Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Friday, February 23, 2018

Pg5_BloodsworthKirk Bloodsworth

MILFORD – In 1985, at age 22, Kirk Bloodsworth was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl, based primarily on the eyewitness accounts of 8- and 10-year-old children. Evidence and 10 alibi witnesses were barely taken into account, he says.

Then in 1993, after spending almost nine years on death row in a Maryland prison, he was released and later exonerated. He was the first person in the United States to have a death penalty conviction overturned by DNA evidence.

Mr. Bloodsworth recounted the story at a meeting of the Knights of Columbus Council 47 on Oct. 11 with a call for the repeal of the death penalty.

"The death of one innocent person is one person too many," he said. "The pain of what I went through, I do not want to happen to another person.

"I was a former, honorably discharged Marine with no criminal record, who was nowhere near the scene of the crime," he said, "but I was still convicted and sentenced to death for a crime I didn’t commit. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody."

Mr. Bloodsworth, who has since told his story on national television and written a book about his case, said that of the 138 death row inmates since the 1970s who were later found to be innocent, only 17 were cleared by DNA evidence.

His story comes alive in the movie "Conviction," released in October. Hilary Swank stars in the true story of a sister’s dogged, 18-year effort to free her brother with the help of DNA evidence.

When the murder was committed, Mr. Bloodsworth had just returned to the Chesapeake Bay area from Baltimore to continue his work as a commercial fisherman. Among those who tipped off police was his next-door neighbor, who said he resembled a composite sketch, even though the suspect was described as several inches shorter and having red hair.

Holding up a picture of Dawn Hamilton, the little girl, he described her murder, during which she was raped, sodomized, assaulted with a stick and beaten. He said the crime was so vicious and brutal that a footprint was found on her neck, providing even more reason for her murderer to be brought to justice.

While he was in prison, he was assigned as a librarian and began reading, a gift he attributed to his mother, who died of a massive heart attack only a few months before his release.

One book was The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh, which talked about new DNA fingerprinting being used in England. "I envisioned that if I found the killer, I could find justice for myself and for that little girl," said Mr. Bloodsworth.

He called his attorney, who said that evidence from the case was missing. By chance, the attorney said he ran into a clerk who directed him to a judge’s chambers, where a paper bag of items was sitting on the floor. Testing proved that evidence on the little girl’s clothing did not match Mr. Bloodsworth’s DNA profile.

In 2003, nearly a decade after Mr. Bloodsworth’s conviction, DNA evidence identified Kimberly Shay Ruffner as the real killer. Mr. Ruffner pleaded guilty to the murder in 2004. The state of Maryland set Mr. Bloodworth free and paid him $300,000 for wrongful imprisonment.

Today, Mr. Bloodsworth continues to work for The Justice Project, and has been an ardent supporter of the Innocence Protection Act (IPA) since its introduction in Congress in February 2000. The IPA established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which aims to help states defray the costs of post-conviction DNA testing.

Mr. Bloodsworth continues to press the issues of justice through DNA testing and of abolishing the death penalty through newspapers and countless national television shows and before groups such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Currently residing in Idaho, Mr. Bloodsworth was in Connecticut – where he addressed Knights of Columbus councils and other groups – through the sponsorship of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Field organizer Bo Chamberlin said that the death penalty still holds in 35 states, including Connecticut, and that it costs taxpayers $14 million annually because of the price of appeals, resources, preparation and the expense of death row facilities.

However, he said, Connecticut could be close to abolishing the death penalty. Although Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill to abolish it last year, a new governor taking office in January would likely have an opportunity for a bill to be considered by the Legislature.

Questioned about the Cheshire home invasion trial, in which the jury is currently considering punishment for convicted killer Steven Hayes, Mr. Bloodsworth insisted that spending a life in prison, where conditions are harsh, is a better solution for convicted murderers than the death penalty.

In fact, citing his own case, he said he asked the court not to execute Mr. Ruffner. "We have to live with the crimes we committed," he said. "That’s a worse punishment than the death penalty."