Kirk Bloodsworth


Exoneree Name

State: Maryland

Convicted: 1985

Exonerated: 1993

Race: Caucasian

DNA used in exoneration? Yes

Reasons for wrongful conviction:

Mistaken witness identification

Prosecutorial Misconduct




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 serves as the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, the only national organization in the United States composed of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their family members. As its leader, Kirk places the well-being of his fellow exonerated death row survivors at the center of the organization’s work, recently leading a significant expansion of the social work program and directing responsive emergency support during the COVID 19 crisis.

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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."


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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 before his current role as Executive Director. 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 currently serves on the board 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."


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Publications:

Bloodsworth: the True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA

  • Written by Tim Junkin

  • Selected as the 2018 One Maryland One Book

Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man

  • 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:

2.5.13 A Death Penalty Fight Comes Home

3.10.13 Once On Death Row, He Now Fights To Defeat The Death Penalty

6.26.13 From Death Row To Free Man

10.16.13 Kirk Bloodsworth: The First Man To Be Exonerated By DNA Evidence

4.6.14 Of Course the Death Penalty Is Cruel and Unusual

6.11.14 Former death row inmate becomes Exhibit A for how eyes can lie

12.15.15 First death row inmate exonerated with DNA in U.S. tells his story

9.28.16 Former death row inmate’s story of exoneration told through film showing tonight at SNHU

10.10.16 Death Row Inmate Describes Exoneration by DNA Evidence, Prison Reform Activism

1.6.17 Bloodsworth on a mission to reform criminal justice in the United States

10.30.17 For those exonerated of criminal convictions in Maryland, payment now in works

1.27.18 Exonerated man urges end to death penalty in Bremerton speech

1.29.18 Effort to abolish death penalty in Washington gains steam after it clears Senate committee

2.8.18 The Former Death Row Prisoner Making Rings for the Exonerated

3.1.18 I was an innocent man awaiting execution: End the death penalty

4.7.18 From death row to freedom: Why story of Kirk Bloodsworth's DNA exoneration still resonates

4.20.18 If you're wrongfully convicted, Maryland wants to help

5.1.18 Kirk Bloodsworth's new passion: Championship rings for those who won freedom

5.17.18 Former Death Row Inmate Makes Exonerated Rings

7.2.18 Kirk Bloodworth's case has lasting impact 25 years after exoneration

7.7.18 Harold Wilson, Kirk Bloodsworth and Ray Krone: We are proof that mistakes happen in death penalty cases

9.17.18 Author to discuss his book about Kirk Bloodsworth, exonerated death-row inmate

9.29.18 Eastern Shore author to present true story of wrongful conviction in Frederick on Monday

10.2.18 Author speaks on America's broken legal system

10.5.18 Junkin's novel 'Bloodsworth' called a cautionary tale

11.13.18 For death row survivors, the fight against capital punishment starts in Philly

12.14.18 Innocent man Kirk Bloodsworth on surviving the Green Mile and abolishing capital punishment

2.7.19 No evidence retention law in murder cases exists in Idaho

2.19.19 Crowd debates bill to end death penalty

3.27.19 Opinion: My wrongful conviction shows need to abolish death penalty

3.27.19 Kirk Bloodsworth, first DNA death row survivor

4.2.19 Prosecution and Public Defense

5.1.19 Sen. Muth: End Pa. death penalty

5.1.19 Opponents To PA’s Death Penalty Get A Bipartisan Boost

5.1.19 Democratic, Republican Lawmakers Team Up On Bill To Abolish Death Penalty In PA

5.1.19 Pa.’s death penalty opposition gets a bipartisan push

5.16.19 This former death row inmate now makes jewelry out of his home in the Philly suburbs for other exonerees

7.25.19 US to resume death penalty for first time since 2003 and schedules five executions

7.29.19 The death penalty is racially biased, fiscally irresponsible and very inaccurate

8.8.19 'Wrong-headed and misguided': Experts slam Donald Trump's call for death penalty for mass shootings and hate crimes

8.29.19 Sentenced to death, Ambler man now works to free wrongly convicted, abolish death penalty

9.10.19 Pennsylvania Supreme Court should strike down the death penalty

9.26.19 Here’s how wrongfully convicted Maryland prisoners were compensated in the past

10.3.19 The Arizona Justice Project draws attention to victims of wrongful convictions

10.8.19 Kirk Bloodsworth Visits Bryn Mawr

10.10.19 California must take the final step by abolishing the death penalty

10.14.19 Executed man's daughter asks court to order DNA testing in 1985 murder conviction

10.14.19 Thirteen years after death-row inmate executed, court asked to test DNA that could exonerate Tennessee man

10.14.19 Family of man executed in Millington murder argues DNA could clear his name

10.15.19 DNA testing could exonerate man 13 years after he was executed for rape, murder

1.15.20 These Men Were Convicted For Crimes They Didn’t Commit. Now They’re Pushing To Fix How The State Handles Wrongful Convictions

5.17.20 Commentary: Gov. Parson, do not execute Walter Barton

5.21.20 Kirk Bloodsworth: The Fight To End The Death Penalty

7.22.20 Wrongful Conviction

10.2.20 The Innocence Network's Livestream for Wrongful Conviction Day

10.8.20 The Fight for Freedom – A conversation with Photographer Martin Schoeller and Witness to Innocence Exonerees

1.13.21 Death Row Exonerees Make a Plea to Halt Executions

1.15.21 Kirk Bloodsworth Submits Testimony in Favor of Repealing Virginia's Death Penalty

2.9.21 Fight for compensation for exonerees underway in Annapolis

3.3.21 Kirk Bloodsworth Testifies in Support of Maryland Compensation Bill

5.1.21 Great.com - Witness to Innocence Interview