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 tell his story one more time for the record. He is an expert on his life story, and the public is prepared to believe him now.

Kirk Noble Bloodsworth is telling the truth.

"I'm having great difficulty putting my life together," Bloodsworth testified last month before a House subcommittee on crime. Congress is considering a bill, called the Innocence Protection Act, that would ensure convicted offenders have a chance to prove their innocence through DNA testing. 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 it up, that they are all guilty anyway -- bull, I say. These statements stun me and sadden me. The people who make these statements were not with me during those nine years I was in prison."

No longer in the company of convicts, Bloodsworth is in the company of congressmen. If his death sentence for the murder of a 9-year-old Rosedale girl was his defining moment, life after his exoneration for that crime has been a redefining moment.

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

Life after the death penalty has been traumatic for Bloodsworth, who will turn 40 on Halloween. His seven years of freedom have been streaked with bouts of 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 man walking.

It's a long way home.

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

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

Sixteen summers ago, on July 25, another boy approached another man at this same spot. Hey, mister, the 7-year-old said to the stranger, a tall man with a mustache and reddish-blond hair. Want to look at my turtle? Then the boy and the man heard the voice of 9-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton, who lived in the neighborhood. 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 find her." The man and child went into the woods.

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

Fifteen days later, Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine security guard, was arrested on the Eastern Shore and charged with the crime. He was awakened by police 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? he told 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 to his home in Rosedale because he had done a "terrible thing." The remark would haunt him in court.

Primarily on the testimony of five people who placed him near the scene of the 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 "terrible thing" he had done was forget to buy his wife dinner. It didn't matter what he said now. Police escorted him to prison.

"Nothing is cut and dry Judge -- nothing. It's not over. I'll never give up," Bloodsworth wrote to the judge in his case in 1990. As he always did when writing 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 nine years as a convicted child killer, Bloodsworth was a free man. Advanced DNA testing -- unavailable at the time of his trial -- had exonerated him in the Hamilton murder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Bloodsworth, the past and present are shackled together. Having spent hours in the prison library poring over books and legal articles, he became a student of his case. But for the longest time, it was just mental exercise. Although his first conviction was reversed, another jury convicted him again of capital murder in 1987. After two years on death row -- "I slept above the gas 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 innocent man hostage. During the summers, if the windows were closed, Bloodsworth would clog his toilet, cram cardboard under his cell door and run his sink to flood the floor. He would lie down in the water to cool off. He recounts these stories as if they happened last week.

His father and mother, Curtis and Jeanette Bloodsworth, who mortgaged their home and spent their life's savings for his defense, would visit their only boy in Jessup. "I would always say a little grace to myself," his father remembers. His older sister, Vickie DelGrosso, says it was like being a prisoner 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 hands of a literary agent who is shopping for a ghostwriter, Bloodsworth says. He might call the book, "Eight Years, 11 Months and 19 Days," the exact duration of his incarceration. He knows those numbers, along with his cell number and prison identification number, by heart.

Today, a half-baked summer day on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Kirk and his father drive to a favorite seafood restaurant. It's the same place they took Connie 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 common currency. 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 cigarettes out of his truck in an act of solidarity.

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

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

It's time to discuss Kirk's future, as it began on June 28, 1993 -- the day the 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 neighborhood funeral home in downtown Cambridge. As a young man, he worked there in hopes of becoming an apprentice mortician. After his stint in the Marines, and then his 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," says funeral home director Raymond J. Curran.

But Bloodsworth started hanging around the wrong crowd. Admittedly, his taste 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 his exoneration, "everyone remembered me from this case," he says. "No one knew me." 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 ruined my business," Curran says. "He had to leave."

In 1997, he worked at the Black & Decker manufacturing plant in Easton. He says 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 a business, see not a single window, and bolt for the door. Windowless buildings reminded him too much of cell blocks. He was a prep cook at an Ocean City restaurant until the day he was on a smoke break and overheard a man tell his wife, "I'm not eating here if he works here."

He tried being a salesman like his dad, who runs a wholesale seafood business. He landed a job going door-to-door to raise money for an environmental group in Baltimore. His first day on the job was going well until 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 much my 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 after Bloods-worth's mother and grandmother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a letter to Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. in April 1989, Bloodsworth wrote: "Two years ago I came into the knowledge about some certain kind of tests 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 to release evidence in the case for DNA testing -- namely the state's evidence tagged Exhibit Q1, Dawn Hamilton's underwear. This would quite possibly be Bloodsworth's last chance to clear his name, assuming enough DNA material was still present nine years after the crime. If the wheels of justice had seemed paralyzed since his incarceration, the ensuing events in Bloods-worth's case moved at the speed of light.

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

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

"Yes, it did surprise me very much," Brobst says, adding that the lab results "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 that time 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 the time."

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

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

But this is conjecture. In no way should this diminish the DNA testing that eliminated Bloodsworth, Brobst says. The case is closed; Gov. William Donald Schaefer pardoned Bloods-worth in 1993. He has no criminal record. The state awarded him $300,000 in compensation, a substantial portion of which went toward 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 much time with his pal Jack Daniels. Times when he was a fool for love. Times he felt sorry for himself, "that nobody cared about me anymore." In 1997, he felt like he was having a nervous breakdown. He felt frozen inside, the bitterness dominating his mood. He purposely stopped talking about the Hamilton case; maybe people would forget the connection. But part of him didn't want to be ignored, either.

He was a prisoner of his own freedom. Freedom seemed too big for him, too unstructured. 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 or another," he says.

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

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

In March, after testifying before a congressional hearing, Bloodsworth met Wayne Smith. Smith, a combat medic in Vietnam, is executive director of the Justice Project, a Washington-based nonprofit veterans group "serving to help protect innocent people." Having treated soldiers and now having worked with people wrongly convicted, Smith sees striking similarities in the adjustment of soldiers and inmates into society. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress include 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 and sincere manner, he hired him as a consultant for $3,000 a month. Bloodsworth has spoken before college audiences and, this year, traveled to Texas to speak out against the execution of convicted killer Gary Graham.

The obvious is not lost on Bloods-worth: The state of Maryland had planned to 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 deeply scarred," Smith says. "He's still trying to find his way home."

A "Victim Impact Statement" remains wedged between the hundreds of pages of trial 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 daughter affected him.

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

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

At the Baltimore County Police Department, the Hamilton murder case is still 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-year anniversary -- or 365 days, as Bloodsworth might note (he's still in the habit of 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's sunny, 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 feel like he has a real future.

A man on the water can feel gloriously free.