Kirk Bloodsworth Submits Testimony in Favor of Repealing Virginia's Death Penalty
Written Testimony in Favor of Virginia SB1165 and HB2263
January 15, 2021
Executive Director, Witness to Innocence
First person to be exonerated from death row by post-conviction DNA testing
Namesake of the federal “Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program” established by the Innocence Protection Act
Dear honored members of the Virginia Senate and House of Representatives,
My name is Kirk Bloodsworth. I was sentenced to death in Maryland and spent 8 years, 10 months, and 19 days in prison, 2 years of which were on death row, for a crime I did not commit.
In 1984, I was a recently married, 22 year-old, honorably discharged marine with no criminal history, when a terrible tragedy occurred. A nine-year-old girl named Dawn Hamilton was found raped and murdered in a wooded area. It would take nearly two decades for Dawn’s murderer to be brought to justice, because I was mistakenly convicted of his crimes. An anonymous tip to the police pointed to me, though the description of the perpetrator did not fit my appearance. At trial, five witnesses testified that they had seen me with the victim. I was convicted and sentenced to death. I will never forget the sound of the death row cell door slamming shut like a tail gate of a dump truck.
Years went by, and my lawyers learned that there was another suspect in the case that we had not been told about. More years went by and I learned of DNA technology. When the prosecutor’s office finally agreed to DNA testing, the results showed that the DNA did not match mine. I was released from prison and after another 10 years the real perpetrator was identified as Kimberly Shay Ruffner. We learned that eight days before I was even arrested, a police report had come in about Ruffner. The Police never followed-up on that report and one month later Ruffner was caught having committed more crimes including burglary, attempted rape, and assault with intent to murder.
I am sure we all would agree that innocent people should not be executed. Yet my story is not unique. I am the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees working to reform our criminal justice system. To date, 174 people have been exonerated after receiving a death sentence for crimes they were innocent of. Even worse, an unknown number of innocent people have been executed before being able to prove their innocence. In many cases, procedural roadblocks mean no judge or jury ever heard the evidence of their innocence and in some cases, available DNA evidence was not even tested.
In Virginia, my dear friend Earl Washington, Jr. came within nine days of execution for a crime he did not commit. I was in Virginia on the day Earl was released from prison. As a person with intellectual disability, as a black man, and as a man of limited financial means, Earl was vulnerable and at high risk of falling victim to the pitfalls in the capital punishment system. As far as I understand the history, his life was spared because pressure from the press resulted in then Governor James S. Gilmore requesting the DNA testing that ultimately proved Earl’s innocence. How many other men and women have fallen victim to the same pitfalls that landed Earl and I on death row but have not had the chance to prove their innocence? There have been at least three men in Virginia, Joseph Payne, Herbert Bassette and Joseph Giarratano, who, due to doubts about their guilt, had their death sentences commuted to life and many worry that Joseph O’Dell, who was executed in Virginia in 1997, was innocent. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “In reviewing his case in 1991, three Supreme Court Justices, said they had doubts about O’Dell’s guilt and whether he should have been allowed to represent himself… O’Dell asked the state to conduct DNA tests on other pieces of evidence to demonstrate his innocence but was refused.” We do not know for sure about Joseph’s guilt or innocence, but it should haunt us that we even need to wonder if Virginia may have executed an innocent person.
DNA evidence was the lifesaver for Earl and I, but the reality is that DNA evidence exists in only about 10% of criminal cases. Eric M. Freedman, who served as one of Earl’s legal counsel wrote in an article in 2001, “DNA testing should be taken as an alarm siren alerting us to the dangerous flaws in our criminal justice system…If Mr. Washington had been accused of a shooting rather than a rape-murder, there would have been no DNA. That would have left him just as innocent, but dead by the hand of the state. The availability of DNA in some cases acts as a check on the system in much the same way that a tax audit does. The results so far certainly indicate cause for concern, and every effort at legislative amelioration deserves support.” DNA exonerations give us a window into all of the things that can go wrong in a criminal case and have revealed that murder cases are often riddled with problems, including mistaken eyewitnesses, incompetent lawyers, shoddy forensics, misconduct, unreliable jailhouse snitches, and coerced confessions. Virginia is not exempt from these flaws that are prevalent in every state in the nation.
As long as the death penalty exists in Virginia, innocent people will continue to be sentenced to death, and some will be executed. A 2014 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that the number of innocent people on death row is likely twice the number of death row exonerations, which would mean that at least 4.1 percent of people sentenced to death are innocent. To turn a blind eye to the real possibility of mistakes is inexcusable. States from Illinois to Massachusetts have asked their foremost experts to devise a system that will never sentence an innocent person to death.
- The Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment recommended 85 reforms and said even if all 85 were implemented, there would still be a risk of executing an innocent person.
- In Massachusetts, then-Governor Mitt Romney’s Council on Capital Punishment tried to create a “gold standard” death penalty, but it was rejected by both prosecutors and the legislature.
- The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment agreed 19:2 that, despite the advance of forensic sciences, particularly DNA testing, the risk of execution of an innocent person is a real possibility.
The death penalty has a ripple effect beyond capital cases which must also be addressed. Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center stated, “Innocent people confess to crimes they didn’t commit to avoid the possibility of being executed. Suspects, both innocent and guilty, who are threatened with the death penalty if they do not cooperate with law enforcement provide false testimony that sends innocent people to jail, often for decades. The data suggest that the misuse of the death penalty as a coercive interrogation and plea bargaining tool poses a far greater threat to the fair administration of the criminal laws than we had previously imagined.” Analysis conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center found that, “prosecutors or police used or threatened to use the death penalty as a coercive tool that led to or extended the wrongful convictions of at least…19 of the 143 exonerations in the U.S. listed in the National Registry’s annual report on 2019 exonerations — more than 13%.” According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 53 exonerations in Virginia since 1989. Wrongful convictions are not only an injustice to the innocent person whose life is irreparably damaged, but they also represent a threat to public safety. In my own story, after he murdered Dawn Hamilton, Ruffner remained at large and more people fell victim to his violence.
Capital punishment is dramatically hindering the effectiveness of our criminal justice system and preventing this system from doing its job of ensuring public safety. Even worse, when an innocent person is executed, our criminal justice system itself becomes a murderer. Earl Washington could have easily have fallen through the cracks and been executed. His case should be the only evidence needed for you to repeal Virginia’s death penalty. I urge you to vote in favor of SB1165/HB2263. If Virginia is really for lovers, it should love its citizens and not execute them.
YOU can help abolish the death penalty in Virginia: