April 2, 2008

Exonerated Death Row Inmate Discusses Justice System Issues

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In Aug. 1984 Kirk Bloodsworth was surprised to hear cops banging on his door. But that was just the beginning. Although he held strongly that he was innocent, Bloodsworth was arrested, tried and convicted for the brutal murder and rape of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton in March 1985. He was then sentenced to death.
In 1993, DNA tests proved that Bloodsworth had not committed the crime, making him the first person to be exonerated from death row though postconviction DNA testing.
After spending two years on death row and almost 10 in prison, Bloodsworth now works with The Justice Project and its president and co-founder John Terzano to try to improve flaws in the justice system. They recently worked to get the Innocence Protection Act of 2003 passed and establish the Kirk Bloodsworth Postconviction DNA Testing Program.
Yesterday, Bloodsworth and Terzano spoke at the Law School. The Sun sat down with both before the talk.[img_assist|nid=29403|title=A.I.M.|desc=Exonerated former death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth speaks at the law school yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The Sun: What was your connection to the case and what was your reaction to the accusation? Did you think that you would be convicted after you were arrested?
Kirk B­loodsworth: By the virtue of a finger point I was implicated as the last person seen with Dawn Hamilton. Now the description is as follows: the last person seen with her was six-foot-five, curly blonde hair, bushy mustache, tan skin and skinny. But as you can see I’m not six-foot-five and to say I’m skinny is a compliment. I weighed 230 pounds. I was about six-feet-tall. My hair was bright red. Back in those days I had side burns that traveled all the way down the side my face. I wore glasses I had a missing tooth in front.
The whole witness identification thing is one of the most problematic things in the system itself — one of the worst systemic problems. 78 percent of all wrongful convictions are based primarily on witness identification.
Sun: Your conviction was overturned by the appellate court in and you were retried and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. On an emotional level what was it like to go through a trial again and did you ever lose hope of being released?
Bloodsworth: You know it was like chewing on a pack of razor blades that you thought were bubblegum. This whole thing destroyed me in a lot of ways, but due to my own feelings about the case itself and my innocence did I prevail. I professed it to everyone from the day I was arrested until the day of my release. As a matter of fact, I signed all my correspondence “respectively submitted, Kirk Noble Bloodsworth A.I.M.” which means “an innocent man.”
I have to tell you that it’s one of the greatest social injustices of our time to convict someone for something they didn’t do. It destroyed my family. It destroyed everybody. And the truth coming out some 20 years later really didn’t give me any solace other than to say that the real perpetrator of the crime was caught and was put away.
Sun: What is the Kirk Bloodsworth Postconviction DNA Testing Program? How can the justice system be improved?
John Terzano: The legislation was really groundbreaking legislation in that it actually provided two programs. One was postconviction DNA testing program, which provided funding not only at the federal level but also at the state level for individuals to get postconviction DNA testing. The other part of the program dealt with establishing a grant program for states to help them build effective systems of representation. Inadequate counsel and ineffective counsel are other causes for wrongful convictions. But what is most important, I think, about the legislation, over and above the concrete programmatic aspects, is that it is the first time that Congress has passed a piece of death penalty legislation that didn’t take away procedural safeguards from those accused of a crime but actually added procedural safeguards. It’s the first piece of death penalty legislation that could be called progressive if you will. And we got that through a Republican congress and signed by a Republican president, which is no simple feat if you will.
Sun: So how many people have been aided by this program so far?
Terzano: Unfortunately, none because what usually happens with legislation is that once it gets passed it is turned over to the executive branch to implement, and the Bush administration’s Department of Justice has really been an obstacle in implementing the program … There has been $14 million in the Kirk Bloodsworth postconviction DNA Testing Program sitting there waiting to be disbursed to the states. But the Department of Justice drew up such narrow and restrictive regulations that no states have been able to qualify. We’ve been working with the Congress and the Department of Justice to revamp their regulations and hopefully that will start happening sometime this year.
Sun: So where do you see the future of the death penalty? Would you like to see it abolished by all means? Is this project the first step toward achieving that goal?
Terzano: We don’t take a position on whether or not we should have a death penalty. The reality is is that it’s a system that we have. At the Justice Project we believe that since it is a part of our criminal justice system what we need to do is to make it as fair and as accurate and as just as possible. So the type of things that we advocate for are those type of procedural reform that would make it a more fair, just and accurate system …
[We utilize] the flaws and the broken capital punishment system as a way to educate people about problems in the system and then push toward reform.
The reality is that if they abolish the death penalty today we’d still have a broken criminal justice system.
Sun: So obviously you guys are here talking at the Law School today. Why do you want to speak to law students?
Terzano: We do a lot of speaking. A lot of it is public education. We want to get people to understand, especially in terms of law students and students that are going to be entering or some will be entering the criminal justice field either. It’s a way just to begin to educate people about the type of criminal justice system that we have in this country.
Bloodsworth: You can look my case up in any law book and read it and it wouldn’t give you the essence of what the human factor is. This is the plight of the country — that an innocent person could be subjected to the worst punishment possible. By virtue of a finger point you could wind up in harm’s way. Like John said, if the death penalty ends tomorrow we are still going to have the same issues that systemically cause wrongful conviction.
Sun: Mr. Bloodsworth, what has the adjustment back into free society been like for you?
Bloodsworth: It’s been an education. You know I was 23-years-old when I went to prison and I was thirty-two when I got out. I spent two years on death row, eight years and 11 months and 19 days in prison. I served in the Marine Corp. when I got out of high school, I served my country with honor, I was honorably discharged. I thought that I was going to wind up either becoming a discuss thrower or working on the water as a commercial fisherman. I never anticipated that I would be at Cornell speaking to law classes about criminal justice reform. It’s been some adjustment to say the least. I can only tell you that I’ve learned more everyday and I’m happy to the degree that it has had a positive outcome.
I love my life, I’m 47-years-old and continue to just keep on trucking and tell people my story … I hold no blame or hatred towards anyone. What it really came down to was the justice they were going to give to Dawn Hamilton. She was the one that deserved all of the justice in this and she didn’t get that by prosecuting me and not the real killer.

Sun: I read that you had some interaction with the real perpetrator. Is that true?

Bloodsworth: Kimberly Shay Ruffner is the real person who killed Dawn Hamilton. He is not six-foot-five, by the way, he was five-foot-seven and 180 pounds. He was let go two weeks before Dawn Hamilton’s murder for the attempted rapes of two little girls in the Baltimore area where the posed as a railway security guard and tried to accost these kids. He was let go and I was arrested for the murder in August of 1984. He was later arrested three weeks after that for the attempted murder and rape of a woman in Dulles Point, where he busted in her door and cut her throat.

He just slipped through the cracks. But the thing of it was, was that there was 500 tips that came in on the police tip line and a report that was given to a police officer in Baltimore City about Ruffner nobody went to check him out and see what’s happening there. And unfortunately it caused me almost a decade of my life and two years on death row.

Sun: What’s the next step for the Justice Project now that the Kirk Bloodsworth Postconviction DNA Program is in place?

Terzano: Actually part of the uniqueness of the Justice Project is that we work not only at the federal level but we also work at the state level. We are currently running campaigns in two states — Texas and Tennessee — to reform not only the indigent defense system but also to advocate for some of these procedural reforms we’re talking about. So we are actually on the ground in these states doing the advocacy work that is necessary to try to change the laws in these states. When you’re dealing with criminal justice issues for the most part it is a states right issue so you have to be out there in the states working.