First Death Row Inmate Cleared by DNA Pours Emotions Into Activism
Washingto Post, Feb. 24, 2003
By Susan Levine, Washington Post Staff Writer
CAMBRIDGE, Md. — The dream still haunts him, still grabs him in the night and drags him down the long hallway toward his death. He always fights back, kicking at the faceless guards forcing him on, but there is no escape. The metal-studded gas chamber looms. Its vents start to hiss. Straps tighten around him.
And then, right before the final freeze frame, capital punishment for the most fundamental of reasons.
“As long as there’s the possibility — no matter how remote — that an innocent person could be killed,” he says, “nobody should be for the death penalty.”
He tells his whole story, not just the part leading to his freedom. He wants no one to minimize the damage done even when the system acknowledges a mistake. The aftershocks continue, not just in dreams, but in waking hours, too:
In the “child killer” message scrawled on his windshield after his release, as if a governor’s pardon mattered for nothing. And the anonymous calls, left on his answering machine, a voice sneering, “They never should have let you out.”
In the claustrophobia that presses in on him whenever he’s in a windowless room, and the anxiety that can take hold if he’s alone at home or on the road, without a witness to his whereabouts.
Usually that witness is Brenda, his wife of almost four years. He reaches her at work to let her know he’s home waiting for a phone call. He talks to her again as he leaves to check on his boat, again as he pulls back into the driveway of the modest A-frame house they rent on the outskirts of town. “I shouldn’t have to feel that way,” he says, “but that’s the byproduct of my imprisonment. My false imprisonment.”
Yet Bloodsworth is far beyond his first years of emancipation, which he spent crashing from euphoric abandon to depression, drink and doubt. The $300,000 the state gave him as compensation went mainly to legal bills. He blew through the balance quickly, and once it was gone and extravagances like a cherry-red Corvette repossessed, he was left wondering how, or if, he could ever reclaim his life. One desperate winter, he lived out of an unheated truck, trapping muskrat and nutria to get by.
If, at 42, he has begun to find his future, he believes it is because he finally embraced his past. Rather than hoping that people would forget his name, he resolved to make sure that they always remembered.
“If it happened to me,” he warns audiences, “it could happen to you.”
He recounts the crime in the dry monotone of a charging document. On a midsummer’s morning nearly two decades ago, a 9-year-old girl with a pageboy haircut and gap-toothed smile walked into the woods near the apartment complex east of Baltimore where she lived. Dawn Venice Hamilton was looking for a younger cousin. The other girl turned up a short time later. Dawn never did.
“She was reported missing on the 25th of July at 10:30 a.m. Her body was found at 2:30. Her body was naked from the waist down. Her head was crushed.”
Two boys who had been trying their luck at a fishing hole on the edge of the woods told police that a stranger had wandered by and offered to help Dawn find her cousin. “The ID was as follows: Six-foot-five, curly blond hair, a bushy mustache, tan skin and skinny.”
Here Bloodsworth pauses, an index finger in action for emphasis. He stands 6 feet, he says. “And I ain’t never been skinny. Never.”
The boys’ description was problematic for other reasons, too. Still, when a suspect’s composite was drawn based on that and additional accounts, the resemblance could not be denied. A hotline tipster pointed police toward Bloodsworth, who had been in the area since early July trying to salvage a marriage. He had disappeared the week after the slaying and, back home in Cambridge, bemoaned “a terrible thing” that he had done.
In court, he would explain that he felt guilty for abandoning his wife and debts, but the other possibilities, coupled with the eyewitness testimony, made for a short jury deliberation.
He was convicted and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. On death row, he joined the likes of multiple murderers. One had bound, gagged and stabbed to death an elderly couple in their living room. Inmate #176117 learned his place quickly. “When you go to prison for killing a child, you’re the bottom rung of the ladder.”
A Torturous Confinement
In the quiet of a sunlit kitchen, which Brenda has decorated, like the rest of the house, with shells and other touches of the marsh and sea, it’s all surreal memory. Bloodsworth pulls hard on his Newports, every few minutes adding to the small mound of cigarette butts in an ashtray before him. He never smoked until prison. His ambition had been the discus, and he’d shown talent competing. Then the cell doors slammed shut, and the only thing that mattered was survival. Some aspects of that he still won’t discuss.
For a country boy who had grown up trapping and hunting and crabbing, the confinement was torture. He built a boat plank by plank in his mind and named it for his mother and grandmother: Jeanett’s Pearl. He kept a calendar for a while until he understood why another inmate had warned against it. “It occurred to me I was counting down to my death.”
The judicial system offered brief hope in 1987 when his sentence was overturned and a new trial ordered. But Bloodsworth was convicted again and given life without parole — merely a different kind of death penalty.
Before, during and after, he maintained that he was innocent of the crime. He mailed letter after letter.
A.I.M.The Conclusive Test
“When you look at his case,” Robert E. Morin says, “I think a good argument can be made that no one did anything wrong.” There was no prosecutorial misconduct. No inadequate defense. No tainted evidence. “Just a series of human judgments . . . that imprisoned the wrong man.”
