Catholic wrongly convicted devotes life to ending death penalty

By George P. Matysek Jr.
Catholic News Service

CAMBRIDGE, Md. (CNS) — If anyone has experienced sheer terror, it’s Kirk Bloodsworth.

Tried and found guilty of the brutal 1984 rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton near Baltimore, the barrel-chested crabber from the Eastern Shore was sentenced to die in the gas chamber.

Bloodsworth, a former Marine with no criminal record, had nothing to do with the crimes. He was wrongly convicted and later would become the first American on death row to be exonerated by DNA testing.

But as he was led into the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore in 1985 no one believed his story — least of all the other prisoners. “We’re going to do to you what you did to that little girl,” they screamed. “We’re going to get you, Kirk!”

Seated on the couch in the living room of his small home in Cambridge more than 20 years later, Bloodsworth said, “I remember that first night in my cell and the smell coming from this place. … Not only did it stink of every kind of excrement you could think of, but you also could smell hatred — and it was all pointing at me.”

Despite the strong temptation to despair, Bloodsworth said he decided he would fight to prove his innocence. He told The Catholic Review, Baltimore archdiocesan newspaper, that he believes God sustained him through nearly nine years of taxing prison life, sending him otherworldly consolations and leading him into the Catholic Church.

With the same steely determination that got him through his prison ordeal, Bloodsworth is now devoting the rest of his life to abolishing the death penalty and seeking reforms of what he calls a “broken” criminal justice system.

He could get his wish in Maryland, where legislation has been introduced to substitute life in prison without parole as the maximum penalty for crimes currently punishable by death. Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he will sign such a law if it comes to his desk.

On the day he was found guilty, Bloodsworth said he remembers being housed in a Baltimore County holding cell with another man who sat in the shadows. For two hours, the stranger didn’t say a word as he ate a sandwich and sipped an orange drink. Then he turned to his fellow prisoner and told Bloodsworth not to worry. “Everything is going to be all right,” Bloodsworth recalled the man saying. “You’ll be OK.”

Summoned back to the courtroom, Bloodsworth heard the guilty verdict and was taken back to the holding cell. He said the man was gone and only half the sandwich remained. When he asked the sheriff’s deputy where the “other guy” was, the deputy responded that Bloodsworth had been the only person in the cell.

Looking back, Bloodsworth thinks he was visited by an angel.

“Maybe I wanted to see something — I don’t know. But I tell you what, he was as real as you are,” he told a Catholic Review reporter.

Bloodsworth was raised in the Baptist and Methodist traditions. In prison he began deep theological discussions with Deacon Al Rose, the Catholic prison chaplain there. The more he learned, the more he wanted to become a Catholic.

At Easter time in 1989, then-Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard of Baltimore visited Bloodsworth at Deacon Rose’s invitation. The guard would not let Bishop Ricard enter the cell, so he had to administer the sacraments of confirmation and the Eucharist through the bars of the closed cell door.

Asked what it was like to receive Communion for the first time, Bloodsworth smiled. “Oh, it was an honor,” he said. “I felt clean. I felt accepted.”

When DNA testing proved Bloodsworth’s innocence in 1993, he was released and pardoned and was paid $300,000 in compensation for wrongful imprisonment — the accumulated salary the state said he would have earned as a waterman.

Bloodsworth said he still had to endure the suspicions of many who believed he had gotten off on a technicality — until 2003 when the DNA from the crime scene was identified as that of Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a man who had been previously charged with sexually assaulting children. Ruffner subsequently pleaded guilty to the Dawn Hamilton murder and is serving a life sentence.

“I tell you the difference between the day before they found who really did it and day after was like I had just won the World Series for the town of Cambridge,” said Bloodsworth. “Everyone treated me completely different.”

Bloodsworth has become an outspoken advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. He recently went to Annapolis to speak in support of the pending bill that would abolish capital punishment in Maryland.

Working for the Justice Project, a Washington-based organization that pushes for criminal justice reform, Bloodsworth lobbied for the passage of the federal Innocence Protection Act, which was signed into law in 2004. The act established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, through which the U.S. government helps states defray the costs of such DNA testing.

“We need to do post-conviction testing to find out if there are other innocent people on death row before we start throwing switches,” said Bloodsworth, pointing out that since 1973, more than 150 people have been wrongfully convicted and later freed from prison based on DNA evidence.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” he said.

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