WASHINGTON -- Until a month ago, few people wanted to listen to Kirk Noble Bloodsworth proclaim his innocence. He spent nine years in prison as a convicted child molester and murderer.
But yesterday Mr. Bloodsworth had the ear of Congress, telling his story to a subcommittee listening to the debate over shortening the appeals process for death row inmates.
After recounting his arrest, conviction and time spent in Maryland prisons, Mr. Bloodsworth urged members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights not to speed up the appeals process.
"I do not have all the answers yet," he testified. "I am not sure I even know what questions to ask. All I know is that this was not a dream, it was not hypothetical -- it was my life. I would hope everyone will keep this in mind when we start taking away people's rights."
Mr. Bloodsworth was convicted twice of sexually assaulting and killing 9-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton in eastern Baltimore County in July 1984. But he was freed from prison last month after a sophisticated new genetic test proved semen stains on the victim's underwear could not have been his.
Three other former death row inmates joined him in testifying in favor of existing procedural safeguards. If anything, they said, more safeguards should be added.
On the other side, an Alabama prosecutor, a Utah law professor and an Alabama woman whose daughter was murdered said that appeals drag on too long -- more than 14 years, in some cases. They argued that existing state appeals processes deal effectively with discovering whether a person has been wrongly convicted.
Although the subcommittee currently has no death penalty legislation before it, the issue is an emotional one it has considered often in the past.
A commission appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer is studying ways to speed up the process under Maryland law.
Rep. Don Edwards, a California Democrat and the subcommittee chairman, opened the hearing by referring to Mr. Bloodsworth and the other three former death row inmates. "Some people say these protections only let the guilty go free," he said. "But these procedures from time to time save lives."
At one point, Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican and advocate of the death penalty, polled the seven witnesses. He asked if they favored the death penalty in the case of "coldblooded murder."
The prosecutor, law professor and mother of a murdered college student all said they did. The former death row inmates said they did not.
"Speaking as a person who should be dead, I believe it should be abolished, period," Mr. Bloodsworth said. His first conviction resulted in the death penalty. That was overturned, and his second conviction resulted in a life sentence.
Part of yesterday's debate involved just how many innocent people have been executed in the United States. Paul Cassell, an associate professor of law at the University of Utah, said no innocent people have been executed since at least 1945, despite claims to the contrary by death penalty opponents.
He argued that studies show the death penalty saves lives by acting as a deterrent and by preventing murderers from killing again. He cited a study that he said showed
that each execution saves 18 lives.
Mr. Canady suggested that any changes to the system must balance the risk of executing the wrong person against the dangers of letting convicted killers go free on technicalities.
"In the last 25 years, we cannot point to a single case where an innocent person has been wrongly executed," he said. "On the other hand, we can point to numerous examples of murderers being released, only to murder again. I think we have to look at it in that context."
Mr. Bloodsworth seemed to take offense at the notion that it was acceptable to risk executing the innocent to save lives. "If you're going to do it [the death penalty] you ought to do it right. If you can't do it right, you shouldn't do it at all," he said.