JEFF GERRITT: From death row, to vindication, to voice for justice
April 25, 2005
BY JEFF GERRITT
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
For nearly nine years, Kirk Bloodsworth slept with toilet paper stuffed in his ears to keep the cockroaches from laying eggs inside his head. In the darkness of his tiny cell in the notorious Maryland State Penitentiary, half sick from the smell of urine and feces, Bloodsworth could hear voices through the vents: "We're going to get you, Bloodsworth. We're going to do to you what you did to that little girl."
Convicted in the 1984 rape and murder of a child, Bloodsworth landed on the bottom rung of the inmate ladder. A prisoner swinging a sock full of batteries thumped him in the shower. When his mother died, he could only stand by the coffin, handcuffed and shackled, for five minutes, flanked by two armed guards.
But after eight years, 11 months and 19 days, the nightmare ended. In 1993, DNA evidence overturned Bloodsworth's capital conviction, the first such reversal in the country. Today, DNA has exonerated nearly 120 death row prisoners.
Bloodsworth would like to tell his story to everyone.
I wish he could. Maybe then crime labs and prisons could get the resources they need to clear up DNA backlogs. Maybe states, including Michigan, would raise their scandalously low pay for court-appointed attorneys and public defenders. Maybe police departments would stopcoercing confessions and relying so heavily on fallible eyewitness identifications. Maybe prosecutors would do a betterjob of sharing information with defenseattorneys. Maybe the nation would start examining why it locks up a greatershare of its population than any other country.
DNA evidence has already changed the legal landscape. In the last five years, public support for the death penalty has dropped, as have death sentences and executions. But too many Americans still have an almost blind faith in the criminal justice system. That's why stories like Bloodsworth's are so important.
Before his arrest, Bloodsworth, 44, an ex-Marine and blue-collar worker from Maryland's Eastern Shore, had never given the death penalty a second thought. Fresh out of service, he was trying to make a living on a commercial fishing boat.
Bloodsworth had never been arrested. Like his father, he respected authority and had full confidence in the system. Even after 20 police officers, guns drawn, stormed his home in 1984 to collar him for a rape and murder he didn't commit, Bloodsworth figured he would just tell the truth and the truth would set him free.
He found out it doesn't always go down that way.
"I thought the government was there to protect me," Bloodsworth said. "But they put me on a train and sent me down the road."
He was given the death penalty for the brutal slaying of a 9-year-old Baltimore area girl he had never seen. From the jump, Bloodsworth's case was an almost textbook example of what can go wrong in the system, including ineffective counsel by a public defender, unreliable eyewitness testimony, and prosecutorial misconduct. Once police investigators thought they had their man, they developed tunnel vision, ignoring other leads or conflicting evidence.
"They were jamming me from the get-go," Bloodsworth said. "I never knew why."
In 2003, the same DNA evidence that cleared Bloodsworth, matched in a national database, identified the real killer: Kimberly Shay Ruffner. He pleaded guilty last year to the crime.
I talked to Bloodsworth last week in Detroit before he and Detroit native John Terzano, a Vietnam veteran who heads the Justice Project in Washington, D.C., spoke at Wayne State University.
They were invited to the university by criminal justice Professor Marvin Zalman.
Bloodsworth, the subject of a new book, "Bloodsworth," by Tim Junkin, now works with Terzano's Justice Project. The group is lobbying Congress to fully fund theJustice For All Act at $1.8 billion overfive years. That includes $375 million for the Innocence Protection Act to improve legal representation in capital murder cases and $755 million to clear a backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence. Another $25 million, set aside in Bloodsworth's name, would help pay for analyzing the DNAof people on death row and other prisoninmates.
DNA testing is available in only a fraction of murder cases, but Terzano believes the new science has made the public aware of wider problems in the criminal justice system and could lead to many reforms. A blueprint for changes are the recommendations included in a recent report by the Innocence Commission for Virginia. It's online at www.icva.us
How big are the problems? If you take the death row exonerations and apply those percentages to the nation's 2 million prisoners, it means tens of thousands are wrongly convicted. No doubt, disproportionate shares of them are African-American men.
It's no comfort that the system manages to work most of the time. Sending people to prison or death row isn't like shooting free throws: Doing it right 85-90 percent isn't good enough.
With new DNA technology, even the most sheltered citizen should recognize that the system is unacceptably flawed. That awareness should lead to better funded DNA testing, more professional police investigations, and adequate legal defense systems for poor people.
"I tell people this could happen to them," Bloodsworth told me. "If I doanything with my life, I don't want thisto happen to anyone else. I won't stop, man."
No one can reasonably deny that the nation's courts and police departments have sent many innocent people like Bloodsworth to death row and to prison.
It's more than a shame -- it's a crime. And we must do everything possible to prevent it.
JEFF GERRITT is a Free Press editorial writer. Contact him at email@example.com, 313-222-6585, or in care of the editorial page. http://www.freep.com/voices/columnists/ejeff25e_20050425.htm