Thursday, December 15, 2011

From Death Row to Freedom: One Man’s Exoneration by DNA Evidence

Kirk Bloodsworth  photo/The Thoma
By Rob Garilli
Standing in front of more than 160 people assembled in the Romano Center at St. Thomas Aquinas College, a crowd that included visitors from Dominican College and STAC’s West Point campus, former Lance Corporal Kirk Bloodsworth of the US Marine Corps adjusted his tie. Its familiar print of a double helix pattern carried significant meaning, as he was preparing to explain to his audience the importance of DNA and how DNA testing had saved his life. Brought to STAC by Student Activities, Campus Safety, and the Social Sciences Department, he had a number of lessons to teach both criminal justice students and, more generally, American citizens.

On August 9, 1984, Bloodsworth was arrested for first degree murder after nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton was found dead in the woods near the Fontana Village Apartments in Essex, MD. Bloodsworth’s story highlights the problems of relying on subjective evidence such as eyewitness descriptions and composite sketches of suspects, as well as personality profiles of criminals created to supplement police investigation.

When the two main eyewitnesses in the Dawn Hamilton case, two boys aged eight and ten, described the killer as being over six feet tall with curly blonde hair, a bushy mustache, tan skin and thin stature, the pale and red-haired Bloodsworth was confused as to his arrest. However, local police were only too happy to find a killer in the tragic case of a murdered child, despite the fact that they were bypassing other potential suspects and charging a Marine with no prior criminal record. When placed in a lineup, Bloodsworth wasn’t even the suspect chosen by the two boys – but they called two weeks later to change their original decision and say that Bloodsworth was definitely the killer.

The final nail in Bloodsworth’s coffin came when a neighbor saw a reproduction of the composite sketch on the nightly news and called police to report that the image was definitely that of the man who lived next door. As a result of a flawed investigation system, he was placed on death row and sent to a prison cell to await the end of his life.
The horrors of death row, which Bloodsworth described, would be terrifying to anyone subjected to them. The audience, though, could only imagine how insufferable they would be for an innocent man. He was kept in a cell that was only three steps across and as wide as his armspan, the place where a prison guard had been disemboweled by an inmate two weeks prior to Bloodsworth’s arrival. “On the first night,” he said, “I crawled under my bed and wept in silence. Going to prison for a crime like the one I was arrested for ensures that you have the life expectancy of a gnat.” Cockroaches would swarm in the cells, and Bloodsworth saw a wave of them covering the ceiling one night when the toilets of the cells above him flooded.
Bloodsworth attributed two things to keeping him alive. The first was the friendship he shared with a man called Blue who was imprisoned for robbing a bank. A brother of Islam and a philosopher, Blue taught Bloodsworth to play chess by calling out moves from to him from the neighboring cell. Though the two men often talked about God and survival, Bloodsworth recounted the day when Blue came to him in the cafeteria insisting that he had been let out of jail. Later, Blue returned to his cell and jabbed two pencils into his eyes, hoping to kill himself. Instead, he survived and was blinded. “I didn’t want to see it anymore,” he responded when Bloodsworth asked why he had done it. “I didn’t want to live it anymore.”

The second thing that kept Bloodsworth alive was reading. Working as the prison librarian for over seven years, he came to love to read and developed “a love for new learning.”

Prison Library Provided Key to Exoneration

It was this thirst for knowledge that led Bloodsworth to reading about a case in Narborough, England that was the first to use DNA fingerprinting to determine the killer in a series of murders. Energized by this information, Bloodsworth sought to have the police in his case use DNA to find Dawn’s real killer – but it wasn’t easy. “People just wanted to hold onto something that didn’t work and didn’t mesh,” he said of his conviction. Though there were only two DNA labs in the country at the time of his imprisonment, Bloodsworth’s lawyer paid to have Bloodsworth’s DNA sent to California. It was then, after eight years, eleven months, and nine days in prison, that Kirk Bloodsworth became the first death row convict to be exonerated on DNA evidence.

Bloodsworth now travels worldwide to discuss the importance of using more definite forms of investigation and abolishing the death penalty.

“Witness identification,” he said, “accounts for 75% of wrongful convictions.” In his own case, it was human fallibility, reliance on children’s testimony, and an Identikit that included a limited number of facial features that landed him in jail. “Prison was my life,” he said, “but life for me is different now.” As a member of Witness to Innocence, an organization made up of 138 exonerated former death row inmates, Bloodsworth seeks to educate people on the issues behind the death penalty and faulty investigations.
Remembering the words of his mother, whose body he was forced to view for only five minutes in handcuffs and shackles following her death, he told the audience, “You need to stand up.” He entreated the audience to find a worthy cause and stand behind it in the interest of making a difference. “The fact that we still have the death penalty in America shows that we need better standards and practices in our justice system. We can do better.”

“I proved the truth, and that’s what set me free,” he offered in his closing remarks. Citing the example of his first lawyer who, upon telling Bloodsworth that they would be getting him out of prison as soon as possible, promptly turned around and walked directly into the brick archway behind his seat, he gave the audience his final moral: “Stand up for yourself,” he said, “and don’t run into that wall.”

Rob Garilli is a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas College from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. He is an English major who recently took on a minor in Writing. He is a staff writer for The Thoma, the campus newspaper. Upon his graduation in May of 2012, Rob will be pursuing a MFA in creative nonfiction.

This article also appeared  in The Thoma.

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