The politicians crammed the small stage in the U.S. Capitol studio,thanking each other for bipartisan cooperation and taking turns talking aboutthe American people, democracy and an Eastern Shore waterman named KirkBloodsworth.
Bloodsworth, with his wind-ruddied face, dark jeans and polo shirt, beamedas these United States senators and representatives described the legislation- his legislation - that would bolster the use of DNA evidence, the same typeof 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 todeath row in 1984.
It was a dream still painfully distant nine years later, when geneticevidence cleared him of the rape and murder of a Baltimore County 9-year-oldnamed Dawn Hamilton and freed him from prison.
It was questionable even six months ago, as Bloodsworth, by then awell-known advocate for justice reform, pushed for legislation that seemeddestined 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 phonedSept. 4 with what she said was urgent news - has apologized. Detectives havespoken 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 DNATesting 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 saidrecently in the tidy Cambridge home he shares with his wife. "I feel free forthe first time in 19 years."
Hugs from senators
After the Oct. 1 news conference at the Capitol studio, when thepoliticians had finished their speeches about how Kirk Bloodsworth was a heroand how their proposed legislation would fix the justice system, they filedoff the stage and, with camera lights flashing and photographers pushing, theyembraced him.
"When you see [Republican Sen.] Orrin Hatch and [Democratic Sen.] Pat Leahygive 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 groupthat now employs Bloodsworth.
It was a scene unimaginable in 1993, when Bloodsworth left prison. Therewas the limo ride home then, and the fleeting glow of fame for being the firstperson to be sentenced to death and later exonerated by DNA evidence. ButBloodsworth was an emotionally wounded man, whose only goal was to forget.
He talks openly now, in a calm, slightly gravelly voice, about how he wentfrom job to job - canvassing for Clean Water Action in Baltimore, working atBlack & Decker's factory in Easton, cooking as a prep chef at Philips CrabHouse in Ocean City - leaving when the child-killer accusations becameunbearable.
About how he lived out of his GMC Jimmy and drank too much and squanderedthe $300,000 the state had given him in compensation for his nine years inprison.
In the late 1990s, though, Bloodsworth fell in love and married BrendaEwell. He started crabbing, and he tasted in the wind and water of theChesapeake his first sweet bite of true freedom. He also began talking abouthis ordeal.
It started slowly. In 1998, he went to a Chicago conference with about 30others of the exonerated - the first time that many wrongly convicted mengathered in one spot.
"There's not a whole lot of us - the innocent exonerees - who are able totalk about this," he said. "I figured it was my obligation to society as awhole, to my state, to stand up and say what happened."
In 2000, Smith heard Bloodsworth at a Senate committee hearing. "I saw asparkle in Kirk's eye," Smith said. "A real passion, a real sincerity. ... Heseemed like the kind of person who could amplify the problem of wrongfulconvictions. He is like everyman."
A few days later, Smith invited Bloodsworth to the Justice Project'sWashington offices and offered him a $3,000-a-month consulting job. One ofBloodsworth's main goals was to promote the Innocence Protection Act, a pieceof evolving legislation that, among other reforms, would give inmates accessto post-conviction DNA testing and competent counsel.
Rob Warden, the director of the Chicago-based Center on WrongfulConvictions, saw Bloodsworth that year at an event in Texas.
"That's where Kirk really came out and sort of blew our minds," Wardensaid. "I saw what a really, truly powerful, overwhelmingly persuasive man KirkBloodsworth was. He has remarkable talent. And he is an ex-Marine who didn'thave any criminal past. He is the poster boy for this cause."
He was also white, educated and articulate - unusual among the exoneratedand characteristics that made him more appealing to skeptical audiences.
When Bloodsworth was asked to speak, he has accepted, traveling to everylaw school from Maryland to Chicago, to high schools and statehouses along theEast Coast.
Soon he was arguably the best-known among the exonerated in the country.
But passage of his legislation looked unlikely at best. And the BaltimoreCounty state's attorney's office kept denying that he was truly exonerated inthe Rosedale girl's murder.
To the skeptical, Kirk Bloodsworth was not a poster boy. Not yet.
The DNA that freed Kirk Bloodsworth came from a small stain on DawnHamilton's underwear. An independent lab discovered that Bloodsworth's DNA didnot match the genetic profile in that semen stain, meaning he was not thechild's attacker.
Yet after Bloodsworth was released in 1993, there was little progress inthe case. Although Maryland created a database of DNA profiles from convictedsex offenders in 1994, prosecutors never checked whether the DNA from themurder matched a known profile.
Not until August.
Bloodsworth got the telephone call Sept. 4, as he was going through billsin his home office, a room covered with news articles about his release andNASCAR posters. He paused when he saw the Baltimore County number on hiscaller ID.
"May I speak to Kirk Bloodsworth?" he remembers the voice asking.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"This is Ann Brobst, Baltimore County prosecutor."
