Published in The Fairfield Patch on Jan 31st, 2011
By Mike Lauterborn
Kirk Bloodsworth, First Death Row Inmate Freed by DNA Evidence, Tells His Story to Parish Group Monday Night
He was wrongly accused of a horrific crime, placed in a hellish penitentiary and sat on death row. If not for an interest in reading, he may never have become aware of DNA testing, which proved to be his ticket to freedom.
Maryland resident Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate in the world to be freed by DNA evidence, was on hand Monday night at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish at 545 Stratfield Road to tell his riveting tale to a small group of parishioners, speak about wrongful convictions and urge the abolishment of the death penalty.
An honorably discharged former Marine, Bloodsworth was convicted in 1985 of the sexual assault, rape and first-degree premeditated murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton and sentenced to death. Even though five eyewitnesses placed him with the victim, he continued to maintain his innocence.
“It was an awful thing,” said Bloodsworth, reflecting on his arrest and conviction. “You can’t imagine being taken from your home, being accused of something you didn’t do and then facing 12 people and a judge and being convicted. It was just a horrible situation. The gavel came down and the sentence was death.”
Bloodsworth was transported to Maryland Penitentiary. As he described, “It was one of the most notorious prisons ever. It looked like Dracula’s castle. You could smell the pain and feel the tension in the air. It was a god-awful place. I was thrust into this environment and it was so foreign to me. I was only 22 years old. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
It was unimaginable to him to be associated with such a heinous act. “It was the most vicious crime in Maryland’s history and this is what I was accused of. I was a Marine and was no angel, but I knew what I wasn’t. I wrote everybody I could that I was an innocent man and signed my letters with my name and the initials A.I.M. – An Innocent Man.”
From the moment he entered the prison system, fellow inmates wanted to do him harm. “I was hit in the back of the head with a sock containing D-cell batteries that split my skull, struck in the chest with a Master lock and stabbed in the leg.”
To pass the time in his narrow, cockroach-and-rat-infested rundown cell, Bloodsworth began reading. One book, “The Blooding,” by Joseph Wambaugh, which told of how DNA testing was successfully used in a criminal case in England, had a life-changing impact.
“I requested testing through the prosecutor’s office,” he said. “The prosecutor agreed, but said the results would need to be made public. I said, ‘Fine’ as I knew I was innocent. It took a year, as there were only two DNA labs in the country in 1992. The tests proved my innocence and were confirmed by separate FBI tests. I was released five months later on June 28, 1993, after nine years in prison.”
Bloodsworth became a Catholic while incarcerated, in a ceremony conducted underneath the gas chamber. Now he tries to change laws and has a DNA law named after him – the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which was achieved through The Justice Project and Congress. It provides funding for post-conviction DNA testing for indigents or states that aren’t able to fund it.
“It has already benefited a fellow in Arizona, two inmates in Washington state and people in Virginia,” he said of the effort. “You shouldn’t be in a prison for something you didn’t do and, if you can take a DNA test, it’s the best way to go.”
Bloodsworth added, “I work with people to try and abolish the death penalty because of one fact: We could execute an innocent person. We have a death row population of 3,500 and a prison population of 2.5 million. The risk is too great for error. One hundred and forty inmates have been exonerated from death row – 14 of whom have been proven innocent by DNA testing.”
The ex-Marine admits it’s a controversial topic. “No one can deny the emotional weight on society to punish wrongdoing, but we must rise above letting someone else fall for a crime they didn’t commit. I can’t condone the death penalty. I used to think people got what they deserved but when this happened to me, I realized it could be real bad.”
Even among attendees, there was division on the topic. Fairfielder Irene Gifford said, “I feel very strongly against the death penalty, as many people are likely incarcerated who are not guilty, often inner city people. I think they should just be kept in jail.”
Sharing an opposing view, Fairfielder Diane Quaranta said, “Though I’m pro-life, I believe that people who have committed terrible, heinous crimes should be put to death if they are guilty. But I feel a good advocate needs to be assigned to each individual person to explore all evidence and to make sure nothing’s been overlooked.”
Bloodsworth’s story is told in the book “Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA” by Tim Junkin.