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Kirk Bloodsworth

Wrongly convicted man speaks of legal system ills

Kirk Bloodsworth

The moral of the story was clear: "The sum of us is within one of us, and we all can be powerful," said Kirk Bloodsworth, the first man to be exonerated as a result of DNA evidence.

Bloodsworth spoke to a group of about 150 students and faculty members in Dede II Thursday as part of Human Rights Day.

A former Marine, Bloodsworth was accused of raping and murdering nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton in 1984. Hamilton, who had been playing hide-and-go-seek in the woods near her home, was found beaten, raped and murdered.

On March 8, 1985, Bloodsworth was found guilty of sexual assault, rape and first-degree premeditated murder and was sentenced to death.

After the sentence was read, people shouted, "Kill him!" as he was taken out of the courtroom.

Life in prison at the Maryland Penitentiary was not easy, Bloodsworth said.

"[It] was like a dream that I was going to wake up from the next morning," Bloodsworth said. "... The first night I crawled under the bunk and cried myself to sleep."

He spoke of one night in particular when the power went out in the prison, one example of the prison's poor living conditions.

"It was so pitch black; I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," Bloodsworth said. "I felt things falling on me that I assumed to be paint peeling off of the ceiling."

It wasn't until the power returned that Bloodsworth saw the "sea of cockroaches" on the ceiling of his cell.

"There were literally thousands of them," he said.

He had to put wads of toilet paper in his ears to keep the cockroaches from going in and laying eggs.

While in prison, many inmates threatened to harm Bloodsworth for the crime he had been accused of.

"Every night I heard through the vent 'We're going to get you Kirk. We're going to do you like you did to that little girl,'" he said.

While in prison, Bloodsworth did a lot of reading. Little did he know that reading would eventually help him gain his freedom.

One of the many books that Bloodsworth read while in prison was "The Blooding" by Joseph Wambaugh. The book provided a detailed account of the Narborough slayings and the DNA fingerprinting revolution that led to the capture of the murderer.

"It was then that I had an epiphany," Bloodsworth said.

In 1989, he started a campaign to get testing in order to prove that he was not the murderer of Dawn Hamilton. This prompted a second trial.

During the second trial, it was found that the prosecutors were withholding two suspects that fit the description of the murderer. As a result, the case was overturned.

"The first suspect showed up at a psychiatric hospital with scratches on his face about thirty minutes after the murder had been committed saying he had a problem with a little girl," Bloodsworth said.

After four years of making phone calls and campaigning to have DNA tests run, Bloodsworth stepped out of the Maryland Penitentiary June 28, 1993 a free man.

Choking back tears, Bloodsworth recounted his ordeal.

"My journey was not without loss. My mother died five months before I got out. My best friend committed suicide," he said.

"I didn't get to see my family during any of that, I just went back to prison."

The day he was set free, he stepped outside to a swarm of reporters, cameras and a limousine.

"People had been dedicating songs to me on the radio, such as 'The Innocent Man' by Billy Joel," he said.

Fighting back tears once again, Bloodsworth spoke of the feeling of finally being free.

"They asked me if I wanted any particular song played, and I wanted them to play 'Civil War' by Guns and Roses," he said. "I just couldn't believe that after all this time, people finally believed me."

Though he was happy to be free, life was still rough for Bloodsworth. He would receive death threats over the phone, and would walk outside to find the words "child murderer" and "child killer" wrote onto the hood of his truck.

A man once came to his door and asked Bloodsworth if he was the man that had been on TV.

"Yes, that's me," Bloodsworth said.

The man responded, "We don't want your kind in the neighborhood."

Bloodsworth eventually found out who the killer was: A man named Kimberly Shay Ruffner, whom Bloodsworth had known while in prison.

"He never would look me in the eye," he said.

Since the real murderer has been found, Bloodsworth has received $300,000 for "loss of wages" and what he termed an "anti-apology" from the prosecuting attorney.

Ruffner was sentenced to life in prison, which will begin when he is 75 years old and his current sentence is served.

"Death isn't really the ultimate punishment," Bloodsworth said. "He will have to live the way I lived during those eight years for the rest of his life. That punishment is far greater."

