What Will Happen To the Five Men on Maryland's Death Row? Kirk Bloodsworth, Exonerated by DNA Shares His Story

10:20 PM, Apr 11, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (WUSA9) --  In Maryland, five men sit on death row, a month after the death penalty was repealed.

Governor Martin O'Malley has yet to decide their fates. Here's the story of one death row inmate who took fate into his own hands, after eyewitnesses got it all wrong.

He was the first death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA. Kirk Bloodsworth's story is the kind that could win Academy Awards. 

To properly tell it, we take you to the summer of 1984, a patch of woods in Rosedale, Maryland, and a heinous crime against an innocent child. 

Dawn Hamilton was 9, when she was raped, beaten and murdered. Fifteen days later, then 23-year-old Bloodsworth was arrested for the crime.

Bloodsworth says his outlook quickly became bleak, "I was in prison for something I didn't do, a brutal murder of a 9 year old girl named Dawn Hamilton whom I never met."

It seems eyewitnesses saw Hamilton walk into the woods with a man. A composite sketch was put on TV. Police were tipped by not one, but two people, saying the sketch looked just like Bloodsworth. Plus, he worked nearby, and made what some called suspicious comments, leading a jury to find him guilty. Two trials later, they sentenced the former Marine to death.

Bloodsworth says, "I did 9, and 2 years on death row, actually it was 8 years, 10 months and 19 days 1:55, But who's counting?"

In the end, part of the testimony that put Bloodsworth away was eyewitness accounts from five people. Two of the eyewitnesses were children, giving a description of Kirk as being 6-foot-5. He is 6 feet tall.

Kelly Walsh works for the Urban Institute's Justice Police Center, she explains that many factors can come into play when it comes to eyewitness accounts, "People that are very young, also people that are very old...those types of eyewitnesses tend to be less reliable."

Eyewitnesses said the killer had blond hair. Bloodsworth says his hair was "As red as the stripes on a flag."

D.C. Superior Court Judge Bob Morin, was Bloodsworth's defense Lawyer, "In this case they were absolutely certain he was the man and they were absolutely wrong." 

Morin says he felt overwhelmingly that Bloodsworth was innocent. Fast forward to 1993, DNA testing was hitting the mainstream. Then-31-year-old Bloodsworth was fresh out of appeals and stranded on death row. He asked Morin for the one thing that could save his life: A DNA test on the evidence left behind. 

At first, it was nowhere to be found, but Morin kept looking, and ran into a court clerk. Bloodsworth says the clerk said, " 'well, I know where that is.' He said it's in a paper bag in a cardboard box in the judge's chambers. And that's where it's at, my key to freedom."

The test proved Bloodsworth innocent, and the real killer, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, was easy to find. Ruffner was already serving time in the same prison as Kirk. Morin says many people thought they looked alike, "Mr. Ruffner's nickname in prison was 'little Kirk' because he looked like his little brother." Remember, the eyewitnesses told police the killer was 6 foot 5. Bloodsworth shares, "In the end, the real killer was 5 foot 6, 160 pounds."

Bloodsworth walked out of the Maryland Penitentiary a free man on June 28th, 1993. His case is one of the most headline-grabbing of the nearly 75% of wrongful convictions done in by eyewitness accounts, now undone by DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project.

Once a fisherman, 52-year-old Bloodsworth now works for the Innocence Project, dedicating his life to helping exonerate the wrongfully convicted. He worked hard and was proud when the state of Maryland recently abolished the death penalty. 

He says that's because he knows sitting on death row, right now, across the country, are innocent people - people just like him. 

"It could happen to any of us, any time anywhere."

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