Kirk Bloodsworth, Thirty Years After His Exoneration

Anne Holsinger 0:01 

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Our guest today is Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row prisoner exonerated by DNA evidence. In the 30 years since his exoneration, he has become an advocate for criminal legal reform. He played a key role in ending the death penalty in Maryland and served as Executive Director to Witness to Innocence, the only national organization of death row exonerees and their families from 2018 to 2022. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Bloodsworth. 

Kirk Bloodsworth 0:32 

Pleasure to be here. No matter what, you know. 

Anne Holsinger 0:36 

June 28 marked the 30th anniversary of your exoneration from Maryland’s death row. For our listeners who are unfamiliar with the details of your case, could you give us a short overview?

Kirk Bloodsworth 0:47 

Sure. In 1984, a little girl by the name of Dawn Denise Hamilton was found brutally murdered in a wooded area near her home. A search ensued for the person responsible for this and the description was as follows: six foot five, curly blonde hair, witchy mustache, tan skin, and skinny. As it turned out, I was about six foot tall. My hair was as red as the squares on the DPIC sign, you know, and I’m a redhead. I don’t, I don’t tan. They got it wrong and they got it wrong from the beginning. I mean, you know, two jurors and two different prosecutors and two judges and all the police force in Baltimore County were dead wrong. The only person was right, me. 

Anne Holsinger 1:43 

And what was it that eventually led to your exoneration? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 1:47 

Well, I read a book by Joseph Wambaugh, called Blooding, and the first time that DNA was ever used in a criminal case was, you know, depicted in his book. And to make it a long story shot it was about the Narborough killings over in England. I read this with deep fascination and back then when I read the book, you needed like 10 bed-hairs and all this different blood sample and everything, so progressively got more easier to do. And Kary Mullis, who’s the Nobel Prize winning geneticists who figured it out came up with PCR and basically, that’s a test of exclusion, you’re not. And I, everybody was telling me you got to the D-, take, send the DNA in and finally, we found something. We had the, her underclothes sent to Dr. Edward Blake in California. As it turned out, he found not only one but agreed and then the FBI found another spot of semen that was not mine and they, you know, that’s how I was cleared. It’s a tragedy and to say anything of this child’s death, she lived nine years, but boy, she certainly changed the lives of a lot of people. As it turned out, in the end we caught the real killer based on a CODIS database hit of the real killer and he was already in prison. Kimberly Shay Ruffner, and by the way, Anne, he was not six foot five, he was only five foot 6, -60 pounds. So, you know, witness identification is really the most problematic pieces of evidence to just place a person to death and that’s, that’s basically what happened. 

Anne Holsinger 3:55 

Many years after your exoneration, in 2004, Congress passed the Innocence Protection Act, which included a program named for you that was intended to help states pay for post-conviction DNA testing. What was your role in getting that legislation passed? And did it have the effect that you hoped for? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 4:12 

Well, you know, it’s certainly it’s certainly, as you know, we’ve gotten over 50 people out of prison based on that program, and, and, you know, free from death rows and all over the country. I mean, obviously, there’s a lot more inside prisons, but they don’t get tested. You know, they’ve had samples from back when and the program is amazing, and I hope it continues because it’s very important to Bloodsworth brand. 

Anne Holsinger 4:47 

What kinds of obstacles are faced by current death row prisoners during the post-conviction relief process, especially those who are seeking DNA evidence? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 4:55 

Well, once they slam the door on you as a human being, you don’t have much of a choice for any type of study. And if you’d have actual claims of innocence, you have to jump through all these proverbial hoops in life, and you shouldn’t have to do that, you know, if you were sentenced to death and or been under arrest, whatever sentence, it doesn’t matter if, you know, five years or whatever, and there’s evidence to prove your innocence, you shouldn’t have to wait. And it’s really, because the prosecutors don’t want to change their story, even though the evidence changes it for them. And I think that’s, you know, a lot of prosecutors, probably disagree with me. You know, why won’t you do it? And, you know, they declare all kinds of different things that, that make any sense to me are any other death prisoners. 

Anne Holsinger 5:57 

What kind of challenges did you face upon your exoneration? And in general, do you think that death row exonerees have sufficient resources available to them when they’re released? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 6:06 

I don’t think that death row exonerees have, it’s a lot better now than it was of course. You know, we should be bending over backwards and trying to figure out why these people, you know, suffered the slings and arrows of the criminal justice system only to get, you know, hit and, and skewered by these things and by the criminal justice system itself, because they’re in denial, you know, it’s, that’s the one part about the adversarial system, that it’s adversarial to the truth and not the truth that is portrayed by either side necessarily, but the truth and DNA does that. And unfortunately, that definitely doesn’t have it for every case, and people were executed that have been innocent, or or that are innocent. Sure. 

