Man vindicated by DNA brings story to Keene State in NH

by Steve Gilbert, originally published in the Keene Sentinel.

Michael Moore/Sentinel Staff Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person to have a death sentence overturned by DNA testing, speaks about the death penalty at Keene State College on Wednesday. The back of his shirt bears a quote by Florida death row survivor Freddie Lee Pitts which reads “You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave”.
Michael Moore/Sentinel Staff Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person to have a death sentence overturned by DNA testing, speaks about the death penalty at Keene State College on Wednesday. The back of his shirt bears a quote by Florida death row survivor Freddie Lee Pitts which reads “You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave”.

KEENE, NH: He may have been the most nondescript person in the room. He sat anonymously in back, watching a couple hundred Keene State College students and community members fill every seat in the Mabel Brown Room of the college’s Young Student Center.

He wore a tight-fitting blue T-shirt with the words “Witness to Advocacy,” denim shorts that hung below his knees, white socks, white sneakers, black-rimmed glasses.

He walked to the podium in the right front corner of the room as the house lights lowered. He was introduced by Keene State math professor Ockle Johnson, and was illuminated by two plain white spotlights.

And then Kirk Noble Bloodsworth — 52 years old, 5-foot-6, stocky, nondescript — began speaking.

He’s told his story hundreds of times: on television, in a book, before Congress, state Legislatures, churches, civic groups, students, in hundreds of rooms just like the one at Keene State. He’s spoken to audiences of thousands and audiences of one.

He draws into himself, heaves the words out passionately and sometimes graphically. The Keene State audience, rapt and hushed, squirmed uncomfortably when he delved into delicate details such as what happened to the underpants of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton, the girl he was accused of raping and killing in Rosedale, Md., near Baltimore.

Later, he says, speaking publicly is both sacred and cathartic, that he never tires of telling his story, and never will. “It’s my life,” he said.

Bloodsworth was once the most notorious man in Maryland, an accused child killer and rapist, whose conviction and sentence to death garnered wild applause in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. The July 25, 1984, crime was so awful, so brutal, that even inmates regarded him as the lowest of the low, constantly threatening to kill him. One bashed him in the back of the head with a sock full of batteries.

Except Bloodsworth, 23 at the time and an honorably discharged U.S. Marine, was innocent. He didn’t do it.

When arrested, he was more worried about the small amount of pot he had hidden in his shoe. He thought the misunderstanding would be cleared in no time.

Instead, he spent nearly 10 years in prison before becoming the first U.S. inmate on death row exonerated through the use of DNA evidence.

He was freed on June 28, 1993, yet still treated with disdain by the prosecution. Four years after his release, he finally got an apology from the state. That’s only because DNA revealed the real killer, a convict named Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a man who slept one floor below Bloodsworth in prison and lifted weights with him.

Bloodsworth spoke in Keene Wednesday on behalf of Monadnock Citizens Concerned About the Death Penalty, a local group backed by former mayor and current City Councilor Philip Dale Pregent. The group held an informational meeting last month in the Keene Public Library, and Pregent says it will continue to offer education seminars.

The state Legislature in 2014 is expected to take up a bill calling for the repeal of the death penalty. It’s been a nonstarter for decades in New Hampshire, but Gov. Maggie Hassan has indicated she would support such a measure. Former governor John H. Lynch had vowed to veto any bill repealing the death penalty.

Groups like the Monadnock organization trying to repeal the death penalty are forming statewide.

“It has a very real chance of passing,” said John-Michael Dumais of Keene, campaign director of the N.H. Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s time for this to go and there’s plenty of people from both sides of the (political) aisle who think this way.”

Michael Addison is the only New Hampshire prisoner on death row, convicted of killing Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. The state has executed 26 people in its history, the last one in 1939.

Bloodsworth worked extensively to get the death penalty repealed in Maryland, a goal that was achieved May 2 when it was signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley. It took effect Oct. 1.

Now he’s turned his attention to New Hampshire, one of 32 states with the death penalty.

“I’m going to talk to every single senator you’ve got and I’m not going to stop until I get a yes (on repeal),” Bloodsworth said.

Thursday night he spoke at the University of New Hampshire in Durham as part of the N.H. coalition’s official launch. This morning he’s speaking at the Christ Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. Bloodsworth is director of Advocacy for Witness to Innocence, a support group for exonerated prisoners that also advocates for the end of the death penalty. It was started 10 years ago by noted anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean.

At Keene State, Bloodsworth, a converted Roman Catholic, touched on the morality of the death chamber, saying, “You cannot kill people and then say killing is wrong. That’s an oxymoron.”

But the thrust of his talk centered on the tragedy of executing an innocent person, emphasizing that 144 people, and counting, on death row have been wrongly convicted and exonerated. He listed a litany of ways his case was railroaded through the system because the outraged public wanted vengeance, how evidence was ignored, how his own lawyer saw him only three times in the eight months before his trial.

It was like a movie combo of “The Shawshank Redemption” and “My Cousin Vinny,” except Bloodsworth’s story is true and not funny, although humor is part of his personality. He opened and closed with pumpkin jokes and was quick to pan his first lawyer.

“The prosecution did a hell of a job and I’ve got the (lawyer) who probably can’t find his car in the parking lot,” he said.

He talked about prison life, how inmates coordinated their toilets to overflow so their contents flowed into his tiny cell, how he saw “a sea of cockroaches on my ceiling.”

Still, he fought. Bloodsworth is a fisherman by trade, part of a family lineage that extends 250 years. He was a prison librarian for 7½ years, and wrote letters by the hundreds proclaiming his innocence. His epiphany came when reading John Wambaugh’s book, “The Blooding,” in which a falsely convicted murderer is exonerated based on DNA.

Attorney Robert Morin, now a judge in Washington, D.C., took up his case. Semen found on the victim’s underpants and tested for DNA proved Bloodsworth was not the killer.

First thing he did upon his release was eat some crab and drink beer. “And I didn’t go home in a police car. I went home in a limousine. And that was cool,” he said.

The $300,000 he was awarded in restitution — $3.72 per hour of prison time is how Bloodsworth figures it — was spent quickly. Bloodsworth says he has post-traumatic stress disorder, drank too much, was homeless for a while, sought counseling and found his niche in speaking.

He does not take freedom for granted and advises others to live life fully — as he does — because you never know. “Eat, drink and be merry,” he said with a laugh. “Carve a pumpkin, for goodness’ sakes.”

Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.

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