Editorial: Bloodsworth case should give death penalty supporters pause

Originally published in the Concord Monitor.

It’s hard to imagine a more compelling argument against the death penalty than the remarkable case of Kirk Bloodsworth, an innocent man who narrowly escaped lethal injection and now devotes his life to fighting capital punishment across the country.

Bloodsworth, who met with Monitor editors last week, was in New Hampshire to aid a group pushing to repeal the state’s death penalty. For legislators on the fence – and even those secure in their support for the statute – his story is worth paying attention to. His simple, powerful message will no doubt give pause to even the most resolute supporters of capital punishment: If this could happen to me, it could happen to you.

As reporter Annmarie Timmins recounted in the Sunday Monitor, Bloodsworth was wrongly accused of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in Baltimore. He had no criminal record and had served honorably in the Marines. But through a combination of faulty witness statements and Kafka-esque bad luck, he was convicted – twice – and sentenced to death row. He served nearly a decade in prison for a crime he didn’t commit – a prison so foul that Bloodsworth remembers stuffing toilet paper in his ears at night to keep the roaches out. Finally, his lawyer was able to use the then-new science of DNA testing to prove Bloodsworth’s innocence, and he was freed. The true killer turned out to be a man serving time in a Maryland prison for other crimes, living right alongside Bloodsworth.

The time is right for a new discussion about New Hampshire’s death penalty. In recent memory, no governor has countenanced a repeal; when such a measure passed the Legislature in 2000, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. But Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would sign a repeal bill, giving new hope to its supporters and new urgency to a serious debate in the 2014 legislative session.

At the time of Shaheen’s veto, she said some crimes were so heinous that the death penalty was appropriate. She specifically cited the 1997 case of Carl Drega, who went on a bloody rampage in the North Country before being killed himself. More recently, supporters of New Hampshire’s capital punishment statute have cited the case of Michael Addison, convicted of killing a Manchester police officer and now sitting on death row. And they have cited the 2009 Mont Vernon home invasion case, in which Kimberly Cates was murdered and her daughter badly injured by four young men who attacked them with knives and machetes. New Hampshire’s capital punishment statute was recently expanded to include similar crimes.

 All three cases were senseless and terrifying. But there is no evidence that executing the perpetrators would deter others intent on similar mayhem. And, as New Hampshire taxpayers will likely find out in the Addison case, the cost of pursuing years of legal appeals will far outpace the cost of keeping the murderer behind bars for life. The death penalty might give some grim satisfaction to proponents, but to what practical effect?

Death-penalty proponents have long argued that the state has used its capital murder statute sparingly, that the state’s prosecutors and public defenders are highly regarded, that DNA makes mistakes improbable today.

Bloodsworth speaks compellingly about how the prosecutors in his two trials were smart and competent and still botched his case. And, more chilling still, when he initially attempted to get his hands on the case evidence to submit it to DNA testing, he was told by the prosecutor that it had been inadvertently destroyed. Then, through the sort of luck that happens only in Hollywood, Bloodsworth’s lawyer had a chance encounter with a court clerk who told him otherwise: Hidden away in the judge’s closet, the evidence was intact.

Evidence does get lost or destroyed. Good lawyers, judges and juries do make mistakes. Innocent people can be wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, wrongly put to death. Without capital punishment, New Hampshire could make sure that the worst of these wrongs would never happen here.

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