July 24, 1984 (a Tuesday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, the body of nine-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton was found in a wooded area of Rosedale, Maryland, near her home. The young girl had been raped and beaten to death with a rock.

After witnesses saw a suspicious man in the area of the murder scene, a police sketch was publicized on television and in newspapers. Two weeks later, an anonymous caller identified Kirk Bloodsworth, a 23-year-old ex-Marine, as the man in the sketch. Bloodsworth, who had been in Baltimore (which is close to Rosedale) at the time of Hamilton’s murder, later returned to his home in Cambridge and told friends that he had done something that would “harm his marriage”.

Prosecutors, with little evidence other than this, accused Bloodsworth of murder. During his trial, the defense presented several witnesses who said that they were with Bloodsworth at the time of the murder, but the state had presented five witnesses who testified that they had seen Bloodsworth with the victim. The jury convicted Bloodsworth in March of 1985 for the brutal killing and sexual assault of the nine year old girl and sent him to death row.

On appeal, Bloodsworth won a new trial, on the ground that the prosecution had withheld evidence indicating that another suspect might have been the killer. A few weeks before the second trial, evidence of yet another suspect was made available to Bloodsworth’s counsel, who chose not to pursue the lead. This time, he was convicted and sentenced to two life terms, to run consecutively.

For the next seven years, Bloodsworth maintained his innocence while in prison. In the meantime, forensic DNA testing had come of age. On Dawn Hamilton’s underwear, police had observed a spot of semen, smaller than a dime, and science had finally progressed to the point where this small amount of physical evidence could be tested. Bloodworth’s attorney, Bob Morin, with support from the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic formed to promote the use of DNA analysis to exonerate innocent prisoners, persuaded prosecutors in 1992 to compare Bloodsworth’s DNA with the DNA of dried sperm found on the victim. The DNA testing, performed by Forensic Science Associates, a private California laboratory, excluded Bloodsworth.

After the FBI’s crime lab confirmed this test, prosecutors in Baltimore County had no choice but to release Bloodsworth (but pointedly refused to apologize). On 28 June 1993, nine years after first going to jail, Kirk Bloodsworth was released. He was officially pardoned in December 1993. He had spent over eight years in prison, two of those years facing execution.

PCR DNA tests, Bloodsworth case, 1993 (Forensic Science Associates)

In 2003, after much prodding from Bloodsworth and Innocence Project lawyers, Maryland authorities finally searched their DNA database for a “cold hit” match of the evidence in the Dawn Hamilton case. The search turned up Kimberley Shay Ruffner, a convicted rapist who Bloodsworth had known in prison, who was then tried and found guilty of the 1984 murder.

Bloodsworth thus became the first person to be exonerated from death row through postconviction DNA testing. This led to the Justice for All Act of 2004, which included the Innocence Protection Act of 2004 as Title IV, legislation that, among other things, grants any federal inmate the right to petition a federal court for DNA testing to support a claim of innocence. Title IV also established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program to award grants to States to help defray the costs of post-conviction DNA testing. By August 2004, a total of 144 prisoners, some on death row, had been exonerated by DNA testing.

Most Americans know that there is at least a danger that innocent people will be executed. Yet according to a recent Angus Reid Public Opinion poll (4 Oct 2011), 81% of Americans still support the death penalty for convicted murderers. Many believe that we can ensure that the innocent are never executed if we take further measures — provide competent defense counsel, improve police methods, and so on. But as the Bloodsworth case underlines, this faith in the perfectibility of capital punishment is misplaced. The system can be improved, but it cannot be perfected.

Today, Bloodsworth is an activist for criminal justice reform and a public speaker. Over 30 state and regional innocence projects are at work.

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