October 15, 2015

First American on Death Row Exonerated by DNA Addresses Students

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Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American man on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence, spoke to a psychology of law class last Thursday about the flaws in the criminal justice system that cost him eight years of freedom and almost cost him his life.

Bloodsworth was arrested in August 1984 for the murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton. Wrongfully convicted in March 1985 and sentenced to death, he spent eight years behind bars until a DNA analysis exonerated him in June 1993. The real perpetrator was discovered 10 years later.


Kirk Bloodsworth

Bloodsworth began his story by saying that he was a former marine and then became a waterman on the shore of Maryland. He lived in a small town and was 22 years old at the time of his wrongful conviction.

“We have a warrant for the arrest of Kirk Bloodsworth,” he recalled hearing police officers say from outside his door on Aug. 9, 1984. Bloodsworth said he stepped outside and was quickly told, “you’re under arrest for first degree murder, you son of a bitch.”

“That was the last time I’d see my small town for eight years, 10 months and 19 days,” he said.

Bloodsworth explained that Dawn Hamilton was found dead in June 1984, having been sexually assaulted and beaten with a rock.

“That is what this marine with no criminal record was charged with,” he said, pointing to himself after explaining Hamilton’s murder. “From the moment of my arrest to the moment of my release, I told everyone and anyone that would listen that I was an innocent man, but in 48 hours I became the most hated man in the state of Maryland.”

Wrongful witness identification was a major component of Bloodsworth’s wrongful conviction. Witness descriptions of the perpetrator indicated that he was well over 6 feet tall and skinny with curly blonde hair and tan skin. Bloodsworth said this description did not fit him at all, as he was under 6 feet tall and had bright red hair and fair skin. He chuckled as he added that he definitely wasn’t skinny.

“They arrested me on a Thursday, held a lineup on the coming Monday and told witnesses not to watch television,” Bloodsworth said. He said that despite this, witnesses ultimately had seen him on television before they positively identified him as the perpetrator.

“They had all seen me on TV even though they were told not to,” he said.

Two key witnesses in the case were young boys who were playing with Hamilton on the day of her murder. They helped create a composite sketch of the perpetrator.

“They brought the two children together to make a composite. You never do that. You’re supposed to make them do it separately,” he said.

Even these two boys could not positively identify Bloodsworth, but Bloodsworth said that wasn’t enough to prove his innocence.

Bloodsworth noted that a composite of the perpetrator pictured a man with a specific style of moustache, but officials thought it made the perpetrator look “too Asian,” and removed the moustache from the composite sketch. He also mentioned another woman who helped create another composite sketch, and said that her composite was disregarded because it did not match the original composite.

“They wrote this flowery report about who the killer might be,” Bloodsworth said. He explained that experts used data and statistics about criminals and crimes to come up with a profile suggesting characteristics of the perpetrator. “Right on the front page [of the profile] it says you are only supposed to use [the profile] as a tool, it’s not a crystal ball.”

Bloodsworth said this profile was completed after he was arrested, so it may have been influenced by what authorities already knew about him.

“The profile said that this person would have a love for the water because this crime happened around a pond area, and Oh My God Mr. Bloodsworth is a waterman! So he must have done it!” Bloodsworth said.

He added that the profile would have been okay if it had been used, as protocol originally intended, as a guide, not a rule.

“So many different biases come into play in criminal cases,” Bloodsworth said. “They were so adamant in getting the real killer they just didn’t pay attention to protocol.”

He said the criminal profile was completed prematurely after just 14 weeks of composition out of a possible 28 weeks. He also said that authorities pointed to his “nervousness” during his interview as evidence of his guilt.

“I can explain that,” he said. “They kept trying to look at my shoes, and I was jittery because I had a bag of weed in my shoe — right between my sock and my shoe. I had nothing to do with this [murder], I just didn’t want them to find my weed.”

Bloodsworth said the evidence used against him was inconclusive and the prosecutors discounted many potentially exculpatory pieces of evidence. He also noted that his counsel was ineffective.

“My trial lasted about two weeks,” he said. “I knew this was not going to end well for me. I could hear people in the courtroom saying ‘there’s the killer, there he is right there’ pointing at me.”

This kind of trial, Bloodsworth said, left him feeling as if he could do nothing to change his own fate.

“I had no money. I had married a girl from Baltimore and I lived there for less than 30 days when I got caught up in this horrible, horrible crime. I had never been arrested before in my life. I was a United States Marine. I wasn’t an angel, but I knew what I wasn’t,” Bloodsworth said. “But with no money, no good lawyer, ‘Kirk’s going to death row.’”

“Give him the gas and kill his ass,” Bloodsworth said he heard someone chant in the courtroom.

“My mother just sat there and cried.”

Two weeks later, Bloodsworth’s death sentence was delivered. The courtroom erupted in applause, he said. “Go kill him, give him the gas!” someone yelled.

“I remember sitting in the bullpen and my lawyer came out. I noticed that he wasn’t standing close to the cell door like he normally would. He was standing back,” Bloodsworth said. “All he could do was look at me and smile and say good luck, and he turned around and walked away. That was the last time I’d ever see that guy.”

Bloodsworth said he was sent to a prison where, just two weeks before, a guard had been disemboweled by inmates. “We’re gonna do to you what you did to that little girl,” he heard regularly.

“When that 300 pound cell door shut and those brass keys clicked, my life was over. It sounded just like the tailgate of a dump truck,” he said.

Bloodsworth talked about the sheer terror he experienced one of his first nights in prison.

“I was reading a magazine and the power popped off, the lights went out. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he said. “[The other prisoners] were lighting books on fire, Bibles on fire, shaking the bars screaming and hollering.” He said sewage was dripping from shaken pipes, hitting him in the face.

Bloodsworth’s hope for freedom came years later when he heard of the case of Colin Pitchfork — the first man ever to be convicted based on DNA.

“If it can convict you, why can’t it free you?” Bloodsworth said. “I started remembering forensic evidence, semen found [at the crime scene]. I said ‘I want to take this [DNA] test and prove once and for all that I’m an innocent man like I’ve been saying for all these years.’”

After requesting that the case be reopened to examine the DNA, Bloodsworth recalled being told that the DNA evidence from the case had been inadvertently destroyed.

“That was almost my undoing. I went crazy,” he said. “I almost set my cell on fire and burned up with it, and then it hit me: they didn’t know where it was, they couldn’t find it, they probably had no idea where it was.”

Bloodsworth said he continued to pursue a search for the DNA until it was ultimately found on the floor of a judge’s closet. A year later, in April of 1993, the FBI re-tested the DNA. On June 28, 1993 Bloodsworth left the prison.

In 2003, Bloodsworth received a phone call from the prosecutor who had argued for his conviction. He met her at a Burger King and she told him that the real killer was found. She told him that the perpetrator had slept in the tier below Bloodsworth in prison for 5 years and never said a word.

“I look out to this audience and I’m going to say you have to stand up for what you believe in,” Bloodsworth told the crowd at Cornell. “I look out at you all and I see myself, there I am, 22 years old. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

A documentary presenting Kirk Bloodsworth’s experience titled Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man will be released in early 2016.