For Kirk Bloodsworth and his family, it was pure relief Friday when prosecutors announced a new suspect in the 1984 rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton.
But amid the hugs and congratulatory phone calls, and the joy that
suspicions about Bloodsworth's role in the killing had been put to rest, there
lingered serious questions - queries that fit into a growing national debate
about the use of DNA evidence to convict and exonerate.
As DNA technology becomes more sophisticated and better known, defense
attorneys and justice reform advocates pushing for guaranteed access to DNA
testing are finding themselves more at odds with prosecutors, who want to
limit it. Their struggle is playing out in courtrooms and statehouses across
Legislation is expected in Congress this year that would guarantee inmates
access to DNA testing and force police departments to preserve evidence.
"This is fresh evidence for our drive to enact reforms to make
post-conviction DNA testing more readily available," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a
Vermont Democrat who has sponsored DNA legislation, said Friday after learning
of the new suspect in Dawn's murder. "Who at this point can argue against the
importance of preserving DNA evidence and making it available to help make
sure we convict the truly guilty and exonerate the truly innocent?"
Some lawmakers lean more toward a 2001 Florida law, which put a two-year
deadline on inmates' post-conviction DNA requests. After the Oct. 1, 2003,
deadline, police departments will be able to destroy evidence that might be
used for DNA testing.
In Bloodsworth's case, the questions are about timing.
He was convicted of Dawn's murder in 1985. Although DNA evidence freed him
from prison in 1993, he had remained - unofficially - a suspect.
When Baltimore County prosecutors announced Friday that DNA evidence from
that long-ago crime matched that of Maryland prison inmate Kimberly Shay
Ruffner, whose genetic profile was stored in the state's DNA database of
convicted felons, Bloodsworth's supporters started asking what had taken so
long. The state established its DNA database of convicted sex offenders in
1994, a year after Bloodsworth was released from prison. Why didn't police
test it until last month?
Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor referred that question
to the Baltimore County Police Department. Police spokesman Bill Toohey said
technological advances and the department's new focus on old cases prompted
personnel to look for testable evidence.
Attorney Barry Scheck, who helped exonerate Bloodsworth and who is the
co-founder of the Innocence Project, which attempts to free the wrongly
convicted, sees it differently.
"Sometimes they're much too slow because they're worried about
embarrassment," he said. "This took entirely too long. There's no reason for
The nine-year wait shows just how long DNA-related steps can take. And the
questions themselves show the mistrust some defense attorneys have of
prosecutors' treatment of DNA evidence - especially when it reveals mistakes
in the justice system.
Defense attorneys, who are trying to use DNA in more and older cases, said
cases such as Bloodsworth's show why evidence should be preserved
indefinitely. Advocates and legislators are pushing for laws that would demand
such preservation, and guarantee inmates' access to testing.
Prosecutors facing a slew of seemingly never-ending appeals, as well as
some lawmakers, have a different perspective.
Josh Marquis, who is the district attorney in Astoria, Ore., and sits on
the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association, said
his organization opposed much of Leahy's legislation, the "Innocence
Protection Act" - and not because it did not want to see innocent people go
"I don't know of any prosecutor who, in good conscience, if presented with
evidence that this person did not do it, would not want a DNA test," Marquis
said. He added that his organization agrees DNA testing should be available to
inmates if it will prove guilt or innocence. But often, he said, DNA is a
small part of a large picture of evidence.
In June in Baltimore County, for instance, DNA evidence showed that hairs
used to connect a man named Chris Conover to a 1984 double murder were not
his. But prosecutors have maintained Conover's guilt, saying that while the
new revelation voided his conviction, it did not prove his innocence. They
said they would not try to match that DNA to profiles stored in the state's