Bloodsworth Recalls Trauma of Wrongful Conviction, Urges Support for DNA Testing

October 6, 2004
Bloodsworth spent more than eight years in prison, two of which he served on death row.

Kirk Bloodsworth knew he was in trouble when his lawyer, a public defender, assured him he knew his way around a courtroom and the criminal justice system-then got up to leave and promptly ran into the prison wall. Bloodsworth was subsequently convicted of the murder and rape of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton, and served more than eight years in prison, two of those on death row. He was finally exonerated by the then-new technology of DNA testing and released in June 1993, only a few months after his mother died. Bloodsworth spoke at a Student Legal Forum and UVA Innocence Project event Oct. 5 in an emotional account about his experiences in prison and the mistakes that put him there.

It was a hot summer day in August when police came knocking on Bloodsworth's cousin's door in Cambridge, Md., where Bloodsworth was staying due to marital problems with his now ex-wife. The victim had been found face-down, naked from the waist down, a few days after being murdered on July 25, 1984. Her head was crushed with a rock and her throat had been stomped on. Two young boys had seen a man walk into the woods with Hamilton; he was described as a thin man, 6 feet 5 inches, with curly blonde hair and tan skin. Five more witnesses said they saw the same man as early as 6 a.m., while Bloodsworth insisted he was asleep past noon. All the witnesses watched TV that weekend and saw Bloodsworth arrested after he was identified in a lineup, perhaps influencing their testimony. A police officer offered him a blanket to cover his head, which Bloodsworth later regretted not taking.

"One of the loneliest moments in my life was when the courtroom erupted in applause" upon hearing he would get the gas chamber, he said.

"Prison is nothing like what you see on TV," he said. "It is the most brutal, vicious, hateful, mean place that you could ever set your foot in." Bloodsworth, a former military police officer and three-time all-Marine champion discus thrower, had just been honorably discharged and had hoped to get a track scholarship to the University of Maryland. He was and is a commercial fisherman by trade-the boat he has now is named Freedom. An island in the Chesapeake Bay was named after his family, which includes a long line of fisherman-Bloodsworth Island. But rather than enjoy life outside in the country, he would spend his life in prison. "It was very hard," he said.

Bloodsworth, who spent his days in solitary confinement, said a fellow prisoner, Blue, taught him how to play chess without seeing the board or pieces. Blue was in jail for armed robbery and attempted rape. One day Blue said he was getting out of prison, which Bloodsworth thought strange; Blue had been sentenced to life without parole because of the three-strikes law. That day Blue took two No. 2 pencils and shoved them through his eye sockets. "It didn't kill Blue, but it blinded him permanently for life."

Bloodsworth was in the shower one day when he was hit in the back of the head with a sock full of D batteries. He was dragged away unconscious by his friend Bozo, saving him from a meeting with the "shanks" (crudely fashioned knives). Bozo saved him because he had once read a family letter to Bozo, who was illiterate. "That was all I needed to do for Bozo to save my life," he said.

Bloodsworth read more than 3,000 books in prison, including everything from Stephen King to Gestalt psychology, and was the prison's librarian for seven years. He began reading about exculpatory evidence, discovery and criminal procedure, and discovered that withholding evidence about another suspect was grounds for overturning a verdict. The police had done that in his case, so he won an appeal and his case was again sent to trial. His father spent $100,000 on legal expenses over the years, to no avail. "The same witnesses came forward, and I was convicted again," this time garnering two life sentences. The judge said he was very disturbed by the verdict, but for some reason wouldn't overturn the jury. "I just felt that he knew something was afoot. I wish he had been bold and let me out-he never did."

Bloodsworth continued to read, including a book that would change his life: The Bloodingreported on the first use of DNA testing to convict a man in England. The murders and rapes of two young women had led police in Narborough to ask men in the area who had the implicated blood type to provide DNA samples, after DNA exonerated a man who had falsely confessed. Colin Pitchfork had made a friend give a sample in his name, but the plot was uncovered and he was arrested and convicted.

