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The Second Life of Kirk Bloodsworth

Kirk Bloodsworth of Cambridge is a wanted man again. The press wants him.Geraldo wants him. Congress wants him. They all want him to talk, just tellhis story one more time for the record. He is an expert on his life story, andthe public is prepared to believe him now.

Kirk Noble Bloodsworth is telling the truth.

"I'm having great difficulty putting my life together," Bloodsworthtestified last month before a House subcommittee on crime. Congress isconsidering a bill, called the Innocence Protection Act, that would ensureconvicted offenders have a chance to prove their innocence through DNAtesting. Bloods-worth, a textbook case on the subject, has joined the cause.

"When I hear people say that the system is fine, but we need to speed itup, that they are all guilty anyway -- bull, I say. These statements stun meand sadden me. The people who make these statements were not with me duringthose nine years I was in prison."

No longer in the company of convicts, Bloodsworth is in the company ofcongressmen. If his death sentence for the murder of a 9-year-old Rosedalegirl was his defining moment, life after his exoneration for that crime hasbeen a redefining moment.

"Man, it's been a damn road, buddy," Bloodsworth says.

Life after the death penalty has been traumatic for Bloodsworth, who willturn 40 on Halloween. His seven years of freedom have been streaked with boutsof drinking, job failures and humiliations, romantic disappointments,depression and festering self-doubt.

Will this be my only legacy, he wonders, to be known forever as the burly,red-headed guy from the Eastern Shore who wasn't a child killer after all?

It's a long way back from the place he was and who he was: a dead manwalking.

It's a long way home.

At Becky's Pond in Rosedale, young boys and girls troll for catfish withnight crawlers, the heat bearing down in July, as always. Faint foot pathslead blindly into the dense woods around the pond here at Fontana Village, atownhouse community near the Golden Ring Mall.

"Catch anything?" a young boy asks a fisherman. It's just an innocentquestion heard around a neighborhood fishing pond on a summer day.

Sixteen summers ago, on July 25, another boy approached another man at thissame spot. Hey, mister, the 7-year-old said to the stranger, a tall man with amustache and reddish-blond hair. Want to look at my turtle? Then the boy andthe man heard the voice of 9-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton, who lived in theneighborhood. She was looking for her cousin, Lisa.

"Lisa and me is playing hide-and-seek," the stranger said to Dawn,according to a woman who saw and overheard the man. "Come on, let's go findher." The man and child went into the woods.

Five hours later, Dawn Hamilton's body was found lying face-down in thedirt. The Rosedale girl was wearing a yellow pullover shirt and white cottonsocks with pink cuff trim. A silver ring was on her index finger. Her graypocketbook was still at her side. Her skull had been crushed with a rock. Onemonth away from entering the fourth grade, Dawn had been raped and violatedwith a stick. Her underwear was found hanging on a tree branch.

Fifteen days later, Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine security guard, wasarrested on the Eastern Shore and charged with the crime. He was awakened bypolice at a cousin's house in Cambridge, near the home where he had grown up.

"I remember a flashlight on me," he says, and then the questions. What? hetold police. I don't know that girl. I could never hurt anyone.

There was no physical evidence against him. But soon after the murder,Bloodsworth had told people on the Eastern Shore that he could not return tohis home in Rosedale because he had done a "terrible thing." The remark wouldhaunt him in court.

Primarily on the testimony of five people who placed him near the scene ofthe crime, Bloodsworth was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to die in Maryland.He was 24 years old. He said he was innocent. He also said the "terriblething" he had done was forget to buy his wife dinner. It didn't matter what hesaid now. Police escorted him to prison.

"Nothing is cut and dry Judge -- nothing. It's not over. I'll never giveup," Bloodsworth wrote to the judge in his case in 1990. As he always did whenwriting from his cell, No. 307 in the Jessup prison, he signed his letter"A.I.M.": an innocent man.

In June 1993, Bloodsworth left prison, riding away in a black limousine.Cigars, beer and pizza were also ceremoniously provided. After nearly nineyears as a convicted child killer, Bloodsworth was a free man. Advanced DNAtesting -- unavailable at the time of his trial -- had exonerated him in theHamilton murder.

Bloodsworth would become one of eight death-row inmates who so far haveestablished their innocence through post-conviction DNA testing. He wouldbecome the subject of books on criminology, his name a footnote in thecountry's thriving debate over capital punishment. His life story wouldforever be public.

Still, it would have been nice to be a free man with a job. Something thatput food on the table. Something more lucrative than trapping muskrat, whichKirk Bloodsworth did in his first winter of freedom. A job with, say, afuture.

A job where he didn't have to be reminded every day of that day at Becky'sPond.

Kirk Bloodsworth opens the door of his Cambridge apartment. He resembles aprofessional wrestler in the shoulders and arms, but he's grown soft in themiddle. His red hair is thinning. He's pulling on a Marlboro, a habit hepicked up on death row, a place, one would suppose, as good as any to startsmoking.

Bloodsworth turns down the VCR, which is running the Johnny Depp movieabout the life of the creepy, cross-dressing director Ed Wood. Bloodsworth'swife of nearly a year, Brenda, ducks into the kitchen to say hello. She's offto work at the Popeye's in Cambridge. They kiss goodbye. They've made plans tospend their first anniversary in Ocean City.

"How tall are you?" Bloodsworth asks before standing shoulder-to-shouldernext to his visitor. It's an important question.

See, Bloodsworth says, that boy at Becky's Pond said the stranger was verytall, like 6-foot-5. Bloodsworth is just under 6 feet. Even 16 years after thecrime, he's still standing in a lineup.

For Bloodsworth, the past and present are shackled together. Having spenthours in the prison library poring over books and legal articles, he became astudent of his case. But for the longest time, it was just mental exercise.Although his first conviction was reversed, another jury convicted him againof capital murder in 1987. After two years on death row -- "I slept above thegas chamber for two years" -- he was sentenced this time to three life terms.

He joked with his guards about how long they were going to hold an innocentman hostage. During the summers, if the windows were closed, Bloodsworth wouldclog his toilet, cram cardboard under his cell door and run his sink to floodthe floor. He would lie down in the water to cool off. He recounts thesestories as if they happened last week.

His father and mother, Curtis and Jeanette Bloodsworth, who mortgaged theirhome and spent their life's savings for his defense, would visit their onlyboy in Jessup. "I would always say a little grace to myself," his fatherremembers. His older sister, Vickie DelGrosso, says it was like being aprisoner in a nightmare.

"I'll always remember the sound of the cell door closing behind you,"DelGrosso says. "I don't know how he stood it."

A thorough accounting of his life behind bars might be forthcoming.Bloods-worth kept a journal in prison, 166 pages of details now in the handsof a literary agent who is shopping for a ghostwriter, Bloodsworth says. Hemight call the book, "Eight Years, 11 Months and 19 Days," the exact durationof his incarceration. He knows those numbers, along with his cell number andprison identification number, by heart.

Today, a half-baked summer day on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Kirk and hisfather drive to a favorite seafood restaurant. It's the same place they tookConnie Chung when Kirk had just been released. When he'd finger a quarter,marveling at how small it seemed after nine years of not handling commoncurrency. When he'd hold "Freedom Parties" because he wasn't done celebrating.When, if passing a prison road gang, he'd throw them a carton of cigarettesout of his truck in an act of solidarity.

The restaurant is called the Suicide Bridge Restaurant near the town ofSecretary. The elder Bloodsworth knows all the watermen who pull up to thedock. They know him and his famous son. Kirk sits down at a corner table. Hishulking frame bends toward the window, like a plant involuntarily craningtoward the sun. He doesn't like being in a corner. "I've been in cornersenough in my life," he says.

He settles down enough to eat and to order a crab-cake sandwich as take-outfor Brenda back at Popeye's.

It's time to discuss Kirk's future, as it began on June 28, 1993 -- the daythe limo, cigar and beer were waiting for him.

"I thought I would have made a great funeral director," Bloodsworth says.As a boy, he mowed the grass at Curran-Bromwell, a family-run neighborhoodfuneral home in downtown Cambridge. As a young man, he worked there in hopesof becoming an apprentice mortician. After his stint in the Marines, and thenhis nine-year stay in prison, Bloodsworth returned to his old employer.

"I gave him a chance to work here. I tried hard, I really did," saysfuneral home director Raymond J. Curran.

But Bloodsworth started hanging around the wrong crowd. Admittedly, histaste in friends and female companions was suspect at times.

"Same old story. He had some babe taking everything he had," Curran says.

More disturbing were the rumors heard in this small town. Regardless of hisexoneration, "everyone remembered me from this case," he says. "No one knewme." Although nothing was ever said to his face, he heard comments secondhand.The ugliest rumor was that he was molesting bodies at the funeral home.

"That rumor was spread around, and it was unfair. But it just about ruinedmy business," Curran says. "He had to leave."

In 1997, he worked at the Black & Decker manufacturing plant in Easton. Hesays derogatory notes were left at his work station and once, someone wrote"Child Killer" on his truck in the parking lot. He washed the words off.

"I tried to suck it up and not start trouble because I needed the job,"Bloodsworth says. But he left it after six months.

Other potential jobs ended before the first interview. He would walk into abusiness, see not a single window, and bolt for the door. Windowless buildingsreminded him too much of cell blocks. He was a prep cook at an Ocean Cityrestaurant until the day he was on a smoke break and overheard a man tell hiswife, "I'm not eating here if he works here."

He tried being a salesman like his dad, who runs a wholesale seafoodbusiness. He landed a job going door-to-door to raise money for anenvironmental group in Baltimore. His first day on the job was going welluntil he came to one house. "Oh, you're the guy on TV," the homeowner said.Then, according to Bloodsworth, the man began to tell his neighbors -- loudly-- that a child murderer was in their neighborhood. The police were called.

"I quit that day. That was the end of me," Bloodsworth says. "Pretty muchmy only choice was to go into business myself."

Following in his father's footsteps, Bloodsworth decided to be a waterman.He and his sister had grown up working on their dad's boat, spending long,hard days on the water. So last year he bought a 38-foot boat for crabbing.Docked behind a Cambridge restaurant, the Jeanett's Pearl is named afterBloods-worth's mother and grandmother.

His mother died from heart failure in January 1993, as Bloodsworth watchedBill Clinton's inauguration on his cell TV. Handcuffed, the son was given fiveminutes to view his mother's casket at the funeral home. Other family memberswere not allowed to be present during his brief visit. Jeanette Bloodsworth --whose picture as a young, vivacious woman hangs in her son's apartment -- diedfive months before he became a free man. For all she knew, he would spend therest of his life behind bars.

"But you know what?" says his sister, Vickie DelGrosso. "My mom said fromday one, 'this will all be righted.' "

"A semen stain the size of a dime saved Kirk Bloodsworth; he owes his lifeto the depravity of a murderer."

The passage is from a chapter on Bloodsworth's case that appears in a bookcalled "Actual Innocence." Authors Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyerreport the leading factor in wrongful convictions in 62 cases studied ismistaken identification. The book chronicles the cases of 10 men wrongfullyconvicted and explains how DNA testing has become pivotal.

"DNA testing is to justice what the telescope is for the stars ... it is arevelation machine," the authors say.

Scheck and Neufeld co-founded the New York-based Innocence Project, whichseeks the release of wrongly convicted people. The group reports DNA testinghas exonerated at least 68 people in the United States who were sent to prisonfor crimes they did not commit; eight of those spent time on death row,including Bloodsworth. He gained his freedom, in part, by doing his ownhomework in prison.

In a letter to Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. in April 1989, Bloodsworthwrote: "Two years ago I came into the knowledge about some certain kind oftests called DNA tests. I want to under go this testing Judge."

But it took a change of attorneys before Bloodsworth could be tested.Working pro bono, Washington attorney Robert Morin filed a motion in 1992 torelease evidence in the case for DNA testing -- namely the state's evidencetagged Exhibit Q1, Dawn Hamilton's underwear. This would quite possibly beBloodsworth's last chance to clear his name, assuming enough DNA material wasstill present nine years after the crime. If the wheels of justice had seemedparalyzed since his incarceration, the ensuing events in Bloods-worth's casemoved at the speed of light.

In May 1993, the Forensic Science Associates laboratory in Californiareported a spot of semen on the waistband of Hamilton's underwear. Earlier,the FBI lab had reported no such biological trace on the undergarment, saysBaltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Ann Brobst, who prosecutedBloodsworth in both of his trials. But in the late 1980s and early '90s, thetechnology in the area of DNA testing evolved rapidly.

By June 1993, two independent DNA "fingerprinting" tests had eliminatedBloodsworth as the source of the semen on the underwear.

"Yes, it did surprise me very much," Brobst says, adding that the labresults "truly affected the integrity of the conviction."

The state dropped its case, and on June 28, Judge Smith ordered inmate No.187307 released from prison "in the interests of justice."

Bloodsworth had spent nearly nine years in prison. Just 41 days of thattime elapsed between the lab's report and the day Judge Smith freed him.

"When I look back on it, we endeavored to do what was just," Brobst says.Given eyewitness accounts and other evidence, "we couldn't not try him at thetime."

The DNA testing answered a key question but left others unanswered.

Had DNA tests been capable of eliminating Bloodsworth as a suspect prior tohis 1985 trial, Brobst says she would have investigated the source of thesemen. Conceivably, Dawn Hamilton's family members would have been tested.With what scientists now know about the transfer of DNA material, Dawn'sunderpants could have innocently come into contact with other laundry at herhome. In other words, perhaps there is a slight chance the semen stain wasunrelated to the crime, Brobst says.

But this is conjecture. In no way should this diminish the DNA testing thateliminated Bloodsworth, Brobst says. The case is closed; Gov. William DonaldSchaefer pardoned Bloods-worth in 1993. He has no criminal record. The stateawarded him $300,000 in compensation, a substantial portion of which wenttoward legal fees.

One obvious question remains for the prosecutor in this famous case.Sixteen years after the fact, does Brobst doubt Bloodsworth's innocence?

"I don't know how to answer that," she says, before finding a way.

"I'm not convinced he did it."

After his release, Bloodsworth says, there were times he spent too muchtime with his pal Jack Daniels. Times when he was a fool for love. Times hefelt sorry for himself, "that nobody cared about me anymore." In 1997, he feltlike he was having a nervous breakdown. He felt frozen inside, the bitternessdominating his mood. He purposely stopped talking about the Hamilton case;maybe people would forget the connection. But part of him didn't want to beignored, either.

He was a prisoner of his own freedom. Freedom seemed too big for him, toounstructured. He had gone to Bible school in grade school, to the Marines,then prison. "I had been institutionalized most of my life, in one way oranother," he says.

Bloodsworth went to counseling -- no easy or usual step for an EasternShore waterman. What exactly is the cost of my freedom? he wondered. Hediscovered he needed to talk about the case against him. What brought him downcould help him back up. As much as one could, he made peace with hisnotoriety.

"I now have a purpose in life -- to try the get the death penalty stoppedin this country," he says. "Seems to me people love to hear my story."

In March, after testifying before a congressional hearing, Bloodsworth metWayne Smith. Smith, a combat medic in Vietnam, is executive director of theJustice Project, a Washington-based nonprofit veterans group "serving to helpprotect innocent people." Having treated soldiers and now having worked withpeople wrongly convicted, Smith sees striking similarities in the adjustmentof soldiers and inmates into society. Symptoms of post-traumatic stressinclude feelings of alienation, trouble building healthy relationships,substance abuse and depression.

"I see these ripples in Kirk, too," Smith says of his friend.

He heard Bloodsworth speak before Congress. Impressed with his story andsincere manner, he hired him as a consultant for $3,000 a month. Bloodsworthhas spoken before college audiences and, this year, traveled to Texas to speakout against the execution of convicted killer Gary Graham.

The obvious is not lost on Bloods-worth: The state of Maryland had plannedto execute him. And while rehashing his story has been therapeutic for Kirk,Smith says, it doesn't erase what happened.

"These things just don't go away -- they are scars. And Kirk is deeplyscarred," Smith says. "He's still trying to find his way home."

A "Victim Impact Statement" remains wedged between the hundreds of pages oftrial transcripts in the case of the State of Maryland vs. Kirk Bloodsworth,warehoused in a Towson courthouse. In it, Dawn Hamilton's father, Thomas P.Hamilton, was asked to describe in 1985 how the murder of his daughteraffected him.

"It left me in a deep depression which caused a drinking problem forseveral months," wrote Hamilton, who has since left the Baltimore area andcould not be located for an interview. "I no longer do the things I would dowith my daughter."

"He got the worst end of the deal, no doubt about it. I got the stigma andthe lost years, but he lost his little girl," Bloodsworth says. "I pray everyday for him and for Dawn. And I pray they will find the killer."

At the Baltimore County Police Department, the Hamilton murder case isstill open, though the original detectives assigned to it have retired.

"I wouldn't say we were actively pursuing it," says spokesman Bill Toohey.

On June 26, Kirk and Brenda Bloods-worth celebrated their one-yearanniversary -- or 365 days, as Bloodsworth might note (he's still in the habitof counting days). They spent time in Ocean City, as planned.

After his weekend away, Kirk went back to crabbing aboard Jeanett's Pearl.He crabbed all day but netted only 24 pounds.

Maybe it's no way of making a living, but at least it's outdoors. If it'ssunny, you feel the sunshine. There are no bosses and no corner tables.

A man on the water can have a smoke or a beer when he wants. A man can feellike he has a real future.

A man on the water can feel gloriously free.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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