Anne Holsinger 7:10 

Do you think there are particular challenges faced by people who are being exonerated from death row versus from the general prison population? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 7:18

I think, if you’re innocent, you’re innocent, it doesn’t matter what sentence you got. You’re not, you don’t belong there. So the challenge is, you’ve done all this time now. Recently, some guys did 40-some years that I can’t even fathom. I did almost nine and I, it liked to kill for something you didn’t do. And that’s the only thing that keeps you up, right? And it is a challenge, you can’t get to. I mean, there’s Innocence Projects now that handle this kind of thing, but there’s not enough people to do the work. You know, you have to reinvestigate a case and both sides and you know, it’s a lot of things you have to go through in order to get get it done. We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve got a long way to go. 

Anne Holsinger 8:08 

One of the things that you worked on a lot after exoneration was the abolition of the death penalty in Maryland. Could you talk a little bit about the role you played in that? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 8:17 

See in 1993 I got out so I was you know pushing to get to me and Jane Henderson and others and Stephanie, all these, Stephanie Joseph, and all these different people and the Maryland Citizens Against State Sanctioned, State Executions and Jane Henderson and all those people we just and I can’t sit here and name them all so many exonerees alike. I was on Commission’s, it took 20-some years in 2000, it well it took 20, yeah 2013 we passed it by a landslide and thanks to Jamie Raskin, his champion on the floor, the Senate and it went right through. At least for now, no one will be executed that are innocent. I think my case shines as an example of why. You know they keep saying well we have DNA now we can, pri-. No, it doesn’t matter. You know, you, you can’t turn an apple into orange. It’ll always be an apple. And I think that’s what innocence is all about. It’s always going to be about that: the person did not do it. And, and you know, and with that sitting in the way it has to be and that’s what I did. He mentioned my case and my name over 60 times during the hearings, Jamie Raskin, bless his heart. And I’m pretty happy, I you know, we ended in Connecticut and I was there and Delaware, in Washington State and New Mexico — all these different places. I didn’t physically go to New Mexico, but, New Jersey, and, you know, the death penalty had to go. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it’s 190 death row exonorees now, right? 

Anne Holsinger 10:23 

It’s actually 192 now. 

Kirk Bloodsworth 10:26 

Okay, see it’s just like every day. You know, if there was a bunch of planes or a plane that 192 people were killed, we would have the greatest impanel of investigations on this, and we haven’t had it. And, you know, and, honestly, the vitriol, we have presidents that have executed 13 people right in a row and just be nonchalant about it. Well, you know, they, they say they did it, well I had two juries and you know, and two judges and all of them said I did it too, but they were wrong. I mean, how can you know, 44 plus this police department and plus Baltimore County Police Department and all these judges be wrong. And look, they, they withheld evidence about another suspect in my case for two years and didn’t tell anybody that he wasn’t the real killer. But that doesn’t matter. It was information about someone else, just because they didn’t think so and, and the real killer is right under their nose. And I’ll tell you something else Anne, had we did the police report about this guy, Ruffner came into eight days before I was arrested, nobody went back to check on that guy. Because they were looking for Bloodsworth because they had blood in his name and they just got fascinated because I was just that new person living in Baltimore County at the time. But you know, and I think that’s how simplistic it was, they just would not believe anything else other than their narrative and that’s what causes this issue. So the death penalty, has got to go, federal and state in the country and I know, it’s, it’s no low-picking-fruit now. But people got to realize, you know, I would rather send a man to life in prison than executing him for something he didn’t do. I don’t want to send him there for life in prison if he didn’t do it, either, but atleast he won’t die, or she. 

Anne Holsinger 12:41 

You mentioned the 192 people who’ve been exonerated from death row. And in the time since you were exonerated, 28 of those have been based on DNA evidence. How do you think that those exonerations and the growing awareness of the problem of innocence has affected people’s views on the death penalty? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 12:59 

Well, I think it’s, it’s obvious, but you know, it’s just like anything else. I thought that I was trash to people. Who would even want to talk about me, and some of the vitriol that was on the radio and news and like when I got a new trial I remember some newsreporter saying and now so good. You shouldn’t be allowed to say that crap. You don’t know. You don’t know. And, honestly, I think this social media environment makes it worse, to prove a person’s innocence, just because they were convicted doesn’t mean that they did it right. And a lot of people were kind of, DNA has, you know, showed that we’ve made a mistake. And but people rely upon that too much. And I think it’s the safest bet is to do what’s right and we don’t know. I think it’s more about conviction in this country now than it’s ever been, you know, and certainly the crimes that are sensationalized on the news are horrible, but just what happened in Philly, you know, the other day. I mean, it those are horrible stories. But if you know, you’re in 1984, and you’re talking about a nine year old, child, horrible slaying, but we, we go to the first thing, we think of well they ought to kill him. And that’s all they say, they jump right to that before knowing the truth and it’s, it’s not fair to the criminal justice system itself and the people that have to endure it. 

Anne Holsinger 14:42 

Today, what do you think is the most pressing issue in the capital punishment system and how do you think it should be addressed? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 14:49 

That it’s still going on. It’s cost too much. It costs way more, three times as much as any other trial and honestly, you don’t get it all the time anyway. Maybe, if you think about it in terms of, you know, who should get it and who shouldn’t. I don’t think nobody should get it and so, you know, rich don’t get it and the poor do. Those two things right there are just enough to end the possibility of executing an innocent person it far outweighs any of it and they can’t do it. And there’s been so many studies done about it. The California study, the the one in Chicago, the one I was in, ones many times before that all agree that you couldn’t have the death penalty without possibily executing an innocent person and people are alright with that. Think about it, if it was you, Anne, and that is the best way I can say that we need to do, we’re not doing ourselves any favor by executing an innocent person, but making us worse. 

