An Innocent Man

Former death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth waged and won a nearly 30-year battle to end capital punishment in Maryland.

By Ron Cassie. Photography by Ryan Lavine

–Photography by Ryan Lavine

The guards told Kirk Bloodsworth they had a work detail for him. A room near the prison hospital, above his cell and tier, needed painting, they said. When you’re locked up 23 hours a day, even painting becomes a welcome diversion, so Bloodsworth went along. The “room” that guards said needed painting turned out to be a 9-foot-tall, hexagonal steel vault—albeit with sealed glass windows, for witnesses. Square in the center of the cramped space, bolted to the floor, sat a steel chair with leather leg, arm, and chest straps—nicknamed the “captain’s chair.”

Bloodsworth, who had been found guilty of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old Rosedale girl, was sentenced to die in the chair he was now being told to paint. “You’ll be Captain Kirk soon.” “We want to get it ready for you.” “Paint it nice.” “Beam me up, Scotty...”

“Just jerks,” Bloodsworth recalls. “They thought it was funny.”

The guards also took it upon themselves to explain how the process worked. Hydrochloric acid would be poured into the vat beneath the chair. Once strapped in, at the warden’s signal, the executioner would mechanically drop cyanide pellets in the acid, filling the vault with putrid fumes that would sear Bloodsworth’s eyes and nostrils before reaching his lungs—the condemned are told to take deep breaths to avoid prolonging the agony. Gasping and choking would precede panicked contortions and seizures. It took about 10 minutes. Longer for a big guy like the young, 225-pound Bloodsworth, the guards said.

From that day forward, each time Bloodsworth walked into the exercise yard, he couldn’t stop himself from looking up at the concrete ventilation pipes, where the deadly gas left the chamber, atop the penitentiary’s roof. He began suffering suffocation nightmares, waking up and vomiting afterward. “For two years, I slept right below that room. It was always in the middle of my thoughts.”

Built in 1811, the massive, stone Maryland Penitentiary where Bloodsworth spent two years on death row and almost nine years altogether once held prisoners in dungeons. Since renamed the Maryland Transition Center, it looms in East Baltimore like a foreboding medieval castle. The state has executed 314 individuals in its history, nearly all here, most by hanging—the remnants of which also served as a haunting reminder of Bloodsworth’s fate. “They still had an outline [of the scaffolding] on the wall,” he says.

“You could see clearly in the yard where they used to hang people.”

Ultimately, in June of 1993, the twice wrongly convicted Bloodsworth became the first U.S. death row inmate exonerated through DNA evidence. Incredibly, it later turned out that the guy who actually abducted and murdered Dawn Hamilton slept in the tier below Bloodsworth—doing time on completely different charges.

Flash forward. After fighting for his life inside prison and, for a long period, struggling on the outside from the anguishing ordeal—bouts of depression and drinking, job problems, a second divorce—Bloodsworth found himself sitting in the State House balcony in March when the General Assembly cast votes abolishing the death penalty. An Eastern Shore native and honorably discharged Marine with no previous criminal history, Bloodsworth, now 53, jumped out of his seat and threw his hands into air. He’d been working for this moment ever since his arrest nearly 30 years ago.

“How did it feel? I was counting the votes and when we had enough ‘green’ votes—green is ‘yes,’ red is ‘no’—I screamed.

Twenty-eight years later, I’d killed the thing that almost killed me,” he says. “I sort of felt like Atlas and the world had come off my back. I could finally stand up straight. Nobody in my state, let alone an innocent man, will ever be convicted and sentenced to death again. It was the most gratifying moment of my life.”

Leading up to the General Assembly, legislation to end the death penalty hadn’t been expected to even reach the floor for a full vote. Senate President Mike Miller was not a supporter and, for years, bills had stalled in committee. In January, however, Miller changed judiciary committee assignments—with the intent of allowing a full death penalty vote—and suddenly a crack of daylight appeared.

Organizations like Maryland Citizens Against the State Executions, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the NAACP were committed to the legislation, as was Gov. Martin O’Malley, who threw his weight behind passing the measure. But it was Bloodsworth, meeting year after year with every group and legislator who would hear his story, who’d become the face of the campaign to end capital punishment.

