Wrongfully convicted of murder and facing execution, an innocent man fought for his life and eventually won his freedom.
Kirk Bloodsworth shared his story and discussed issues surrounding the death penalty in Owings Mills Monday night.
Bloodsworth was at a forum held at the along with professor and Chair of the philosophy department at St. Mary’s College Dr. Richard M. Buck and executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (MD CASE) Jane Henderson.
Bloodsworth was the first death row inmate to be exonerated using post-conviction DNA testing. Since being set free he has advocated for death penalty reform in a number of states.
He said his goal is to ensure the state never faces the dilemma of executing an innocent person.
“You’d feel different if it happened to you,” he said. That is what Bloodsworth said in response to those who thought wrongfully convicted death row inmates was not a major concern.
Meanwhile, the backdrop in Maryland for the death penalty is immediate. The House Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would repeal the death penalty in Maryland today, where Bloodsworth offered his testimony, and will likely vote on the issue during this legislative session, Henderson said. Legislation passed in Illinois last week, and also in New Mexico and New Jersey, she said.
“It’s not the hot button issue it once was,” she said. “We have no organized opposition at this point — it’s not a case of if, it's when.”
In March 1985 Bloodsworth was convicted of the brutal murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton of Essex. It was nine years before Bloodsworth was finally exonerated for the crime after DNA evidence collected from the crime scene revealed he was innocent. That same year DNA testing also lead to the conviction of the actual murderer, Kimberly Shay Ruffner. Incidentally, Ruffner was incarcerated for an unrelated crime at the same time and at the same prison as Bloodsworth.
Bloodsworth explained that although the evidence against him was based solely on unreliable eyewitness accounts he was unable to convince a jury of his innocence.
“I told anybody and everybody I was innocent,” he said. “They kept trying to put a square peg in a round hole.”
Bloodsworth’s described the fetid conditions in his cramped cell and the daily threats of violence he faced as a convicted child murderer in prison. His chilling descriptions of prison life clearly disturbed some audience members.
“Horrific just doesn’t cover it,” he said.
Throughout this time Bloodsworth worked tirelessly to convince anyone who would listen that he was innocent. He called judges and lawyers constantly hoping for any kind of help.
“My life was totally shattered at that point,” he said.
In 1987, he finally got a break. Colin Pitchfork became the first person to be convicted using DNA evidence.When news of the conviction reached Bloodsworth he said he gained a new sense of hope.
“That’s when I had an epiphany, I thought ‘if it can convict you it can free you too’,” he said.
Bloodsworth then began trying to convince the state to conduct a DNA analysis of the evidence collected at the crime scene. During this time however, life outside the Maryland State Penitentiary was passing him by. His mother passed away while he was in prison, and Bloodsworth explained that he was allowed to make a brief appearance at her funeral. Shackled and wearing prison issue clothes, he was only able to stay for 20 minutes before being quickly sent back to prison.
Bloodsworth was finally released in June of 1993 after eight years in prison, two of which on death row.
His exoneration and subsequent release were the impetus for the Innocence Protection Act of 2003 which established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program. The program provides funding for DNA testing in capital punishment cases. Bloodsworth said he has worked tirelessly since his release to convince lawmakers to consider reforming its death penalty policies. He said he has heard many excuses from government leaders though he seemed quite unsympathetic.
“I am really tired of hearing they don’t have enough money because they do,” he said. “It’s called the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program.”