireless public speaker who has visited state after state to lobby for repeal, handing out a 2004 book on his case, called “Bloodsworth,” has used his own experience to promote those doubts. “I think no single individual has changed as many minds as Kirk,” said Jane Henderson, the director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, a lobbying group. “He’s articulate, patient, and he’s got a huge heart.”
His homespun eloquence has unmistakable appeal, but his own tale is his most powerful argument. Prosecutors and jurors ignored glaring problems with witnesses — two were boys who did not pick Mr. Bloodsworth out of a lineup — and dismissed five alibi witnesses who testified that he was home at the time of the murder.
“The adversarial system doesn’t know who’s guilty or who’s innocent,” Mr. Bloodsworth said. “The millstone does not know who’s under it.”
At the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, he could stretch out his arms and touch the sides of his cell. He stuffed paper in his ears at night to keep the cockroaches out. His skull was cracked by another inmate who swung a sock stuffed with batteries. He was still locked up when his mother died.
After his release, he was pardoned and was paid $300,000 in compensation by the state. But even as he worked for death penalty abolition in other states, he became a regular visitor to Annapolis, pressing legislators to learn from his case. “I’m a walking reminder for them,” he said.
Delegate Barbara A. Frush, a Maryland legislator for 19 years, said a visit from Mr. Bloodsworth two years ago changed her mind about capital punishment, which she had long favored. “I sat across the desk from him and looked in his eyes and listened to his story,” she said. “It sent shivers down my spine. I thought, I can’t take the chance that I might send an innocent man to death.”
This week, for the first time, he had a private visit with the longtime president of the State Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has decided to allow a floor vote on the repeal bill. Mr. Bloodsworth left the meeting more optimistic than ever.
From time to time, he has heard from the people who sent him to prison. A juror got in touch to apologize. One of the two lead homicide detectives sought him out; “it seemed like he wanted absolution,” Mr. Bloodsworth said. One of the prosecutors, S. Ann Brobst, who had called him “a monster” at trial, insisted on driving to the Eastern Shore to give him in person the news of the DNA hit on the actual murderer.
At the church hall, he turned from his own story to the prospects for action in Maryland.
“What do you smell?” he bellowed.
“Victory!” the advocates yelled back.
“It’s time to close the case,” Mr. Bloodsworth declared, raising his arms in anticipation.