The summer of 1984, nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton was raped, murdered and the criminal justice system needed a villain to pay. On the mistaken testimony of five eyewitnesses, a jury convicted Kirk Bloodsworth and he was sentenced to death by lethal gas, in a chamber one floor above his prison cell. The courtroom erupted in applause. A corrections officer pushed the execution notice between the bars of Kirk’s cell and he watched it float, back and forth, “just like a Forrest Gump feather, right to my feet.” Two years after his conviction, his sentence was commuted from death row to two consecutive life terms, affirmed on appeal. // Eight years, ten months and nineteen days after his arrest, Kirk was released from the Maryland State Penitentiary, becoming the first death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA. Maryland’s governor granted a full pardon and he was compensated less than four dollars an hour for his more than 3,200 days wrongfully behind bars. Nine years later, a DNA hit identified the true perpetrator, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a known sex criminal who had been released thirteen days before Dawn’s murder and had occupied a cell on the tier below Kirk, serving time for a different crime of attempted rape and assault with intent to murder. // A crime committed against a victim is the starting point for all of the 2,538 exoneration cases in America since 1989—more than 22,315 years lost to prison and at least thirty-nine wrongful executions. Beverly Monroe spent eleven years in prison for the murder of her partner, who had committed suicide. Marvin Anderson served twenty years for rape. Richard Phillips was exonerated after more than forty-five years in prison for murder. All free now, which is to say not living behind iron bars. In 1984, Kirk watched the execution notice float to the floor of his cell and the world felt some grim semblance of satisfaction. Dawn Hamilton was dead. Justice had been served. A story with a happy ending.
“This is the bible I had in prison,” says Kirk Bloodsworth, a jeweler and former Marine. “It’s mostly a morgue now.” The yellowing pages are bookmarked with snapshots and funeral announcements. “Friends of mine,” Kirk says. “People who died.” His mother sent him the bible while he was in prison; she died five months before his release. The state of Maryland permitted Kirk to visit her body for five minutes, shuffling into the funeral home in handcuffs, leg irons and shackles, flanked by two armed corrections officers and a priest. His mother never doubted his innocence. “Stand up for something,” she’d say. She taught him how to read. // Kirk was the Maryland State Penitentiary librarian for seven and a half years. He read hundreds of books and everything by Stephen King, particularly during his two years on death row. Horror novels—“that was funny to me,” he says. “Wasn’t nothing scarier than where I was headin’.” // Twenty-five years later, Kirk’s bookcase is full of books about wrongful conviction, including a half-dozen in which he is featured. His mother’s first edition copy of Gone With the Wind is protected in a Ziploc bag. A stack of cookbooks, among them: Cereal Killers. “Yeah, it was great,” Kirk says as he flips through a play called Life By Asphyxiation. He played the guard. // Kirk became Catholic in prison, but in the end it wasn’t that book that saved him. Instead, it was The Blooding, about a new technology called DNA analysis. The Blooding told the story of how DNA solved the murder cases of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth in England. Kirk was transfixed. If DNA could convict somebody England, he wondered, could it also set an innocent American man free? It could, but it would take time. The evidence from his case was lost, then found in a corner of a judge’s closet, stuffed in a paper bag. There was worry that the semen stain was too small to successfully test, but it was large enough, barely. “Half of one cell is what saved my life.”
The day Kirk came home, a limousine waited outside the prison with cigars, pizza, and beer, ready to drive him into freedom. Yellow balloons lined the street; people laughed and hugged and cried. “The happiest day of my life,” Kirk says, but it wasn’t happily ever after. The yellow balloons lining the street didn’t last a day. Kirk found “child killer” scratched in the dust of his GMC truck; death threats by phone at night. The true killer wouldn’t be identified for nearly a decade. “I believe that he is not guilty. I’m not prepared to say he’s innocent,” the prosecutor said after Kirk’s release. // Drugs and alcohol were ephemeral relief along a descending spiral. Freedom is like that sometimes, too. “Freedom at first takes the pain away. Everything’s new,” Kirk says. “Then it slowly creeps back.” Kirk’s been free twenty-five years now; perhaps these things get easier with time. “I had a tough time in the first ten years of my freedom.” // Kirk doesn’t think about prison, he says, by which he means he tries not to. “When you’re sleeping, you get these residual things. I used to dream somebody was dragging me into the gas chamber.” He pauses, remembering. “I haven’t had that one in a long time.” He returned to the Maryland State Penitentiary — 954 Forrest Street in Baltimore — to film a documentary about his story. “I was jumping like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” // Driving across a bridge in Maryland, Kirk saw the penitentiary gas chamber materialize through the windshield, sitting on top of the car. “Clear as day. I wasn’t high or drunk or nothing,” Kirk says. “It had been wearing on me for some time how close I got to being executed.” // His lawyer took him to the zoo. A brown monkey with a stripe down its back sat in his cage listlessly, playing with its toes. “That’s exactly what I was doing sometimes,” Kirk says. “Sitting in my cell playing with my toes. Just like him, look up every once in a while, look out.” He watched the monkey until he had to walk away. “Coming back from prison’s like that. You think ‘oh it’s great, going to the zoo, it’s great.’ Until you get to the monkey cage.”
“Let me get my magic box out,” Kirk says in his jewelry studio, unlatching a box of his handmade rings. “My dream box.” His upbringing as a Maryland fisherman taught the trade of jewelry making: fishhooks, tying knots in lines, unkinking chains and curling wire—Kirk’s created from his earliest childhood. // Of all his jewelry, Kirk is most renowned for his “Exonering.” Blood drops symbolize wrongful convictions of the past, present and future. A tear “for what we lost.” The front of the ring is lined with vertical bars guarding an empty cell. There’s a casket on either side of the ring, the left a little off-kilter. “It goes to the imperfections of wrongful convictions,” Kirk says. // He has cast more than 200 rings from his master, sent to exonerees across the country. “What do I owe you for this?” asked one exoneree after he received his ring in the mail. “Nothing,” Kirk replied. “You’ve already paid.” // Kirk’s jewelry studio is built around a solid oak workbench, surrounded by a pickle pot, gem cleaner, and array of files, drill bits and brushes. The drawers are full of beautiful things he has made: twelve white stones clustered around a vivid amethyst; a silver leaf necklace cut of a metal sheet then hammered into a third dimension; a pendant that will hold a garnet when it’s done. Dangling earrings made of soldered strands of silver DNA. “I like to create things,” Kirk says. “This is what freedom is all about.” // One Halloween—Kirk’s birthday—metal, wire, and stone became a spider, each pair of legs a different diameter of sterling, each spot soldered with a mini blowtorch. Kirk clicks the blowtorch lighter and electricity fizzles and jumps. “Kind of reminds me of electrodes, for electricity to electrocute you,” he says. “So everything means everything.” In the penitentiary, the guards carried brass keys. “I hear any kind of brass and it just takes me back.” // The jewelry workspace is within a cramped corner of a basement. Two windows cast dim light. “That’s the only bad part of this—it’s like my cell,” Kirk says. “Basically I’ve made myself a little cell.” He shifts to get up. “Let’s get out of this dark place,” he says.
Read the story at Barzakh Literary Magazine.