Exonerated man crusades against death penalty

by Damien Fisher, originally published in the Eagle Times.

CLAREMONT, NH — In 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth was charged with raping and murdering a nine-year-old girl. Five witnesses placed him with the young victim, and he gave an incriminating statement to police when questioned. He was tried and convicted. He was sentenced to die. Justice, it seems, was served.

Except, Kirk Bloodsworth is an innocent man.

“I spent eight years, 10 months, and 19 days in prison for something I didn’t do, and two years on death row,” he said when he sat down for an interview with the Eagle Times.
Bloodsworth battled for his freedom until his eventual release and exoneration. He is now a crusader against the death penalty, and was in Claremont last week, looking for support in the effort to end the death penalty in the Granite State.

“The death penalty has to go in the United States,” he said.

A former Marine, Bloodsworth was living in Maryland in the 1980s when he was arrested in the summer of 1984. A young girl had been found raped, strangled, and beaten to death with a rock. An anonymous caller led police to Bloodsworth. He was distraught during the interviews, and made odd statements that were used against him. More witnesses came forward, identifying the suspected killer as over 6-feet tall in height, weighing around 200 pounds and having curly hair and a mustache — like Bloodsworth.

When the real killer was found, he turned out to be Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a convicted felon who is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds. Ruffner even served time in the same prison as Bloodsworth, just one floor below.

“He never said anything,” he said.

Ruffner eventually plead guilty to the crime in 2004.

Bloodsworth’s first effort to fight his conviction led to a new trial in 1987, where he was found guilty again and this time sentenced to two-life sentences. When you are convicted, he said, you can only argue technicalities of the case; you can no longer argue your innocence.

“You’ve lost that presumption,” he said.

Around this time, Bloodsworth read a novel based on a true case in which DNA evidence was used to track down a killer. Bloodsworth then had an epiphany.

“If it can convict you, why can’t it free you?” he questioned.

No one convicted and put on death row had ever used DNA evidence in the U.S. to overturn their case. Bloodsworth became the first.

The first hurdle was finding the physical evidence in the case. Prosecutors sent Bloodsworth a letter stating that it had all been inadvertently destroyed. He kept pushing until it was found in an unlikely place.

“We eventually found it in a judge’s closet, in a paper  bag, in a cardboard box sitting on the floor,” he said.

Things like that happen all the time, he said. A bad prosecutor, a bad judge, bad police work, bad forensics, shaky witnesses, all contribute to death penalty cases on a regular basis. Bloodsworth said one in every eight death row cases are overturned because the person convicted is innocent, and yet all of those cases went though trial and appeals and were reviewed by investigators, lawyers, and judges. In his case, at least 50 people looked at the supposed facts before he was sentenced to death.

Bloodsworth wants to see these kinds of mistakes stop, for good, and in every state.
“I’m not saying New Hampshire would do this, not intentionally, but things happen all the time,” he said.

Aside from the fact the more and more death row convicts are being found innocent, there’s the simple fact the death penalty does not work, he said.

“In the final analysis, after all these years and seeing it first hand, the death penalty is a failed policy,” he said.

It does not deter crime, it does not save lives, and it does not bring closure to the family of murder victims, he added.

New Hampshire last executed someone in 1939, Howard Long, after he was convicted of molesting and fatally beating a 10-year-old boy. Currently, Michael “Stix” Addison is on death row for his 2008 murder conviction. Addison is convicted of fatally shooting Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs.

Bloodsworth says the Addison case is a good example of the death penalty as a failed public policy, showing that it is not applied fairly, and that it is applied in a racially biased manner.

Since Addison, who is black and poor, reportedly killed Briggs, there have been several other murder cases in New Hampshire that could have qualified for the death penalty. Bloodsworth wonders why Jay Brooks, for example, the New Hampshire millionaire convicted of hiring two other men to commit the murder of Derry man Jack Reid, is not also facing the death penalty instead of life in prison.

“It is no mistake that a black man is on death row, and wealthy white man, Mr. Books, is not,” Bloodsworth said.

Bloodsworth plans to keep meeting with state legislators as the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty pushes for legislation to end the death penalty in New Hampshire. He wants to see justice served, and thinks killers need to be punished.
A death sentence is partially what many of them want, as these killers look to escape justice, even if that means death, Bloodsworth said. Instead, he was to see them forced to live with what they have done.

“In that cell, with no freedom, in the Live Free or Die state,” he said.

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Damien Fisher can be reached at (603) 504-3147 or by email at dfisher@eagletimes.com.

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