When the real murderer was caught, Bloodsworth said he felt as though the world had been lifted off his shoulders.

His wife, Brenda Bloodsworth, said they are trying to make a change.

"It can happen to anyone," she said. "All they have to do is point that finger."

Brenda Bloodsworth identified the goal as changing the justice system.

"It's not only wrong, it's broken and it needs to be fixed," she said. "Hopefully the kids in here can help change that."

From the Innocence Project website

Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted in March of 1985 for the brutal killing and sexual assault of a nine year old girl. The victim was found dead in July of 1984. She had been strangled, raped, and beaten with a rock. Bloodsworth was arrested based on an anonymous call telling police that he was seen with the victim that day and an identification made by a witness from a police sketch that was based on the recollections of five eyewitnesses. At trial, all five witnesses testified that they had seen Bloodsworth with the victim. Also presented at trial was testimony that Bloodsworth had said that he had done something terrible that day that would affect his relationship with his wife. Additionally, he mentioned a bloody rock during the investigation. A shoe impression found near the victim matched his size.

This evidence was challenged in Bloodsworth's appeals, which asserted that the bloody rock was mentioned because the police showed him a rock during the interrogation. The incident he mentioned regarding his wife amounted to his failure to buy the food she had requested. Moreover, the police failed to inform the defense that there may have been another suspect. Bloodsworth's conviction was overturned by the appellate court and he was retried. This time, he was convicted and sentenced to two life terms, to run consecutively.

In 1992, the prosecution agreed to DNA testing to be performed by Forensic Science Associates. The victim's shorts and underwear, a stick found at the scene, and an autopsy slide were compared against the blood standards of the victim and Bloodsworth. Using PCR based DNA testing, FSA determined that the amount of spermatozoa on the slide was insufficient for testing. Testing on the panties excluded Bloodsworth. Replicate testing performed by the FBI yielded the same results.

Bloodsworth was released from prison in June 1993 and pardoned in December 1993. He had spent over eight years in prison, two of those years facing execution.

Bloodsworth also became the first person to be exonerated from death row through post conviction DNA testing. The recent introduction of the Innocence Protection Act of 2003 establishes the Kirk Bloodsworth Postconviction DNA Testing Program, which will provide funding for testing under the act. To learn more about the IPA and to read Bloodsworth's remarks on the bill, please visit our Legislation section.

Death Penalty Controversy

Kirk "I was in total shock. I couldn't believe that all these people were saying I was a brutal murderer."

Kirk Bloodsworth

Kirk Bloodsworth is one of a small but disturbing number of innocent people who were released from death row after being wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted and wrongfully sentenced to die. Had he not been his own best advocate...had DNA testing not been available, he might be dead today.

In 1984, Kirk, an ex-Marine with no criminal history, was arrested for the brutal rape and murder of a 9 year-old girl. The nightmare began after one of his neighbors thought Kirk looked like the man in the composite sketch he had seen on TV. The man described was over 6 feet tall, thin and blond. Kirk didn't come close to that description. He believes prosecutors were so determined to solve the case that they refused to listen to the truth. In 1985, Kirk listened in horror as he was sentenced to death.

Kirk spent the next 2 years on death row in a prison cell below the gas chamber. Somehow he found the inner strength to move past anger. He focused on fighting to prove his innocence. He wrote letters, called people-anything to get people to listen. He would not give up. Eventually he won a new trial and was sentenced to life without parole.

Reading became Kirk's only comfort-it proved to be the key to his release. Reading a crime story, he learned about DNA testing and demanded to be tested.

The DNA test proved he could not have committed the murder. He was finally freed after nearly 9 years in prison. Kirk's mother, his biggest supporter, was not there for his release-she died only 5 months before. Since his release, Kirk has dedicated his life to ending the death penalty. He says the fact that he was innocent kept his spirit alive. The real tragedy, Kirk says, is that a little girl lost her life, and, after 17 years, her killer is still roaming free.

56 countries still carry out the death penalty in 2016

Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, Chad, China, Comoros, Cuba, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guatemala, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian territories, Qatar, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, USA, Vietnam, Yemen, Zimbabwe

Death Penalty Countries 2016