October 10, 2016

Death Row Inmate Describes Exoneration by DNA Evidence, Prison Reform Activism

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“My name is Kirk Bloodsworth, and I’m the first person in the United States to be freed by post-conviction DNA testing from a capital conviction. I spent a total of eight years, 10 months and 19 days in prison for a brutal crime I did not commit.”

With these words, Bloodsworth opened his talk in Myron Taylor Hall Thursday, speaking to students in a Psychology and Law class taught by Prof. Valerie Hans, law, and Prof. Jeffrey Rachlinski, law. Hans cited Bloodsworth’s case as exemplary case of issues with witness identification, police work and human perception.

Bloodsworth described his life as a crab fisherman in Cambridge, Md. before his imprisonment, as well as the events leading up to Aug. 9, 1985 — the day police officers arrested him for the murder and rape of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton, whose body had been found several months earlier.

“I opened the door, lights are shining in my face. I hear, ‘Step outside, Mr. Bloodsworth. You’re under arrest for the murder of Dawn Hamilton, you son of a bitch,’” he said. “By the time it hit the news in The Baltimore Sun the next day, I became the most hated man in the state of Maryland, if not the nation.”

Detailing his interrogation by police, the evidence presented against him during his trial and the nearly nine years he spent in prison, Bloodsworth pointed out various errors and incidents of misconduct on the part of law officials on his case. These included the lack of any physical evidence linking him to the crime and a heavy reliance on eyewitness testimonies from five people — two of whom were young boys under the age of 10, whose initial descriptions did not resemble him.

“This and many other things were falling through the cracks of the criminal justice system and I was the one who fell along with them,” he said.

Throughout the judicial process, Bloodsworth maintained his innocence to anyone who would listen, but he said his protests fell on deaf ears.

“After two weeks [of trial] on March 27, 1985, the gavel came down on my life and my sentence was life,” he said. “The courtroom erupted in applause. They shouted, ‘Give him the gas, kill his ass!’ People were laughing at my mother and father in the front pew, laughing at me.”

Bloodsworth spent the next nine years in Maryland Penitentiary — two of them on death row — where he said he received particularly brutal treatment from other inmates due to the nature of the crime of which he had been convicted.

“When that 300-pound door slammed shut, my life was over,” he said. “All they wanted me to do was die. Somehow I had to figure out how to live.”

When he wasn’t writing letters — always signed ‘Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, A.I.M.’ (An Innocent Man) — Bloodsworth spent a large amount of his time in prison reading. He said he was struck by an idea after reading an account of a murder case in England, in which DNA evidence was used to convict a perpetrator.

“That is where I had my epiphany,” Bloodsworth said. “If [DNA] can convict you, then why can’t it free me?”

Bloodsworth cited the difficulty of requesting a DNA comparison as another shortcoming of the justice system. After he asked for access to the DNA evidence, the original prosecutor informed him that the evidence had been inadvertently destroyed.

“Something dawned on me at the point,” Bloodsworth said. “I figured they just didn’t know were it was. And your life should not be relegated to a treasure hunt.”

When Bloodsworth’s lawyer eventually found the DNA, he said he was released from prison in 1993 and granted a full pardon.

Bloodsworth also discussed his activist work and involvement in instigating death penalty reform around the country. He has been instrumental in the abolishment of the death penalty in numerous states, according to Hans, and currently serves as a board member of a Pennsylvania commission dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted individuals.

“My life has been changed indelibly by this. I’ve been in front of Congress. I have a DNA law in my name, and we’re trying to get that reauthorized. I’ve helped to abolish the death penalty in my home state,” Bloodsworth said. “I wanted to kill the thing that almost killed me.”

In a discussion with the class after the talk, Bloodsworth suggested ways in which students can take part in prison reform and death penalty repeal activism. These include supporting innocence projects around the United States, conducting letter-writing campaigns and simply breaking the silence associated with the subject.

“You must stand up for life,” he said. “You have to stand up for what’s right in this world. You have to get up, sit up, hold your head up and never give up.”

Thursday’s guest lecture marked Bloodsworth’s 10th visit to Cornell.