First man exonerated from death row by DNA testing speaks at Portsmouth church

by Jeff McMenemy, originally posted at Seacoast Online.

Kirk Bloodsworth, guest speaker Sunday at the Christ Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, tears up as he talks about his false imprisonment and the death of his mother. Cheryl Senter photo
Kirk Bloodsworth, guest speaker Sunday at the Christ Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, tears up as he talks about his false imprisonment and the death of his mother.
Cheryl Senter photo

PORTSMOUTH, NH — Kirk Bloodsworth’s voice shook as he told his story Sunday morning in front of the members of the Christ Episcopal Church and remembered how his mother died before DNA evidence exonerated him.

“This part’s tough for me,” Bloodsworth said as he paused to regain his composure.

A jury convicted Bloodsworth, now 53, in 1985 of the brutal murder and rape of a 9-year-old girl in Baltimore, Md., and he spent almost nine years in state prison there — including two years on death row — before he was set free.

He was the first man on death row to be freed because of DNA testing.

He recalled Sunday how the girl’s body was “found in a pile of leaves,” in July 1984.

“A precious little 9-year-old girl. It was god awful,” Bloodsworth said as he stood in front of the church.

Then, in August 1984, Baltimore County police arrested him at his home after he moved back to the Eastern Shore in Maryland, so he could return to his chosen profession of being a commercial crabber.

“I got a big rap on the door, ‘boom, boom, boom,’” he said, as his voice filled the church. “‘Open up, this is the Baltimore County Police Department, we have a warrant for your arrest.’”

A former next-door neighbor of his said he looked like the suspect who was last seen with the girl, even though the artist sketch of the alleged killer looked nothing like him.

Still, five different witnesses identified him as the killer.

“People would point me out in the courtroom,” he said as he pointed out into the distance in the church. “‘That’s the monster right there.’”

On March 27, 1985, he was convicted and sent to death row.

“I spent eight years, 10 months and 19 days in prison; by the time I got out, I was 31 years old,” Bloodsworth said.

Ultimately, he was cleared when his lawyer — on his third try — found the evidence from the case prosecutors used to convict him “in the judge’s closet in a paper bag.”

Once the evidence was tested for his DNA, all tests cleared him and he was released, and the DNA lead police to the real killer.

But Bloodsworth said he doesn’t forget the time he spent living in a cell where he could stand in the middle “and touch either wall.”

It smelled bad and looked like “something out of a horror movie,” he said.
And Bloodsworth recalled the hate most in the public had for him.

“I became the most hated person in the state at that time, maybe in the nation,” he said.

Unfortunately, as Bloodsworth pointed out, he is not the only innocent man who has been condemned to die for a crime he or she didn’t commit.

He said there are “144 exonerated death-row survivors” in the United States.

He is now the director of Advocacy for Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit that advocates against the death penalty and for the exonerated. It is made up of people who were once on death row.

“If it can happen to an honorably discharged Marine without a criminal record, it can happen to anyone,” Bloodsworth said about his ordeal.

After his speech at the Sunday service, Bloodsworth met with parishioners and talked about how he felt when he knew he was going to be released.

“It was a mixture of elation and fear,” Bloodsworth said, smiling.

The 53-year-old, who will turn 54 on Halloween, said his faith helped him endure the years in state prison, and it also kept him fighting for his release.

“If God wants me to die for someone else’s sins, then that’s the way it’s got to be,” Bloodsworth said. “But I didn’t think he wanted me to.”

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