Morin sits today on the D.C. Superior Court bench, but in the early ’90s, he was a Washington attorney pushed by other lawyers to see this Maryland prisoner about a possible appeal. He remembers Bloodsworth talking up the idea of DNA testing — a voracious jailhouse reader, he had chanced upon a Wambaugh book about two British murders solved through “genetic fingerprinting.” Morin was skeptical. In all likelihood, the child’s underwear already had been destroyed. And even if it hadn’t, there might be no DNA to test.
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But for once, everything broke Bloodsworth’s way. The critical evidence was found in a court clerk’s office, prosecutors agreed to the new analysis, and the result cleared him conclusively. He still chokes up reliving the phone call from Morin, still hears him shouting, “Kirk, it’s not you!” The nightmare, he thought, was over.
Far from it.
“People do not understand,” Morin says. “Kirk had an incredibly difficult and painful reentry.” Most of the alumni do. The happy ending isn’t.
Bloodsworth’s first night out, sleeping in his father’s house, he got up and relieved himself in a corner of the bedroom — thinking, in the darkness, that he was standing before his urinal back in maximum security. He called his attorney at 3 a.m. to tell him, incredulously, that he was in the kitchen making toast. It had been nine years since he had held a knife.
The next few months were like that, veering toward the absurd. But they were nothing compared with the next few years. He deeply grieved for his mother, who had died just before the DNA verdict came back. He was overwhelmed by where he had been and how to move on.
“He just wasn’t thinking clearly,” says Curtis Bloodsworth, who stood behind his son his entire incarceration, exhausting retirement savings on attorneys and legal fees.
Every job application asked “Have you ever been convicted of a crime,” and even if he got beyond that question, pardon in hand, the past was never far behind. At the Ocean City restaurant where he tried his hand as prep cook, in the Baltimore neighborhood where he lasted one day representing an environmental outfit — people recognized him and made clear that his kind wasn’t welcome.
In June 2000, he testified before a congressional subcommittee as an expert on the wrongly accused.
“I’m having great difficulty putting my life together,” he confessed.
Half a year after Bloodsworth appeared on Capitol Hill, Dawn Hamilton’s father was sentenced to five years in prison for arson. His target had been a Baltimore bar that employed a girlfriend on the verge of breaking up with him. He couldn’t take losing another person in his life, he told his attorney.
One more tragedy in a case so horribly burdened.
His daughter’s killer has not been caught. Baltimore County prosecutor Ann Brobst says the case is “actively being investigated,” though she will not say whether evidence has been further tested for DNA or any finds put into the national law enforcement database. She also will not say that Bloodsworth is innocent.
“I don’t know,” Brobst acknowledges, adding only, “I would not convict him on what I know now.”
That hedging infuriates Bloodsworth’s supporters. There are many of them today, with titles and credibility, from civil rights lawyer Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project in New York to Wayne Smith and the Justice Project in Washington. In Pittsburgh, Duquesne University law dean John Rago considers Bloodsworth an “American hero” for criminal justice in this country. He recently asked him to serve as consultant as the law school organizes its own project to assist Pennsylvania inmates claiming innocence.
“His historic status is not going to be a footnote,” Rago says. “He’s making a difference.”
Each has heard Bloodsworth talk publicly. They marvel at his ability to talk from the heart, quietly and without anger, Scheck says. “He’s a wonderfully effective spokesman, and it gives him some solace. . . . He’s lucky that way.”
Indeed, activism has not simply given direction to Bloodsworth’s future. He has accepted it as the explanation for everything he endured. What other reason, he wonders on the nights when ghosts return, what other reason could there be?
By now, he has honed his message. It doesn’t track the capital punishment debate roiling this year’s General Assembly, the back and forth over racial bias and geographic disparity that opponents say skew who gets a death sentence in Maryland. Nor does it sympathize — not at all — with the death-row residents he left behind, three-time murderer Steven H. Oken, for instance, who until a court stay two weeks ago was facing imminent execution.
“I’m not weeping for Steven Oken. It’s not because of him that I want the death penalty abolished,” Bloodsworth says emphatically. “But we have to save these abhorrent people in order to save people like me.”
Slowly, he is healing. Working on a book about his experience, based on the 168-page journal he kept behind bars. Reading the letters prisoners send him weekly, missives imploring him to look at their cases.
After he got out, he bought the boat he’d long dreamed of, a 38-foot wooden craft built the year he entered prison. Jeanett’s Pearl waits in dock for the start of this spring’s crabbing.
Bloodsworth is already getting antsy. A waterman can smell the season coming.
• Exonerated Inmates Seek Safeguards For Justice (The Washington Post, Jun 28, 2001)
• Star Witness Testifies for DNA Testing (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2001)
• Guilty? Innocence Project Has Its Doubts About Cases (The Washington Post, Dec 10, 2000)
• Helping Those Who Might Be Wrongfully Imprisoned (The Washington Post, Dec 7, 2000)
• Proving Claims of Innocence (The Washington Post, Dec 7, 2000)