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Set free from death row

Kirk Bloodsworth is the first person in the US to be exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Kirk is now Advocacy Director at Witness to Innonence, and was a key part of the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Maryland. This is his story.

It’s 1984.  I’m just out of the Marine Corp - honorably discharged and newly married. At 2:45 am on August 9th my front door erupted in booms from the police banging. “Open up! It’s the Baltimore county police department! We have a warrant for the arrest of Kirk Bloodsworth”.

I go to the door, open it, and hear someone in the background say “That’s the son of bitch”. I step outside, they read me my rights.

That was the last time I saw my small town of Cambridge, Maryland, for eight years, ten months and nineteen days. Two of those years I spent on death row.

I was accused, tried and convicted for the brutal murder of Dawn Hamilton, a nine year old little girl living in the Rosedale section of Baltimore County, Maryland.

Baltimore County prosecutors wanted the death penalty for her murder. Their whole case against me hinged on the description of the suspect: Six-foot five, curly blond hair, bushy mustache, tanned skin and skinny. I was about six foot tall then, 225 pounds, red hair - red as a stripe on a flag – I never tan, I burn. Nevertheless, five eye-witnesses positively identified me as there suspect and the court room erupted in applause at my conviction.

Two trials later and one DNA test later, I was set free - pardoned by the Governor.

Fast forward ten more years and the real killer was caught. He is five foot six and 160 pounds. But long before that, I already knew that anyone could be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.

So on June 28th – after nearly nine years of incarceration - I stepped outside into a life of unknown. I stepped out to my freedom.

At first I was mad at what had happened to me but the more I resisted speaking out, the worse things became. Then one day I got a phone call from Laura Burstein and Jane Henderson [of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions]. My life changed forever…

Maryland still had the death penalty, and I thought if people heard my story maybe I could make a difference. The journey began when I testified before the Maryland house judiciary committee, urging it to place a moratorium on the death penalty.

From late 1999 our campaign to abolish Maryland’s death penalty began in earnest…. Years passed then, in 2008, I heard that the Governor Martin O’Malley was creating a commission on capital punishment. The word was that he wanted me to be one of its commissioners.

Six months later - with former Attorney General of the United States Benjamin Civiletti as our chairman - we voted 13 to 9 to abolish the practice. That year brought us the closest we had come to a full floor vote in the Senate but in the end we lost by one vote.

More time passed and then, this year,  the new director of Witness to Innocence, David Love, asked me to work with them as Advocacy director. It meant moving to Philadelphia but although I was very apprehensive I took the position with the agreement from David that I’d be able to work on the Maryland repeal effort.

From then on things really started happening. Jane Henderson was pushing hard, as were murder victims’ family members  Bonnita Spikes and Vicki Schieber. I also brought in Witness to Innocence board member and friend Shujaa Graham who, like me, is a death row survivor after being exonerated.

We hit the ground running with all we could muster. It seemed to be working - the hearings went like a wild fire and the press was getting interested.

New York Times’ Scott Shane did an article on me and Witness to Innocence, then MSNBC‘s Stephen Colbert called. The name dropping we were doing was working – as the Maryland floor votes were happening they mentioned my name so much there was an article in a local paper that said Senators had “ Kirk Bloodsworth fatigue”.

Before the month of March was over both houses in the Maryland General Assembly had repealed the death penalty. All that’s left is the Governor to sign it into law.

Looking forward is simple, innocence matters. I think we showed that as long as the death penalty exists, there is a real risk that innocent people could be executed.

Only time will tell what the eventual outcome  will be for the death penalty in the United States. But in the end let’s hope it will be those who witness innocence that prevail.

Kirk is also the first interviewee for the docunmentary project One for Ten, who are travelling through America to record ten stories from death row exonerees. You can send them your questions for Kirk through their Twitter or Facebook pages. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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