Bloodsworth was silent. Brobst, the assistant state's attorney who sent himto death row and, after that sentence was overturned, to life in prison, hadnever actually spoken to him.
She said she needed to see him in person, that there had been adevelopment, that she couldn't talk about it over the phone.
"You've got him, don't you?" Bloodsworth asked. He started to cry.
The next morning, Brobst and two county detectives met Bloodsworth, hiswife and his cousin in a Cambridge Burger King parking lot. Inside, theypushed two tables together, and Brobst told Bloodsworth that the county policehad finally run the DNA through the state's database and had come up with amatch.
"It's 19 years later," Bloodsworth recalled. "This woman looked at me - Idon't know if it was blankly or not - and said, `We were wrong.' I can stillhear her saying that to me, sitting here right now. `We were wrong.'"
He hung his head and started crying again, right there in the Burger King,19 years of stress and emotion bursting out. He asked who the attacker was.
"She said the name and my head popped up," he said.
It was a man named Kimberly Ruffner, a man who lived a floor belowBloodsworth in prison, a man with whom he lifted weights. Ruffner had gone toprison for attempted rape and murder weeks after Dawn Hamilton was killed.
As the group left the restaurant, shaking hands and exchanging niceties,Bloodsworth said he walked up to Brobst, who was standing between thedetectives. He hugged her.
"I whispered in her ear, `You'll have peace now,'" he said.
He had hated Brobst for so long, he said, but the apology made that "likewater off a duck's back." He didn't want to hate anymore.
Back in the news
Soon, the news trucks were back on his front lawn, and the phones wereringing. Bloodsworth talked to everyone he could - every reporter, everywell-wisher, every advocate he had inspired.
"He called us - he was bursting," said Smith, of the Justice Project. "Thiswas like more than his first day of marriage. This was a second birthday ofsorts."
Brenda Bloodsworth said her husband described it as being able to breathe -"And it feels great to breathe."
One of his first public appearances after the news was a book party theJustice Project threw for a Virginia reporter who had written about anexonerated man named Earl Washington Jr. Bloodsworth had been there whenWashington was released from prison and now wanted to support the book, AnExpendable Man.
Smith introduced him to the crowd as "Kirk Bloodsworth, my friend andcolleague."
The gathering burst into applause as Bloodsworth stepped to the podium inthe Washington conference room.
"If we don't pass solid legislation in this country to preserve evidence,to ensure competent counsel, there will be many - I emphasize many - EarlWashingtons in this world," he said, looking squarely at the crowd. "Therewill be many Kirk Bloodsworths."
Two weeks later, Bloodsworth flew back from Chicago, where he had taped theOprah show, and was whisked to the Capitol Building. He met with Patrick J.Leahy, a U.S. senator from Vermont and a man he now considers a friend, andthe two walked to the news conference.
On the way, Leahy told him that part of the bill would be named after him.The Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program would give $25million to states over five years to fund some inmates' requests for DNAtesting.
Days earlier, Bloodsworth had no idea that the Innocence Protection Act -which also includes funding for DNA testing in rape cases, competent counseland compensation for the wrongly convicted - had any chance of surviving.
"I just couldn't say a word," Bloodsworth said. "Then I just said, `Thankyou.'"
Now he was truly the poster boy. Less than two weeks later, the InnocenceProtection Act, now part of a larger piece of legislation called the AdvancingJustice Through DNA Technology Act of 2003, moved out of committee. It was anearly, necessary victory that the legislation had never before achieved.
Sitting in his Cambridge living room the other day, Bloodsworth shook hishead when he was asked about the past weeks, the weeks that seem like a dream.
"I look at my wife sometimes and say, `Can you believe this?'" he said.
Bloodsworth said he feels peace finally. That doesn't mean the nightmareshave stopped - he still wakes up screaming, thinking he is being dragged tothe gas chamber. He still wants his wife to know where he is at all times - athis trial he had no alibi.
He said he feels a bit resentful when the people in town who always avoidedhis eyes come up now to chat, as if nothing had happened, as if they hadn'tabandoned him. He is still hurt that some neighbors, even some family members,doubted him.
But he has peace.
The song of wind chimes and crickets danced on his porch, and Bloodsworthtook a drag on another Marlboro. A pickup rumbled by on his flat Eastern Shoreroad, next to the field of soybeans turned golden. When the mail carrier came,he waved.
He has been getting even more letters from inmates these days, somecongratulating him, others who want help on their cases. He writes back to allof them, tries to direct them to innocence projects or people who can help.
A few minutes later, his cousin, David A. Bloodsworth, drove up on the lawnin the same Jeep Wagoneer that took the two men to Assateague Island afterKirk was freed.
"Back in the news again, man," David said.
"Yeah, man," Bloodsworth said. "Did you see Oprah?"
His lawyer called on his cell phone. She wanted to know whether he wasready for his speech in Pittsburgh.