Bloodsworth recalled thinking, "wait a minute-if it can catch somebody, it can free you." At first the state said DNA samples from his case had been inadvertently destroyed. But the judge in his last appeal had kept some of the needed evidence locked in his chamber's closet. "He was just so unsure of the conviction," Bloodsworth said. An FBI agent then said there was no semen on Hamilton's underwear, but Bloodsworth's experts noted there was a circle marked on the underwear with an arrow pointing to it. A year later test results paid for by his attorney revealed it was not Bloodsworth's semen. The FBI director himself called the state's attorney office and told them to free Bloodsworth.

The news came three months too late for his mother, who died in January 1993. "You don't know how much this destroys not just my family, but the Hamilton family too," he said. "This is 20 years-20 years I have fought to prove who killed that child."

Bloodsworth held up a book about his story written by Tim Junkin, saying there was "a lot of pain in these pages."

He was freed from prison on June 28, after eight years, 11 months, and 19 days, Bloodsworth recalls with clarity. "I was free, or so I thought."

He faced an uphill battle with state prosecutors, who said they was not prepared to say he was innocent, despite the fact that if the current evidence was available, they would not have prosecuted him. "I thought the prosecution was supposed to have the burden of proof, but yet they put it right back at my feet," he said.

Even after being freed from prison Bloodsworth faced continued persecution from those in the community who recognized him. He had to note that he had been convicted of a felony on job applications, and was asked to produce proof of his pardon. He would find "child murderer" written in his car's dirt.

In 1994, all the Maryland sex offenders were swabbed for DNA samples, which were stored in the Combined DNA Index System (CODAS). He asked the state attorney's office to put the DNA from Hamilton's case in CODAS, but the attorney he talked to said there was not enough money. In 2003 they put the DNA from the case in the database. He met with a state attorney that September, and was told a cold hit matched the sample to Kimberly Shaye Ruffner, who slept in the cell below Bloodsworth's for five years in prison. Bloodsworth had given him library books and even spotted him in the gym. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall and 170 pounds, a far cry from witness descriptions.

Bloodsworth criticized police for how they handled the young witnesses. They built the composite with the boys together instead of separately, as is custom. One boy said the man had a "Fu Manchu"-style mustache, like Ruffner, but the police never put it on the composite. "All they said was, the other boy got a better look at him," Bloodsworth said. The state's attorney has apologized to him, but the detectives in the case never have. He doesn't blame the boys, who he feels were manipulated by poor questioning. Hamilton's family members have spoken to him kindly, although he has not met the victim's father.

Ruffner had been released for the attempted rape of two girls on July 12, 1984, just days before the Hamilton crime. He was convicted of attempted rape and attempted murder a few weeks after Hamilton's murder. He "pled guilty to the whole truckload" on May 20, 2004. Bloodsworth said he didn't support the death penalty in the case, and neither did the victim's father. "Trust me, his life is in the crapper now," Bloodsworth said of Ruffner.

Bloodsworth has used his experiences to lobby for the Justice Project in Washington, D.C. He made sure every senator received a copy of his book. He has worked intensively on the Innocence Protection Act, which will support post-conviction DNA testing through the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which provides up to $25 million in grants. Prosecutors who lack funds to test could tap the money as well. "The simple fact is, that if it can happen to an honorably discharged Marine…it can happen to anyone."

Bloodsworth also works with rape victims and has lobbied for the Justice for All Act of 2004, a victims-rights bill that also includes the Innocence Protection Act. It has passed the House and is poised to pass the Senate soon. He noted that more than 300,000 rape kits are sitting on shelves across the nation, untested for lack of funds. One Virginia rape victim's kit didn't get tested for six and a half years.

He has lobbied for legislation in Maryland requiring that in cases of prosecutorial misconduct during a death penalty case, the prosecutor would not be allowed to seek the death penalty again.

The judge who kept the evidence in Bloodsworth's case told the prosecutors and defense attorneys, "This is not a game. This is not about gamesmanship. It's about the truth." Lawyers, judges, and police all should keep that in mind, Bloodsworth said. "You have an obligation to your community-not that you win the case-that's not what it's about. It's about that you protect society. They never protected society by withholding any evidence about anybody in my case."

The Innocence Protection Act also authorizes grants to states to improve capital prosecution and defense.

"You have to have death penalty lawyers who are qualified," he said. "I just think we really need to do a lot better than we're doing."

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