Freed from death row, he aims to abolish death penalty in NH

by Nick Reid, originally published in the Hampton Union.

Bloodsworth in Hampton 10.11.2013
Kirk Bloodsworth became the first American sentenced to death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence, after he was wrongly convicted for the 1984 sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl in Rosedale, Maryland. Bloodsworth now travels the country speaking to various groups about his experience and about capital punishment. Here, he is pictured with state Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, a longtome advocate for eliminating the death penalty. Rich Beauchesne photo

An innocent man who spent nearly nine years imprisoned in Maryland, some of that time facing execution, brought his campaign to end the death penalty to New Hampshire this week, including a stop at Winnacunnet High School.

Kirk Bloodsworth, a burly 52-year-old man with a whitish goatee, proudly wore a blue windbreaker inscribed with the words Witness to Innocence on Friday when he visited the Seacoast Media Group office. The jacket promotes the only organization run by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones and represents Bloodsworth’s full-time commitment to ensuring no innocents are put to death, like he almost was. Bloodsworth is the organization’s director of advocacy.

He said poor eyewitness accounts and the errors of fallible humans fast-tracked him over eight months in the mid-1980s from wrongfully accused to death row in connection with the brutal murder and sexual assault of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton. He found himself in the Maryland Penitentiary in a cell where he could reach out and touch both walls and had barely room to pace three steps.

In the Marines, Bloodsworth threw discus on the track team for three years. After his honorable discharge, the 22-year-old with no criminal offenses was a commercial fisherman in Maryland. That was before his neighbor called the police to turn in Bloodsworth, saying he matched a composite sketch of Hamilton’s suspected murderer.

Soon his life became dodging predatory inmates, getting occasionally beaten by a sockful of D batteries and pacing back and forth in his cramped jail cell trying to solve Hamilton’s murder.

“I was the most hated man in the state of Maryland; there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

In 1992, his lawyer paid for a $10,000 DNA test of evidence left in a paper bag in a judge’s closet that excluded Bloodsworth as a suspect, he said. He was released from prison in June 1993 and pardoned in December of that year. In 2004, a man once simultaneously imprisoned in the same building as Bloodsworth pleaded guilty to Hamilton’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Bloodsworth, the first man in history to be exonerated by DNA evidence, was paid $300,000 restitution by the state of Maryland and, as a free man, took up two causes: finding Hamilton’s killer and abolishing the death penalty in Maryland.

Ten years after his release, Bloodsworth saw DNA evidence lead to the conviction of the real killer, and he completed his second goal in May 2013, when, he said, the Legislature made Maryland the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty, with very little opposition. Some legislators suffered from a malady dubbed “Kirk Bloodsworth fatigue,” he said.

And now he’s setting his sights on New Hampshire and a bill that will go before the Legislature next session sponsored by state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, that would abolish the death penalty. Cushing has put forward a similar bill before, but he feels better about his chances now.

After a bill targeting the death penalty failed in the past when it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen — and another was tabled after then-Gov. John Lynch indicated he would veto it — Cushing said Gov. Maggie Hassan will support abolition.

“We expect that next year New Hampshire will become the seventh state in seven years to abolish capital punishment,” Cushing said.

Bloodsworth, who was in New Hampshire in 2000 when Shaheen killed the movement with her veto power, said there’s a lot different temperament in the world today compared to 14 years ago.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of death,” said Bloodsworth, who presented at the University of New Hampshire Thursday, Winnacunnet High School Friday and the Christ Episcopal Church in Portsmouth Sunday.

He said young people often support death penalty abolition and the students at Winnacunnet were “very receptive” to his presentation.

“Honestly, I was looking out in the crowd and I saw a lot of concerned faces,” he said.

The scary part, he said, is that he believes if this could happen to him, it could happen to anybody. Take, for instance, the description of the suspected killer: 6-foot-5, skinny, curly blond to brown hair, with a bushy moustache and tan skin. Bloodsworth did have a moustache, but he said it wasn’t exactly bushy, and he was 6 feet even with pumpkin red hair, a ruddy complexion, Elvis-style sideburns, a missing tooth and a stocky build.

The real killer, Bloodsworth said, was 5-foot-6, 160 pounds.

He shows no sign of anger or resentment when he recalls the mistakes that almost cost him his life. He merely wants to prevent future injustices.

Since 1976, 1,350 people have been executed in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

During the same time, 142 have been exonerated.

“One out of every 8 or 10 people sentenced to death leads to an exoneration,” Bloodsworth said.

Bloodsworth said he had a day off and was in his house all day — and had solid alibis — when eyewitnesses alleged he killed a young girl.

“The eyewitnesses swore it was me. The police officers swore it was me. The prosecutors swore it was me,” he said.

“I don’t blame them for any of that — it’s just that everybody, as smart as they were, were dead wrong in the end,” he said.

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