The idea came to him some 30 years ago, while he was asleep on Maryland's Death Row for a horrible crime he knew he did not commit: the murder of a little girl on a summer day in 1984 in Baltimore County. Kirk Bloodsworth dreamed that the commissioner of the National Football League — at the time, Pete Rozelle — gave him a Super Bowl ring.
With plenty of time to ponder the dream, Bloodsworth took something positive from it because, when you are facing death for a crime you know you did not commit, you cling to every trinket of hope. Some day, Bloodsworth thought, he'd win a Super Bowl championship, and for an innocent man in prison that would mean exoneration and freedom.
So the image of the big ring and what it might symbolize stayed with Bloodsworth through nine years of incarceration, through trials and appeals that led him eventually to an important place in the annals of criminal justice — the first American to be sentenced to death and later exonerated by DNA evidence.
Next month marks 25 years since a scientific test eliminated him as the perpetrator of the crime.
"It was June 1993," Bloodsworth said on the phone the other day.
"Yeah, when you're free it does," he answered. "When you're in a cell, that was the longest time I ever felt. … The longest time. … The ... longest ... time."
And even after his release from prison, freedom was incomplete.
The killer of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton still had not been identified. Bloodsworth, a former Marine with no criminal record, had been the key suspect all along, and the authorities had a hard time letting go of him. "I believe that he is not guilty, I'm not prepared to say he's innocent," the chief prosecutor in Baltimore County said at the time, attempting to save face while seeding a cloud of suspicion over Bloodsworth.
More than a decade went by before police identified the killer — Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a convicted rapist who had been released from jail just before the Rosedale girl was found murdered. In 2004, Ruffner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. He was 45 at the time.
As in the recent arrest of the so-called Golden State Killer in California, DNA analysis was key to finally cracking the case. In Baltimore County, police found Ruffner while scanning the state's DNA database for a match with evidence recovered from the victim. Somehow Ruffner had been overlooked as a suspect in the original investigation.
Kirk Bloodsworth, meanwhile, went on with his life.
He became an advocate for post-conviction DNA testing and a vocal opponent of the death penalty. He testified before Congress. He went on "Oprah." He's been the subject of a book. He's traveled around the country, telling his story. He's worked for organizations that push for criminal justice reforms, and he stays plugged into the world of the wrongly convicted.
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Bloodsworth took classes at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, and he now has a line of handcrafted pendants, bracelets and earrings called Bloods Stones.
And among his designs is a sterling silver "exoneration ring," one that he's had cast, engraved and presented to 85 former inmates who were found to have been wrongly convicted. Some of the recipients were once, like Bloodsworth, on Death Row.
The ring is square and bold like many of the Super Bowl rings. It shouts that the wearer served time for a crime he did not commit. The words, "exoneree," or "death row exoneree" appear on the rings, along with an image of a cell door.
When the next batch of rings is complete and distributed, Bloodsworth says, 178 former inmates will have received them. Each ring is made from an ounce of silver. Private donors have paid for their production.
"I had it in my head all these years," Bloodsworth says of the design. "I wanted to have something, and wanted the guys to have something. The Super Bowl ring means you won something big ... exoneration and freedom. You know, some of these cats, when they leave prison, get nothing. They get no compensation. They just get a bus ticket home."
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of three major universities, there have have been 2,195 exonerations in the United States since 1989. That's an even more impressive and disturbing fact when you consider what it represents in time lost in prison — 19,350 years.