CAMBRIDGE - This is where he always belonged, way outside any kind of city, outside rows of no-till beans invaded by wild turkeys, outside in his Eastern Shore back yard with his Weber gas grill - just plain outside. He'd like to stay, but he's needed elsewhere. Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, of thinning hair and thickening body and 44 next month, is about to embark on another phase of his story of survival.
Bloodsworth, convicted of killing a 9-year-old Rosedale girl in 1984, became the first death-row inmate in the United States to be exonerated through DNA evidence. With his release from prison in 1993, Bloodsworth entered the annals of the American criminal justice system. This country boy from Dorchester County became the spokesman for post-conviction DNA testing and found himself addressing Congress, Oprah and seemingly every person who ever doubted his innocence. In May, Dawn Hamilton's true killer pleaded guilty to the 20-year-old crime. Bloodsworth had known the man in prison.
A book seemed inevitable, and with a subject named Bloodsworth, so did a title. Set for release today, Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA, (Algonquin Books, $24.95) is Potomac author Tim Junkin's account of Bloodsworth's life and near-death story. The 286-page book has drawn early praise from author Scott Turow (Bloodsworth read Presumed Innocent in prison), crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh (who might write the screenplay) and Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote Dead Man Walking.
Now comes the book tour - a 25-city circuit with readings in Maryland, Washington and battleground death-penalty states such as Texas. Once a dead man walking himself, Bloodsworth is honing his book-signing signature and dealing out his business cards. It doesn't cost to hear him speak, yet. "I won't be as expensive as Bill Clinton," he says. A man can get his humor back, too.
Bloodsworth's life story has become his job. He's a full-time promoter of criminal justice reform; he has a paid position with the Washington-based group the Justice Project, which supports legislation now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The Innocence Protection Act" includes the proposed authorization of $25 million over five years to help states defray the cost of post-conviction DNA testing. The program is named for him.
"He's turned his life into a force of justice," Junkin says.
Bloodsworth is not only pitching a book - he's pitching a message: "I'm thinking of a death-penalty-free world one day." Can society afford to make the ultimate mistake with someone's life? A mistake was made in Bloodsworth's case, but he lived to see a book and maybe a movie about his life. He's thinking Matt Damon or Ed Norton would be right for the role.
Kirk Bloodsworth, it seems, will be outlived by his life story.
Watermen have a name for wannabe watermen - they call them farmers. Tim Junkin, lawyer and author of The Waterman, did spend a year as a commercial waterman in 1972. But as Bloodsworth jokes about his book partner, Junkin was really a farmer. As for Bloodsworth, he has the right boat and heritage to be a waterman, but he lost nine prime years to prison - that and the fact rigging a crab boat costs about $30,000 for starters. Bloodsworth's work boat, Freedom, doesn't get out much.
Ten years Bloodsworth's senior, Junkin is also an Eastern Shore guy. Naturally, the Bloodsworth saga caught his eye. A little hometown bias crept into his thinking. "It just didn't compute that a waterman would be involved in this kind of crime," Junkin says.
The two men met through a mutual acquaintance, Robert Morin - now a judge, then Bloodsworth's attorney and Junkin's old friend. They agreed that Junkin would research and write a book and any profits would be split evenly. Bloodsworth would contribute details from his experience and from his 168-page prison journal. Junkin also pored through countless police, court and FBI documents. For sheer storytelling, the facts could not have been improved upon. "The story is so powerful, it speaks for itself," Junkin says.
The story began with the murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton near a fishing pond in Rosedale. Her skull had been crushed by a rock, her throat stomped hard enough to leave a shoeprint, and she'd been raped. Kirk Bloodsworth was in Baltimore County at the time, had a suspicious alibi and was identified, mistakenly, by children who had been playing with Dawn that summer day.
It wasn't me, Bloodsworth told police and his father, Curtis Bloodsworth, who visited his son in jail the day after his arrest. Junkin writes: "They had to speak through a phone. Curtis looked his boy right in the teeth and asked him straight up. 'Son, you didn't have anything to do with this crime now, did you?' Kirk looked at his father. He began crying over his father even asking it."
Bloodsworth's parents mortgaged their home to help pay the legal bills. No physical evidence implicated Bloodsworth. But during the trial, prosecutors used five witnesses to claim they saw Bloodsworth at the scene. The jury came back in 2 1/2 hours. The 23-year-old former Marine was found guilty of first-degree murder and rape.
"He could hardly breathe," Junkin writes. "He held on to the rail for support. He heard the word "guilty" to the charge of rape. The cheering went on. Another call for the gas chamber. He fell to his knees. He was an innocent man, an innocent man ... and they were cheering."
Bloodsworth spent two years on Maryland's death row. His cell was just one floor below the gas chamber. The guards, Junkin writes, once took the inmate on a painting detail inside the chamber. The guards showed him the so-called captain's chair. " 'You'll be the captain soon,' one of them said. 'We want to get it ready for you.' The man grinned. 'Take a good look, Captain Kirk. ... Paint it up. Make it nice and prime for your bad ass.' "
In 1987, after the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his first conviction, Bloodsworth was tried again, convicted again and sentenced to two life terms. He was off death row but had little hope of ever being exonerated.
