DNA used in exoneration? Yes
Reasons for wrongful conviction:
Mistaken witness identification
Kirk's Wrongful Conviction
Kirk Bloodsworth is all too familiar with the flaws in our criminal justice system and the struggle to survive in the world outside after spending time in prison. Kirk endured a wrongful arrest and conviction and spent a total of 8 years, 10 months, and 19 days in prison, 2 of those years on death row, for a brutal crime he did not commit. He still remembers the sound of the prison doors slamming shut behind him. "I was scared to death. I'm not going to lie to you, you know, when that 300-pound doors shut on my life. It was all over. I wouldn't see the light of day again as a free man until 1993 when I was 31 years old."
Kirk currently lives in the Philadelphia area and served as the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence from 2018-2022. Witness to Innocence is the only national organization in the United States composed of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their family members with a mission to abolish the death penalty. During his tenure, Kirk placed the well-being of his fellow exonerated death row survivors at the center of the organization’s work, lead a significant expansion of the social work program and directed responsive emergency support during the COVID 19 crisis.
Kirk was an honorably discharged marine leading a quiet life as a fisherman when in 1984, at 23 years of age, he was accused of the brutal murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton. His conviction was based on witness descriptions of a person that was six foot five, with curly blonde hair, a bushy mustache, tan skin, and skinny. Kirk was about six foot tall. "My hair at the time was as red as a fireplug. I don't tan. I tried to tell these people this from the very beginning and everybody I spoke to I was an innocent man. It fell on deaf ears." Kirk was astonished that five witnesses identified him as the last person seen with Dawn Hamilton. There was no physical or other evidence to prove he was the killer, but two juries, two different prosecutors, two judges, and all the police force of Baltimore County looked no further believed the eyewitness identification. In addition to the flawed eyewitness accounts, poor legal defense and negligent work by detectives and prosecutors contributed to his false conviction. As Kirk puts it,"they were all dead wrong."
Like other exonerated survivors of wrongful convictions, Kirk endured the trauma not only of prison, but of the gruesome details of his trial and the degradation of being cast as a monster responsible for a horrific crime."So when the gavel came down on my life after two week trial, the court room erupted in applause, 'give him the gas and kill his ass' said someone in the back…both trials, same thing…people in a courtroom calling me a child killer. That hurt the most. You know, I had never hurt a child…they branded, me this, and it stuck, too, for a long, long time…years after I got out, people were still calling me a child killer. There's air vents in the prison. You know, both prisons. I was in, I could hear the cat calls coming from the air vents."
While working in the prison library, Kirk read about a new forensic breakthrough—DNA fingerprinting. In 1992, he lobbied successfully for prosecutors' approval for its use on evidence that was collected at the crime scene in 1985. The tests incontrovertibly established Kirk’s innocence, and he was released in June 1993 after nearly nine years in prison, two of which he spent on death row.
"Deoxyribonucleic acid—I couldn't even pronounce it then. I learned to spell it. I probably can't spell it today, but it saved my life. Some little short skinny Englishman saved my life… it all came from checking the paternal order…to see how far back in history grey seals lived as a part of the same lineage. That's how DNA testing really got started. Most people don't know that. They were testing polymorphisms on gray seals and someone said well, I wonder if it will work on people. And it did."
In December 1994, Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer granted Kirk a full pardon based on innocence. In 2003, the real killer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. As it turned out, the actual murderer had been incarcerated in the same prison as Kirk, just a floor away. Kirk received a call from the prosecutor, "the same person who called me a monster in two trials." He met her at a local restaurant, and she informed him they had found Dawn Hamilton’s killer through a code hit on his DNA, Kimberly Shay Ruffner. "He was five foot six and 160 pounds. He slept right in the same prison with me. They asked if I wanted him to get the death penalty, and I said – What for? Is that going to give me my time back? Is that going to bring Dawn Hamilton back? He has to be accountable for what he's done, killing will only let his pain go. We have to live with her pain, no matter how brief it might have been. Kirk had to live with his pain for nine years. Dawn Hamilton’s parents had to live with 19 years. The County of Baltimore had to live with what happened to her every day we live and so should he. It's only fair. We don't have a right to kill anybody. Cause guess what? You could kill an innocent man or woman just by a blink of an eye in a system that has failed us time and time and time again."
While the truth of Kirk’s innocence ultimately prevailed, the pain of his ordeal surfaces even to this day. Before his exoneration, many of his neighbors and even family members questioned his innocence. They believed that the police could not be wrong, which hurt Kirk deeply and made it difficult to trust people, an experience common to many exonerees. His mother, who never stopped believing her son was innocent, did not live to see him freed—she died five months before his exoneration. "You would have loved my mother and I think everybody would have. She helped make the man you see before you. She taught me how to read. She used to tell me to stand up all the time. Never, never let up. You believe you know something is true. You stand up. I can still hear her voice sometimes calling a little boy for supper. She used to say if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. And she always used to try to make me laugh. Say something corny. She said, you stand up and believe in yourself and don't sit there like a bump on a dill pickle."
Kirk's Work Today
Since his exoneration, Kirk has devoted himself to abolishing the death penalty and addressing wrongful convictions. He is a leader in the movement for criminal justice reform, and the mutual support and camaraderie of his fellow exonerees is the beating heart for his work. He was a member of Witness to Innocence since its inception and served in several board and staff roles including as Executive Director from 2018-2022. After teaching himself the art of silversmithing, Kirk created signature “exoneree” and “death row exoneree” 28g sterling silver rings, which he has gifted to more than 200 exonerees to date. He is a past board member of the Innocence Network.
Kirk’s compassion and determination has made an impact on the movement to abolish the death penalty. His advocacy alongside his fellow exonerated death row survivors was influential in eight of the nine states that have abolished the death penalty in the last 25 years, including his home state of Maryland, where his name was mentioned 64 times during the floor debate in the legislature. Kirk has testified before the United States Congress and numerous state legislatures, and he was featured on Oprah twice as well as on CNN’s Larry King Live. He has authored op-eds and given countless other media interviews. The Innocence Protection Act, aimed at reducing the risk of executing innocent people, established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program to help states defray the costs of testing DNA evidence after conviction. Though the Act was signed into law in 2004, it took another four years of lobbying efforts to secure federal funding. Kirk fought to ensure that the program in his name was fully funded, and today it provides $10 million per year in federal grants.
Of Witness to Innocence’s work toward abolition and criminal justice reform, Kirk says, "The greatest voices of what's happening in the criminal justice system are the innocent men and women who know how this thing can happen to you so quickly. My story's not unique. We have hundreds of people in this country who have been wrongfully convicted, 170 others from death row alone. DNA doesn't help us much as you think. It helped me, but it might not help the next guy or gal. With the death penalty you can have an innocent person executed. Our former chairman, Freddie Pitts said it best, 'you can free a man from prison, but you can't free him from the grave.' This should resonate with every citizen in this country because if it could happen to me, it could happen to you."
Written by Tim Junkin
Selected as the 2018 One Maryland One Book
Documentary directed by Gregory Bayne released in February 2016
"The remarkable true story of the 1st death row inmate exonerated by DNA in the U.S."
In The Media:
6.26.13 From Death Row To Free Man
7.22.20 Wrongful Conviction