Skip to main content

I was on death row, and I was innocent

By Kirk Noble Bloodsworth
updated 10:41 AM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kirk Bloodsworth: I was first in U.S. sentenced to death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence
  • Witnesses, not physical evidence, tied him to rape, murder
  • Life in prison hell on earth. He found book on DNA testing, lawyer pursued, he was freed
  • Bloodsworth: End capital punishment. I am proof that system is broken beyond repair

Editor's note: Kirk Bloodsworth is the director of advocacy for Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row survivors and their loved ones.

Watch "Death Row Stories," a CNN original series, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Sunday. Join the conversation: Follow us at facebook.com/cnn or Twitter @CNNorigSeries using #DeathRowStories.

(CNN) -- Edward Lee Elmore's story, which is the focus of the first episode of CNN's documentary series, "Death Row Stories," shows that the capital punishment system does not always get it right. Like Edward, I know this first-hand.

I was the first person in the United States to be exonerated from death row because of DNA testing.

Kirk Bloodsworth
Kirk Bloodsworth

In 1984, I was 23 years old, newly married and living in Cambridge, Maryland. I had just served four years in the Marine Corps. I had never been arrested. This all changed on August 9, 1984, when the police knocked on my door at 3 a.m. and arrested me for the murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton.

In a matter of days I became the most hated man in Maryland.

On July 25, 1984, Dawn was raped and murdered in Baltimore County. A man approached Dawn and offered to help her find her friend in their game of hide-and-seek. Her body was found in the park later that afternoon.

The police were eager to find the girl's killer and ease the community's fear. Despite the fact that I did not match witnesses' descriptions of the man who approached Dawn, an anonymous caller suggested my name to the Cambridge Police Department.

"There was no physical evidence against me. During the trial, I was convicted primarily on the testimony of five eyewitnesses who were later shown to be terribly mistaken."

There was no physical evidence against me. During the trial, I was convicted primarily on the testimony of five witnesses who were later shown to be terribly mistaken. It took the jury less than three hours to convict me. When they announced my death sentence, the courtroom erupted in applause.

Life at the Maryland State Penitentiary can only be described as Hell on Earth. I still have nightmares about it. My cell was directly under the gas chamber. The guards thought it was funny to remind me of that fact. They would describe the entire procedure in detail and laugh at my fate. Fortunately, a second trial reduced my punishment to back-to-back life sentences.

I fought to stay safe at the penitentiary and spent long days in the prison library. At the time of my first trial, DNA testing was not a well-understood concept in criminal law. In 1992, I came across a book about DNA testing used to solve murders in England. My attorney, Bob Morin, submitted a request for the evidence in my case to be tested.

The prosecutor almost brought my innocence claim to a halt when she sent a letter with a devastating message: The biological material in my case was inadvertently destroyed. Miraculously, the judge from my second trial had decided to keep some of the physical evidence and store it in his chambers.

One day in 1993 I received a phone call from my attorney. The stain lifted from the victim's underpants did not match my DNA. The DNA told the truth: I was not guilty of this crime. Unfortunately, it would take 10 more years for Dawn's true killer to be identified.

DNA frees 2 men in N.Y. triple murder
21 years in jail for this innocent man
How DNA testing can save lives
Imprisoned more than half his life for a rape and murder conviction, 53-year-old Edward Lee Elmore, center, celebrates his 2012 release in Greenwood, South Carolina. Appellate lawyers Diana Holt and John Blume uncovered information suggesting that evidence was planted or hidden from defense attorneys. Elmore had been sentenced to death three times for the 1982 rape and murder of 75-year-old Dorothy Edwards, a wealthy Greenwood widow. Elmore had no alibi at the time of the killing.
For more, watch "Death Row Stories" on CNN at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday. Imprisoned more than half his life for a rape and murder conviction, 53-year-old Edward Lee Elmore, center, celebrates his 2012 release in Greenwood, South Carolina. Appellate lawyers Diana Holt and John Blume uncovered information suggesting that evidence was planted or hidden from defense attorneys. Elmore had been sentenced to death three times for the 1982 rape and murder of 75-year-old Dorothy Edwards, a wealthy Greenwood widow. Elmore had no alibi at the time of the killing. For more, watch "Death Row Stories" on CNN at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Death row story: Edward Lee Elmore
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Death row story: Edward Lee Elmore Death row story: Edward Lee Elmore

On June 28, 1993, I walked out of the Maryland State Penitentiary a free man. My re-entry into society was not easy. When I returned to Cambridge, I had trouble getting a job. I was harassed by my neighbors. The State of Maryland paid me $300,000 for lost income during the time I was wrongfully imprisoned, but I lost so much more than money in those eight years.

During my 21 years of freedom, I have become one of many exonerees who, with the help of advocacy organizations like Witness to Innocence, travel around the world to share our cautionary tales.

Even people acting in good faith can make serious mistakes. Witness misidentification is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States. Since 1989, DNA evidence has been used to exonerate more than 300 individuals in capital and non-capital cases. Approximately 75% of these cases involved inaccurate or faulty witness identification.

I am living proof that America's system of capital punishment is broken beyond repair.

More and more people are realizing this. In a 2013 Gallup poll, support for the death penalty dropped to 60%, the lowest level in 40 years. Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013, the sixth state in six years to do so. Concerns about innocence, unfairness and other issues have led to a dramatic decline in death sentences and executions since the 1990s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The death penalty is fading away, but in my view, the end of capital punishment in the United States cannot come quickly enough.

I am not here because the system worked. I am here -- like Edward Lee Elmore is still here -- because of a series of miracles. Not every person wrongfully convicted of a capital crime is as lucky.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kirk Noble Bloodsworth.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT