The politicians crammed the small stage in the U.S. Capitol studio, thanking each other for bipartisan cooperation and taking turns talking about the American people, democracy and an Eastern Shore waterman named Kirk Bloodsworth.

Bloodsworth, with his wind-ruddied face, dark jeans and polo shirt, beamed as these United States senators and representatives described the legislation - his legislation - that would bolster the use of DNA evidence, the same type of evidence that saved his life and, at last, freed his soul.

Since the life-altering telephone call seven weeks ago, Bloodsworth, 42, has been living a dream that seemed hopelessly remote when he was sent to death row in 1984.

It was a dream still painfully distant nine years later, when genetic evidence cleared him of the rape and murder of a Baltimore County 9-year-old named Dawn Hamilton and freed him from prison.

It was questionable even six months ago, as Bloodsworth, by then a well-known advocate for justice reform, pushed for legislation that seemed destined to fail and struggled with prosecutors' continuing insinuations that, despite the DNA evidence, he was not totally innocent.

But now, he says, he is walking on clouds.

The Baltimore County prosecutor who sent him to death row - and who phoned Sept. 4 with what she said was urgent news - has apologized. Detectives have spoken to him kindly.

Some of the nation's most powerful politicians have embraced his cause, naming part of a bill after him: the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program. He has been on the Oprah Winfrey show, where he met - and hugged - an apologetic juror who had helped convict him.

"I've got a new peace now that you can't buy anywhere," Bloodsworth said recently in the tidy Cambridge home he shares with his wife. "I feel free for the first time in 19 years."

Hugs from senators

After the Oct. 1 news conference at the Capitol studio, when the politicians had finished their speeches about how Kirk Bloodsworth was a hero and how their proposed legislation would fix the justice system, they filed off the stage and, with camera lights flashing and photographers pushing, they embraced him.

"When you see [Republican Sen.] Orrin Hatch and [Democratic Sen.] Pat Leahy give Kirk Bloodsworth a hug - and a sincere hug - one has to feel inspired," said Wayne F. Smith, the president of the Justice Project, the advocacy group that now employs Bloodsworth.

It was a scene unimaginable in 1993, when Bloodsworth left prison. There was the limo ride home then, and the fleeting glow of fame for being the first person to be sentenced to death and later exonerated by DNA evidence. But Bloodsworth was an emotionally wounded man, whose only goal was to forget.

He talks openly now, in a calm, slightly gravelly voice, about how he went from job to job - canvassing for Clean Water Action in Baltimore, working at Black & Decker's factory in Easton, cooking as a prep chef at Philips Crab House in Ocean City - leaving when the child-killer accusations became unbearable.

About how he lived out of his GMC Jimmy and drank too much and squandered the $300,000 the state had given him in compensation for his nine years in prison.

In the late 1990s, though, Bloodsworth fell in love and married Brenda Ewell. He started crabbing, and he tasted in the wind and water of the Chesapeake his first sweet bite of true freedom. He also began talking about his ordeal.

It started slowly. In 1998, he went to a Chicago conference with about 30 others of the exonerated - the first time that many wrongly convicted men gathered in one spot.

"There's not a whole lot of us - the innocent exonerees - who are able to talk about this," he said. "I figured it was my obligation to society as a whole, to my state, to stand up and say what happened."

In 2000, Smith heard Bloodsworth at a Senate committee hearing. "I saw a sparkle in Kirk's eye," Smith said. "A real passion, a real sincerity. ... He seemed like the kind of person who could amplify the problem of wrongful convictions. He is like everyman."