“He’s moved more hearts and minds in Annapolis than anyone I know,” says Jane Henderson, former executive director of Maryland Citizens Against the State Executions, who met Bloodsworth a few years after his release at an early coalition meeting on Harford Road.

Baltimore City Delegate Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg, House sponsor of the end-the-death-penalty bill, says Bloodworth’s presence in Annapolis humanized theoretical death penalty debates. “Kirk is an individual who was wrongly prosecuted by our system’s best efforts—our prosecutors are effective when they have eyewitnesses,” Rosenberg says. “But it’s no longer abstract when you meet him.”

Not long after Maryland voted to become the 18th state to abolish the death penalty (the law went into effect October 1), Temple Law School professor Louis Natali invited Bloodsworth to address his capital punishment class. Since his release, Bloodsworth, now the director of advocacy for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Witness for Innocence, has become one of the most sought-after anti-capital-punishment advocates in the country.

“Most of you have never, will never, come in contact with someone who has been through the criminal-justice system and received a death sentence,” Natali says to his students by way of introducing Bloodsworth. “I want you to meet someone who has and can tell you what that experience is like.”

Not exceptionally tall, exactly 6-feet, Bloodsworth nonetheless remains a sizeable man—barrel-chested, broad across the back, large head, thick neck, and beefy hands—and possesses a commanding presence in front of the law class. But he’s also the sociable, down-to-earth waterman’s son he was before his incarceration.

“I’m from New Orleans, and we like stories, and we all know how to tell a story down there,” says Sister Helen Prejean, who co-founded Witness for Innocence and was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the movie, Dead Man Walking. “Kirk, where he’s from, the Eastern Shore, I guess, he’s got that as well. He’s this big guy with a big soul and that comes through.”

He starts from the beginning: “August 9, 1984, I open the door and there’s lights in my eyes. ‘Kirk Bloodsworth, you’re charged with the first-degree murder of Dawn Hamilton, you son-of-a-bitch.’”

He explains that he didn’t remotely match the physical description given by the first two eyewitnesses—8- and 10-year-old boys. “They said he was 6-foot-5 with curly blonde hair. My hair was as red as a fire plug in those days, I had sideburns down to here, and I was missing a tooth in the front.”

Dawn Hamilton, Bloodsworth continues, was outside playing with friends, including the two boys, fishing at a nearby pond when they saw a man approach her after she went looking for her cousin. (Bloodsworth never lost sight of the fact that the real killer of the pretty, sandy-haired girl—whose picture he sometimes carries to speaking engagements—hadn’t been found. He mentioned her frequently in his prison letters and journals.)

Bloodsworth recounts the way the mis-identification process unfurled. The boys, looking at images of generic facial features, helped Baltimore County police create a sketch, which was released through the media. The crime had generated tremendous outrage, and more than 500 tips poured in. Bloodsworth notes he was tip No. 286.

At the time, he’d gotten married and moved to Essex and was working six days a week in a furniture warehouse when his next-door neighbor told police he resembled the man in the sketch. Working through the list, nothing panning out, detectives eventually located Bloodsworth, whose one day off coincided with the murder. Police also learned he’d returned to his hometown of Cambridge shortly after the tragedy. Bloodsworth, admittedly a 23-year-old good ol’ boy who enjoyed his beer and pot, tried to explain he’d gotten into an disagreement with his then-first wife.

Several others where Dawn lived also later identified him in a photo line-up, but only after they’d seen his face on TV during his perp walk. That was the “evidence” against Bloodsworth. Meanwhile, he had 10 alibi witnesses and hadn’t been alone all day.

Well-informed on legal and criminal-justice issues, Bloodsworth can dispassionately detail all the practical, ethical, religious, racial, economic, and selective bias objections to the death penalty. But whether he’s talking to a law class, testifying in Annapolis or another state legislature, in front of Congress, or appearing on The Colbert Show, he hones in on a single point.