By 1993, Bloodsworth's attorney, Robert Morin, had been on the case for three years and felt stymied. His client had urged him to reconsider DNA testing, but they'd been told there was no evidence of bodily fluid at the crime scene. What then could be tested?
Eventually, though, Morin discovered that there had been semen present on some of Dawn Hamilton's clothing. He sent it for testing to a California laboratory. In May 1993, the DNA analysis excluded Bloodsworth as the source of the sperm found on Hamilton's underwear. Bloodsworth was set free, but it hardly felt like exoneration. The state announced that he was not guilty, but stopped short of saying he was innocent.
"There is a strain of hubris that affects certain people in power," Junkin writes. "If not guarded against, it can breed an unhealthy arrogance."
While Bloodsworth had the rest of his life to figure out, the state tried to figure out how much was fair compensation for his imprisonment. There was talk of Bloodsworth getting a job as a park ranger, but "Kirk decided he could never work for the same state that had tried to kill him," Junkin writes. He eventually was awarded $300,000. Meanwhile, Dawn Hamilton's killer was still free.
Last fall, Junkin was halfway through his manuscript but unsure how to end the book. Then he got a call from Bloodsworth, who was in tears. Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Ann Brobst had told him that DNA tests linked Kimberly Shay Ruffner - a convicted rapist who Bloodsworth had known in prison - to Hamilton's murder. Citing a lack of funds and other priorities, the state had taken a decade to run the DNA found on Hamilton's clothes through Maryland's DNA database of convicted felons.
Finally, Bloodsworth had his vindication, and his partner had his ending.
"That was a gift of grace that finished the whole story," Junkin says.
"That was the world falling off of my back," Bloodsworth says.
One of the perks of sharing a book's birth is not only signing copies for family but publishing a dedication. For his part, Bloodsworth dedicated the book to God, his family and to someone he never met.
Dawn Venice Hamilton.
Eight miles out of downtown Cambridge, Kirk and Brenda Bloodsworth live with a skinny cat named Eight. They found the kitten under Bloodsworth's pickup truck and figured she must have eight lives left, after escaping death once by not getting run over. While she's no black Labrador, "she's as close to a dog as you can get," Bloodsworth says.
He's been married five years to Brenda Ewell, "my doll, my rock." They don't have children, but Bloodsworth has a colony of relatives down the road from their home, which in no way resembles a prison cell. A deer mount hangs over a 60-inch-screen TV. In prison, the only channel he got was Maryland Public Television. "I owe them a lot. I watched so many cooking shows. I probably watched the first show Emeril ever had." Bloodsworth cooks anything that agrees or disagrees with his stomach.
Bloodsworth's story surrounds him - from a wall of framed newspaper stories to an autographed picture of Connie Chung and a bagged, autographed visor from Oprah. He also displays a miniature model of Jeanette's Pearl, his first post-prison work boat. His mother, Jeanette, who appears in pictures on the wall as a young, attractive woman, died before seeing her son walk out of the House of Correction in Jessup.
Life is good these days, but it's not easy or cheap. Bloodsworth ran through his $300,000 payment; it's surprisingly not hard to do. He says he's become a better judge of friends, and of himself. He hasn't touched Jack Daniel's in eight years. He doesn't need to destroy himself; he learned that in prison when he stopped mainlining sets of a "poor man's speed ball." Bloodsworth drinks beer once in awhile, but shoot, that's like drinking soda, he says.
Bloodsworth has made peace with the people, the system, that imprisoned him. It's not the kind of peace, mind you, that erases his memory or keeps him quiet. He has converted anger into a cause. It doesn't matter the crime is 20 years old and he's been free 11 years - his past is forever present. When he talks now, people believe him.
"As long as someone wants to hear my story," he says, "I'll tell them."
So, what does his future hold five, 10 years down the line? How does "Governor Kirk Bloodsworth" sound?
"If Bob Ehrlich can do it or, I should say, if Jesse Ventura can do it, so can I," says Bloodsworth, a registered Democrat.
It's an improbable story line - but then what about his life isn't? He never could have dreamed 20 years ago he'd be arrested for a child's murder when all he was doing was minding his own business of fishing, drinking and trying to get out of a lousy first marriage. He could never have dreamed he'd travel the country as a living witness to how the justice system can fail. He could have never imagined a "Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program." And now a book tour, of all things.
No one could make this stuff up.
Meet the authors
Over the coming weeks, Kirk Bloodsworth and Tim Junkin will appear at a number of area locations to promote their new book, Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA. The events, open to the public, include:
Tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. at the University of Baltimore School of Law Moot Court Room, 1415 Maryland Ave. Bloodsworth and Junkin plan to sign books after the premiere showing of the documentary, Death in Texas. Call 410-323-7200.
Saturday, Sept. 25, 3 p.m. at the Baltimore County Public Library, Essex branch, 1110 Eastern Blvd. Call 410-887-0295.
Wednesday, Oct. 20, 6:30 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Central Library's Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St.. Call 410-396-5494.