by Moira Cullings
LAWRENCE — When the popular Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” debuted, viewers were on the edge of their seats imagining how it would feel to be wrongly accused of a serious crime.
But Kansas native Floyd Bledsoe didn’t have to.
After spending 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Bledsoe was finally exonerated of first-degree murder in December 2015.
Now, his heart is full of something most people would never expect — forgiveness.
As part of the parish’s Year of Mercy observances, the St. John’s Social Concerns Committee at St. John the Evangelist Church in Lawrence invited Bledsoe and those involved with his case to share his story of heartbreak and triumph at the church on May 21.
Mind over matter
In November 1999, at the age of 23, Bledsoe was taken in for what he thought was a routine interview in relation to the murder of his 14-year-old sister-in-law Camille Arfmann. One month later, on Christmas Eve, he found himself still sitting in a county jail cell.
The feeling of despair sunk in that evening when he called his family and, without a word, they quickly hung up the phone.
Bledsoe, who suddenly found himself falsely convicted and left behind by his own family, felt helpless.
“I cried out to God for 45 minutes [after that],” he said. “Finally, I laid back, exhausted. Exhausted because I heard nothing, felt nothing.
“And I said, ‘God, there’s supposed to be this silver lining in every dark cloud. . . . But I don’t see anything. . . . Where is my hope, God?’”
With a quick glance out his cell window, Bledsoe noticed one star in the distance, which he took as a sign.
“God said [to me], ‘The way is long and it’s dark, but the end will come,’” he said.
That end didn’t come for 15 years.
“It would be so hard when one’s family basically abandoned you as his did him, and then to recover from that in a way that doesn’t leave a person angry and bitter, but allows them to move on with their life,” said Susan Tabor, chair of the parish’s social concerns committee.
But it was the journey along the way, which Bledsoe dubbed as his “desert place,” that taught him how to forgive.
“If you’ve ever been a victim, whether great or small,” said Bledsoe, “you know the anger, you know the hurt, you know the bitterness that sits inside of you.
“You’re locked in a cell with everybody that ever harmed you, that ever said one unkind thing to you.
“Forgiveness is the key that will unlock that door.”
Moved by mercy
As an innocent man trapped behind bars, Bledsoe knew mercy was the one thing that could break the chains of resentment.
During his time in prison, he not only practiced forgiveness in his heart, but also outside his cell, volunteering for programs like hospice where he befriended the sick and dying.
“I didn’t want them to feel alone,” said Bledsoe. “So many people in prison have nobody.”
Donna Schneweis, chair of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, was particularly impressed by Bledsoe’s actions.
“During his time in the Kansas criminal justice system, Mr. Bledsoe took the opportunity to avail himself through a number of opportunities within the system that have had a significant impact on his life and how he handled his years in prison,” she said.
Bledsoe chose to focus on others rather than his own situation, but he also continued to fight for freedom and held onto the hope that one day it would come.
After 15 years of trying, his efforts paid off. Thanks to DNA evidence and a suicide note confession, Bledsoe was at last set free.
He now spends his time giving a voice to those still in prison, specifically those who might be innocent and those on death row.
“Once you execute somebody, there’s no coming back,” he said. “That life’s gone.”
Bledsoe urged all in attendance that problems in the justice system aren’t going to fix themselves. Society needs people willing to stand up to injustice and take action.
To outsiders, Bledsoe’s attitude is remarkable.
“The average lifespan of somebody who’s wrongfully incarcerated after they’re exonerated runs about five years,” said Alice Craig, supervising attorney at the KU Law Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies, who worked for nearly a decade on Bledsoe’s case.
Bledsoe’s success is almost unheard of, she said.
“Floyd’s story is remarkable,” said Nora Murphy, another member of the social concerns committee. But his mistaken conviction is all too common.
“And that’s the tragedy,” she said. “I hope this is a seed kernel for future growth of this kind of movement where people reject the death penalty.”
What you can do
For information about the fight to end the death penalty in Kansas, click here. To read about the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty and the U.S. bishops’ campaign to end its use, click here.
For more information
To learn more about Floyd Bledsoe’s case, click here.