“There isn’t a system you can create run by human beings that is infallible,” he says. “Ann Brobst, prosecutor, very smart; Robert Lazaro, prosecutor, very smart; Det. Bob Capel, smart; the judges, smart; the juries, made up of concerned citizens. All trying to do the right thing.

“Dozens of people. Dead wrong.”

Ultimately, a chain of events as unforeseeable as those that put him on death row saved Bloodsworth. An avid reader in prison, he learned about DNA through a nonfiction book, The Blooding, which recounted a U.K. serial killer’s capture through the groundbreaking science. He pleaded with lawyer Bob Morin (now a D.C. judge) to test the semen stains, which could exonerate him, on Dawn’s underwear. Morin, in turn, reached out to the Innocence Project, a recently formed legal clinic founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, which promoted DNA analysis to exonerate innocent prisoners.

Fortunately, the clothing and evidence, at one point believed to be missing, was tracked down in a cardboard box in a closet in then-Baltimore County Judge James Smith’s chambers. Later came the phone call in prison: The results excluded Bloodsworth.

“The first time I met Kirk was in jail,” says Scheck. “I also went with him to visit Sen. Patrick Leahy when we worked on getting Congress to pass the Innocent Protection Act in 2004.” The act includes procedures for DNA testing and funding through a program named after Bloodsworth. “He was such a powerful example, in person, of how important this issue is . . . [The legislation’s passage] showed how great Kirk is as a survivor and an advocate.”

Scheck was also with Bloodsworth years later, in Illinois, when the death penalty was under reconsideration there, watching the play, The Exonerated. Scheck says he got a glimpse, once again, of how difficult it can be for the ex-inmate to relive his death row experience. “About 10 minutes in, he had to leave, he was welling up, and he didn’t come back,” Scheck says. “When he talks about the death of a parent—his mother—while incarcerated, he often loses it at some point. So, it’s not easy, emotionally, for him to tell his story, but it’s also very important.”
 
A large part of Bloodsworth’s healing from his prison trauma stems from retelling his own story, pushing through rather than burying the pain. “It’s cathartic,” he says, “and cheaper than seeing a therapist.” He says fully embracing the realization that all human beings are fallible—“including myself”—has led to greater forgiveness and healing. In particular, forgiving those who sent him to death row, but others, too, like lawmakers who refused to ever meet with him.

“I made a decision and that was, I can’t live with this pain,” Bloodsworth says. “I’m a grown man, and I have lived through this—it’s acceptance. If I don’t forgive people—and forgiving people turns out to be a very good way to live—I’m not going to get past this. If you hold a grudge, a resentment, a vendetta, it just eats you alive. “

Sister Prejean has gotten to know Bloodsworth over almost 20 years and believes that translating his experience into a meaningful narrative—and sharing it to help others—continues to provide needed healing.

“Part of the work he does, for him, is a way of dealing with this horrible trauma he went through,” she says, describing the extreme mental distress of death row as meeting the United Nations’ definition of torture. “But one of the great things about human beings is that we have the ability to transcend the horrible things that happen to us, and Kirk has done that by trying to make sure this never happens to anyone else. It goes past himself, past ego, it’s from personal pain. It’s truly a salvational thing he is doing.”

Showing a visitor around the small Witness for Innocence office recently, Bloodsworth notes that his story is not unique.

One-hundred and forty-two people have been exonerated from death row since 1976. He stops in front of 18 portraits of former death row inmates from across the U.S.

He knows them all. And their stories.

“Ray Krone, the 100th death row inmate exonerated, was honorably discharged from the Air Force and a mailman in Arizona. He’s on our board. Albert Burrell is from Louisiana. Harold Wilson’s from Pennsylvania. Shujaa Graham lives in Takoma Park and is a great friend. . . . We have a gathering once a year where we get everyone together. Not everybody makes it, but a bunch do.

“Freddie Pitts is from Florida,” Bloodsworth continues, gesturing to another photo and turning around. “He wrote the words on the back of my T-shirt.” Across Bloodsworth’s Witness for Innocence T-shirt, it reads: “You can free an innocent man from prison, but you can’t free him from the grave.”

“All good guys,” he says. “I wouldn’t wish what they went through on my worst enemy.”