Monday, May 10, 2010

Meet the Exonerated: Maryland's Death Row

On March 8, 1985, Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine discus champion, was sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of 9-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton, in Baltimore County, Md and ended up spending eight years, 11 months and nine days in the Maryland Penitentiary. He also became the first person sentenced to death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

His photo was chosen out of a group of suspects by two boys, aged 8 and 10, who witnessed the victim with a man shortly before her death. Later, in a criminal lineup, the same boys chose a police officer standing two people down from Bloodsworth as the suspect. A criminal profile, completed after Bloodsworth’s arrest, was used against him in his trial and eventually aided in his conviction.

The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned Bloodsworth's conviction in 1986 after finding that the prosecution had illegally withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense. However, Bloodsworth was retried, again convicted, and sentenced to two life terms. That conviction and sentence was affirmed on appeal in 1988.

In the early 1990s, after learning about the first conviction using DNA evidence, Bloodsworth said he figured DNA evidence could also be used to free the wrongly convicted. When he wrote a letter to the prosecutor seeking the DNA evidence from the case, she informed Bloodsworth the evidence was “inadvertently destroyed.

A clerk of the court eventually found the evidence in a brown paper bag in the closet of the judge’s chambers, and his lawyer paid $15,000 out of pocket expenses to begin the effort to have the DNA compared,.

In 1992, the biological material preserved from the crime was tested with a then-emerging DNA technology known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction). The tests absolutely established Bloodsworth's innocence.

In 1993 Bloodsworth was released from prison, and he began lobbying for DNA testing of innocence claims across the country, but even though he had been exonerated, he continued to face hostility from those around him. He received harassing phone calls from people ten years after his release, and all the money ($300,000) granted to him by the state of Maryland was instantly used to repay lawyer and court fees.

In 2003, the DNA evidence from the case was matched to a man named Kimberly Shay Ruffner, who had been arrested a month after Bloodsworth in 1984 for different sexual assault crimes. Bloodsworth, the prison librarian, brought Ruffner his library books every week. And the two men regularly worked out together in the prison weight yard. Ruffner had been living for nearly 10 years in the Maryland Penitentiary, just one floor below him.

Bloodsworth does not believe in the death penalty — even for Kimberly Shay Ruffner, the man eventually found guilty of the crime for which Bloodsworth originally was convicted, sentenced to die and wasted eight years of his life in prison. But in his work for the Education Fund, he puts his personal feelings aside and stresses the need for reforms so “there’s never another Kirk Bloodsworth.”

In 2004, Congress passed the Innocence Protection Act, which included the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program. The program gave $25 million to states to help pay for post-conviction DNA testing.

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