Anne Holsinger 16:03 

Are there aspects of the death penalty that you think are commonly misunderstood or that lack sufficient coverage in the media? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 16:12 

Well, I, it’s all about waiting for them to get executed after it happens, which I think Rodney Reed and all these other cases that I have been, I have dealt with over the years, just show it’s just too much. Every single one of these people wouldn’t, can’t afford a really good, you know, good lawyer. Maybe some but you know, people have been executed for over 500 years now and we’re not doing any better at it. And everybody’s wondering why let’s do it, so it’s more, what do you call it, humane. There’s no, nothing humane about it, taking somebody’s life. And every time I hear about somebody has been executed all I can say is even if they did it, you know, it’s that next person that might be innocent, you know what I mean? That gives me no solace, solace at all to think that they got it right. Well, there’s 192 people that would disagree with that. 

Anne Holsinger 17:22 

We mentioned earlier that you had been the executive director of Witnesse to Innocence. For listeners who might not be familiar with them, could you talk a little bit about the work that Witness to Innocence does? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 17:32 

Well, Witnesses to Innocence is run now by Herman Lindsay, is the Executive Director and Kwame Ajamu is the Chairman. They have a wonderful board. Ray Crone sits on the board, many others, Dick Dieter from DPIC, himself. So the organization basically, we oppose the death penalty in any faction and that any style, any way, all over the world, were just not opposed to it for one thing, but I think innocence brings it out even more and all these individuals that belong to the organization, we have a gathering every year, where we talk about how we can just do away with the death penalty, we oppose all state and federal executions, we did when I was there. And, you know, the organization was started back in 2005, I believe. And Ray Crone, an exoneree from Arizona and his pal, a friend of his, Ron Keine, started this organization. And it was also the brainchild of Sister Helen Prejean. And we traveled and I sent these guys to protest, give letters to governors, and it was handed out over a period of time and we just, but we also need, they needed some help, socially. So they just got out, you know, we, we tried to help them, we try to help them get a job, maybe try to give them the skills to do it, and also become leaders in the abolition movement, giving them the opportunity to speak about their own cases and how this occurred. Witness to Innocence is a good organization that sadly needs money, and I just, I wish we could fund them. I wish it could be funded forever until the death penalty is gone, because you’re going to need these men and women. 

Anne Holsinger 19:50 

On the question of money. I think something that people don’t necessarily understand is the issue of compensation for exonerees Would you say that most people who are exonerated receive compensation? And do you think that it’s adequate for someone to, you know, restart their life after leaving prison? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 20:09 

Well, you know, if you were exonerated from death row, you should be compensated. They have these clean hand laws in like Florida and other places. Texas has a good program, but they won’t, you know, they define what it is exactly, to be compensated. Maryland just, and I was fortunate enough to be on the other end of that, where people were compensated again, because they never used the right formula to do it. Now you have to go through administrative judge and once that judge makes a decision, you go forward to the board public works, and they give you monies based on how long you’ve been there and so forth. But I can tell you, as a person that’s been through all that, it doesn’t matter, because the million dollars is not enough. The pain and suffering that you went through being accused, it’s yourself. I mean, just imagine Anne, you’re sitting in life and somebody accuses you of killing a little girl, and that and they keep saying it for nine years and then say it another 10 years before the real killers out, found. It’s not fair at all at the current way it’s done and I think when people see these individuals, they should give them a hug and a handshake versus vilifying them as the prosecutors do in every case that I’ve seen. Except, I have to say Shallenberger from Baltimore County stood up for me a couple times here in the end. And you know, he he never worked the case. Certainly he’s not opposed to the death penalty, he don’t want to innocent people to die. And that’s what you need. It’s not about, it’s about justice and bad about when it- 

Anne Holsinger 22:15 

Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our listeners? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 22:18 

I would hope that everybody hearing this in earshot would donate a bunch of money, if you’re rich, to Witness to Innocence and DPIC, I’m saying that for both of you. Witness to Innocence is an organization and it must continue, and you know, and if you see the exonerated death row survivor or not, or an exoneree period, shake their hand and tell them welcome home. 

Anne Holsinger 22:53

That’s a really nice note to end on. Thank you so much. 

Kirk Bloodsworth 22:55 

You’re welcome. You’re welcome. 

Anne Holsinger 22:57 

If our listeners would like to learn more about the death penalty, they can visit the DPIC website at deathpenaltyinfo.org. Kirk, do you want to share the Witness to Innocence website? 

Kirk Bloodsworth 23:07 

It’s just witnesstoinnocence.org and it’s right here in Philly. 

Anne Holsinger 23:11 

And to make sure you never miss an episode of our podcast, you can subscribe to Discussions with DPIC on your podcast app of choice.

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