DNA freed man from death row; now he speaks for the innocent
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It could have happened to anyone. Unfortunately for Kirk Bloodsworth, it happened to him.
He was accused, arrested, convicted and sentenced to death for a horrible crime.
He never wavered in proclaiming his innocence.
For two years, he lived on death row, in a claustrophobic cell a floor above Maryland’s gas chamber.
“It was in 1984,” said Bloodsworth, now 52. “I was 22, and honorably discharged from the U. S. Marines. My life was beginning in earnest.”
He was also newly married. He moved up to Baltimore, but went to the little town of Essex that Fourth of July weekend and was staying with a cousin.
“I was an honest Joe,” he said. “I grew up working hard and had a work ethic. The next thing I knew, I was fighting for my life.”
On July 25, nine-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton of Rosedale, Md., was found raped and murdered at a local pond. Police interviewed people who were in the area at the time and came up with a suspect description and a sketch, which they circulated.
A neighbor of Bloodsworth’s cousin thought that the ex-Marine might be the man. Police were eager to make an arrest. The crime left people outraged and afraid.
“It was all based on a witness ID, and a faulty one at that,” said Bloodsworth. “They said this person was six-foot-five, curly blond hair, bushy mustache, tanned and skinny.”
That didn’t fit Bloodsworth at all, who has a short, stocky build, was fair-skinned, was missing a front tooth, and at the time had long sideburns and hair “as red as the stripe on the American flag.”
“After two trials and two convictions, I was sentenced to death once and double life the second time,” said Bloodsworth.
That was in 1985. The reality of being in a maximum-security prison under a death sentence as an innocent was pretty rough. In prison culture, there is no one more loathed than a sexual predator who hurts children.
“Some might call me crazy, but I went out in the [prison] population and stood against it all,” he said. “I skirmished here and there but, in the end, I prevailed.”
Bloodsworth had been raised a Methodist, but while in prison learned about the Catholic faith. It gave him hope, so he became a Catholic while incarcerated.
“I didn’t want to separate from the Methodist Church as much as I wanted sanctuary, and the Catholic Church seemed to offer the only service at the time that I felt comfortable with,” he said. “They didn’t care who I was or anything. They accepted me for who I was.”
He also became an advocate for his own innocence in prison. One day, he found a book by Joseph Wambaugh, titled “The Blooding.” In the story about another crime, Bloodsworth learned about a revolutionary new crime science that involved testing DNA. He found help thorough pro bono attorney Robert Morin and others. They tracked down evidence from the crime and tested the evidence.
The evidence didn’t match Bloods-worth, but did match another man who was already in prison for other crimes. Kimberly Shay Ruffner pled guilty to the murder in 2004.
Bloodsworth became the first person to be exonerated from death row through post-conviction DNA testing. He left prison a free man with no criminal record on June 6, 1993.
It was wonderful — and sad. His mother died five months before he got out, and before the DNA evidence proved he could not possibly have committed the terrible crime he was accused of. Bloodsworth takes solace in the fact that she always believed he was innocent.
Bloodsworth found new purpose in work to prevent other innocent people from ending up on death row. He now serves as advocacy director of Witness to Innocence and advocates against the death penalty.
He travels to death penalty states like Kansas to talk about his experiences. The Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty is sponsoring his appearances this month.
“I always go back to Abraham [in the Book of Genesis],” said Bloodsworth. “He asked God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there were innocents there, and [God] agreed.”
Exonerated death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth will be speaking at five events.
9:15 a.m. – Grace Gathering Room at Grace UMC, 11485 S. Ridgeview Rd., Olathe (free to the public)
6:30 p.m. – “An Evening with Kirk Bloods-worth” dinner event, St. David’s Episcopal Church, 3916 S.W. 17th St., Topeka ($25 per person. To purchase tickets, contact Maria Cuevas at (785) 235-2237, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
7 p.m. – Big 12 Room, Kansas Union, Level 5, University of Kansas, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence (free to the public)
7 p.m. – Dugan-Gorges Conf. Ctr., Dugan Library & Campus Ctr., Newman University, 3100 McCormick, Wichita (free to the public)
7 p.m. – FHSU Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center, 600 Park St., Hays (free to the public)