“It could have happened to anyone, anywhere”

by Annmarie Timmins, originally published in the Concord Monitor.

Kirk Bloodsworth, a former death row inmate who was the first person exonerated by DNA evidence. Tuesday, October 15, 2013. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Kirk Bloodsworth, a former death row inmate who was the first person exonerated by DNA evidence. Tuesday, October 15, 2013. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Kirk Bloodsworth was a 22-year-old honorably discharged Marine who’d never been in trouble when he was convicted in 1985 of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in Maryland. He was sentenced to death row.

Bloodsworth was innocent.

Still, he spent eight years, 10 months and 19 days in prison before he proved it. In 1993, Bloodsworth became the first person exonerated by DNA evidence when the semen on the victim’s underwear pointed to another man, not Bloodsworth.

That man pleaded guilty and Bloodsworth, later pardoned, received $300,000 from Maryland for his wrongful incarceration.

It’s no surprise the experience changed Bloodsworth’s thinking on the death penalty. He was in New Hampshire last week sharing his story with hopes it will have a similar affect on others, especially lawmakers who will debate repealing the death penalty next year.

“When I was a Marine, I felt people got what they deserved,” Bloodsworth, 53, said during an interview with the Monitor. “But . . . if this could happen to an honorably discharged Marine with no criminal record, it could have happened to anyone, anywhere.”

According to the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate prisoners with DNA evidence, 311 people in the United States have been cleared by DNA, 18 of them after serving time on death row. Bloodsworth, of Pennsylvania, is now advocacy director for the group.

Death penalty opponents in New Hampshire know those exoneration numbers well and have renewed hope that a repeal, which failed in 2000 and 2009, is within reach this year.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, unlike her predecessors, has said she favors life in prison over the death penalty. Former attorney general Phil McLaughlin, who once supported expanding the death penalty, came out last year against it. And the repeal bill has the support of conservative Republicans such as Sen. Sam Cataldo of Farmington and equally passionate Democrats such as Rep. Mary Jane Wallner of Concord and Sen. David Pierce of Etna.

“We are really in an interesting historical moment,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat who is leading the legislative effort to repeal the law. “I think New Hampshire is in a position where we are about ready to live without the death penalty.”

Maryland repealed its law this year at the urging of Bloodsworth and others, including the Innocence Project. When New Hampshire lawmakers take public comment on the repeal bill next year, Bloodsworth intends to share his story.

Bloodsworth had moved to the Baltimore area less than a month before the body of the murdered 9-year-old girl was discovered in July 1984. He’d moved from the shore to the city to follow his wife, who wanted a more urban setting. The police put out a sketch of the suspect based on descriptions from a few witnesses and received nearly 500 tips, Bloodsworth said.

Tip No. 286 came from a woman in Bloodsworth’s neighborhood; she thought the sketch resembled him. The police questioned him but didn’t arrest him until a few days later, at 2:45 a.m.

“I heard a big bang on the door,” he said. “They said, ‘Step outside Mr. Bloodsworth. You’re under arrest for the death of Dawn Hamilton, you son of a b—-.’ I became the most hated person in Baltimore.”

The state based its case on five witnesses, two of them young boys, who said they’d seen Bloodsworth in the area of the crime scene. One witness who identified Bloodsworth said she had heard him speak just before the murder but didn’t actually see him, Bloodsworth said.

Bloodsworth presented 10 alibi witnesses, but they failed to convince jurors, and Bloodsworth was sentenced to death row. Two years later, he appealed his conviction based on evidence the prosecution had withheld during the first trial. He was convicted again but sentenced to life in prison instead of death.

In 1992, Bloodsworth began reading a book in prison about the use of DNA fingerprinting to convict a British man for the rape and murder of two girls. It was the first time DNA evidence had been used that way.

“I had an epiphany,” Bloodsworth said. “If (DNA) can convict you, why can’t it free you?”

Bloodsworth began going through the files from his case in search of a reference to anything that could be tested for DNA. He found something: The victim’s underwear had possible semen stains on it, according to one report. Bloodsworth wrote to the prosecutor on his case and requested the evidence be tested.

“The prosecutor wrote me back,” Bloodsworth said. “She had called me a monster in two different trials. She said, ‘We regret to inform you that the evidence has been inadvertently destroyed.”

Bloodsworth said he “flipped right out,” tore his cell apart and then calmed himself enough to call his lawyer. He wanted his attorney to look for the evidence himself. The lawyer did as Bloodsworth asked and confirmed that the evidence was no longer in court storage.

On his way out of the courthouse, Bloodsworth’s lawyer bumped into the clerk who had worked on the trial.

The lawyer mentioned his disappointment at not finding the evidence, and the clerk surprised him: The evidence, the clerk said, was in a closet inside the judge’s chambers. The underwear was tested, and the results proved what Bloodsworth had said since his arrest: He was innocent.

Bloodsworth later discovered the real killer, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a man with a history of sexual assaults, was serving time for something else in the same prison, a floor below.

As the prison librarian, Bloodsworth is certain he must have interacted with Ruffner while incarcerated.

Ruffner is now serving the life sentence Bloodsworth would have served if not for the DNA testing.

Bloodsworth thinks life in prison is the ideal punishment for Ruffner.

“If you want to punish people, stick them in the cell,” Bloodsworth said. “Let them live their lives out in that type of environment. When we execute them, we give them what we want. Their accountability is gone. Putting them in the cell and shutting the door is the best way we can go. They will be accountable for the rest of their life.”

He’s got another argument for repeal, too. “I think everybody (involved in my prosecution) was as bright as the sun, he said. “But in the end they were all dead wrong. We are not as infallible, we make mistakes on a regular basis.”

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