I was on death row, and I was innocent

Updated 10:41 AM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
03:26 - Source: CNN
Former inmate speaks out for DNA testing

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
Coutesty of 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 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.

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.

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