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Nine-year prison 'nightmare' ends as former convicted killer is released DNA test leads to exoneration

Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, once a convicted child-killer facing execution, left prison yesterday in style.

The burly, red-haired former waterman rolled past the barbed wire and brick walls of the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup in the back of a black stretch limousine, smoking a cigar and sipping a beer -- a free man.

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The last time Mr. Bloodsworth was a free man was Aug. 9, 1984, the day Baltimore County police arrested him and charged him

with sexually assaulting and murdering 9-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton of Rosedale.

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Two Baltimore County juries convicted him of her murder. The first conviction drew a death sentence, the second drew consecutive life terms.

But new evidence, developed by a sophisticated new genetic test, proved that semen stains found on the victim's underwear could not have come from Mr. Bloodsworth.

At 9:35 a.m. yesterday, Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. signed an order calling for Mr. Bloodsworth's release "in the interests of justice." By 12:45 p.m. Mr. Bloodsworth strolled out of prison and past a security booth, where he faced a small army of reporters and camera crews.

"Fantastic!" was the first thing he said.

With his father, Noble Curtis Bloodsworth, his fiance, his attorney and friends surrounding him, Mr. Bloodsworth read a brief, three-page statement, answered a few questions, then rolled away in a limousine provided by a local radio station.

"Nobody can make up for nine years lost for something you didn't do," said Mr. Bloodsworth, who said he was going home to Cambridge and try to get on with his life.

In a quiet voice, he talked about his nine-year "nightmare," and he briefly cried when he spoke of the death of his mother, who died Jan. 20.

"Since my arrest, I've lost so much," he said, pausing to get control of himself. "The death of my mother is the most painful."

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Asked if the state could compensate him for the years he's spent behind bars, Mr. Bloodsworth said, "They can't, but they ought to try."

His lawyer, Robert E. Morin, said he and his client have not spent "one minute" talking about possible compensation.

"We've been concentrating on getting him out," Mr. Morin said.

Added Mr. Bloodsworth: "Even though this is a small victory fome to prove my innocence, the real killer is still out there. And all of this won't be completed until the real one is behind bars."

Case to be reopened

Baltimore County police say they'll now have to reopen the case, but predicted it would be a difficult one because the trail is 9 years old -- and they thought Mr. Bloodsworth was their man all along.

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Informed that Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor refused to call him "innocent," Mr. Bloodsworth appeared miffed. He said the DNA tests proved his innocence "100 percent."

"The reason he's being released is because he is innocent, period," said Mr. Morin, who took up the case after Mr. Bloodsworth's second appeal was turned down. "Any statement the contrary is just false."

Mrs. O'Connor held a news conference immediately after Judge Smith ordered the release.

She said that early in 1992, when Mr. Morin first proposed the new DNA testing, she agreed that if two independent tests eliminated Mr. Bloodsworth as the rapist, she would not prosecute him again. Technically, the state entered a nol-pros in the case.

Mrs. O'Connor said that means the case "cannot be brought up later against Kirk Bloodsworth."

"I believe that he is not guilty," Mrs. O'Connor said. "I'm not prepared to say he's innocent. Only the people who were there know what happened."

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'No suspects at this time'

She added that "there are no other suspects at this time."

If the evidence from the DNA testing had been available in 1984 Mrs. O'Connor said, "We would not have prosecuted him then." She said the sophisticated test that cleared Mr. Bloodsworth could not be used to positively fix the identity of the killer because there was only enough semen on the panties to eliminate certain blood types.

The state's attorney said that based on the evidence at hand in 1985 and 1987, her office did the right thing in prosecuting Mr. Bloodsworth.

"This is a very sorry day for the Hamiltons, who lost a child and who thought this was behind them," she said. "It's a sorry day that we don't have an answer. . . . We can't manufacture one."

S. Ann Brobst, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Mr. Bloodsworth through both trials said she recently has spoken to the dead girl's parents about the new developments.

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"They are and remain devastated," she said. "It would be nice for them to have some finality and they don't. They are both extremely upset."

Tom Hamilton, the dead girl's father, told WMAR-TV that he didn't hold a grudge against Mr. Bloodsworth.

"I just have to keep going on with my life and maybe they will catch [the killer], but I doubt it," he said.

Dawn Hamilton's body was found on July 24, 1984, in a wooded area near Golden Ring Mall, several hours after she was reported missing. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled and beaten on the head with a rock.

Her panties were found in a tree nearby.

Both Mrs. O'Connor and Ms. Brobst said that the evidence against Mr. Bloodsworth was not all circumstantial.

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He was identified by two young boys, age 7 and 10, and by a third person, an adult, as the man seen with Dawn the day of her death in the woods near the spot where her body was eventually found.

None of the witnesses ever reported seeing any other man with Dawn that day, and none has ever wavered over the years.

Conflicting testimony persists

Mr. Bloodsworth had said he was at his Randolph Street home in Rosedale when the murder occurred.

In addition, two other witnesses placed Mr. Bloodsworth in the Fontana Village apartment area, where the killing took place, before and at the time of Dawn's disappearance.

Mr. Bloodsworth made statements to people on the Eastern Shore in early August that he could not return to Baltimore because he had done a "terrible thing." Later he claimed he was referring to his failure to buy his wife a taco salad as he had promised, which resulted in a domestic blowup.

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He also referred to a bloody rock during his first interrogation by Baltimore County detectives, though the nature of the murder weapon was not publicly known at the time. Police did, however, place a rock and a pair of torn panties in the interview room for Mr. Bloodsworth to see as a "questioning technique," Mrs. O'Connor said.

Mrs. O'Connor said the outcome of this case has not shaken her belief that the time for appeals in death penalty cases should be shortened from the current average of 11 years to five or six years at the most. A panel appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer is investigating ways to speed up the death sentence process.

But public defenders said the Bloodsworth case vindicates the current system and its procedural safeguards.

"Kirk Bloodsworth is here today because of safeguards in the system," said public defender Stephen Harris. "He should be dead."

Said Thomas Saunders, chief of the capital defense division of the State Public Defenders Office, "I think this case will cause anyone with a conscience to pause before trying to expedite putting people to death."

Free after so many years in prison, Mr. Bloodsworth reveled in small luxuries after his release. He said the sun seemed "brighter."

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He spoke of handling money again, of just holding a quarter in his hand.

"It seemed so small," he said.

Driving in the limo toward the studios of WIYY-FM for a small party, Mr. Bloodsworth caught his first glimpse of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"He said, 'I'm going to be sitting there soon,' " said Steve Ash, a disc jockey at WIYY who drove with Mr. Bloodsworth.

At the WIYY studios, Mr. Bloodsworth made himself a turkey sandwich and ate a piece of pizza -- his first slice since being imprisoned.

His father, Curtis, and fiance, Anita Gunther, along with other friends and family, poured champagne into plastic foam cups.

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"Here's to freedom," Curtis Bloodsworth said.

"And ain't it sweet," Kirk Bloodsworth said.


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