Bloodsworth, prosecutor move on to new things

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence, has lived to see something he never could have imagined -- an award named after him, and its first recipient a Democratic senator from Vermont.

Tuesday night, at a Washington gala, Sen. Patrick Leahy receives the Kirk Bloodsworth Justice for All Award as an "outstanding champion of justice" for his sponsorship of the 2004 Innocence Protection Act, which, among other things, provides states with funding for DNA testing in criminal cases to avoid, or undo, wrongful convictions.

The funds come through a program that Senator Leahy named the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program.

So, as you can see, the Dickensian name of Bloodsworth has gained association with things noble and progressive in the time since the ex-Marine from Maryland was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Dawn Hamilton, a little girl from Baltimore County. It seems like the whole world has changed since then.

Mr. Bloodsworth won his freedom in 1994, after having served more than nine years in prison. He now works for the Justice Project, which is putting on the "Justice For All Gala" at the Four Seasons in Washington tonight and honoring Mr. Leahy.

Still living on the Eastern Shore, Mr. Bloodsworth travels around the country telling his story and talking about DNA evidence. He's been the subject of a book, too. He's appeared on Oprah.

I caught up with him the other day after his name slipped back into the news again. Ann Brobst, the veteran prosecutor in Baltimore County who got two murder convictions against Mr. Bloodsworth -- the first was overturned by Maryland's Court of Appeals -- has been appointed as a judge of the Circuit Court by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

That's another thing Mr. Bloodsworth probably never could have imagined -- the woman who prosecuted him ascending to the bench.

Over a 30-year career, Ms. Brobst has presented the state's case against hundreds of defendants, many of them violent, but the Bloodsworth case might, unfortunately, be the most notable. Or is the word notorious?

On the phone Saturday, Mr. Bloodsworth, at first, seemed to want to express freely his feelings about Ms. Brobst becoming a judge. But he quickly changed his mind and refused to comment further. Instead, we talked about his friendship with Mr. Leahy -- the senator used the same term for their relationship during his advocacy of the Innocence Protection Act -- and his work with the Justice Project, a Washington-based organization that pushes for reforms in the criminal justice system to avoid wrongful convictions.

In 1993, new DNA testing proved Mr. Bloodsworth could not have killed Dawn Hamilton. In December of that year, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer pardoned him, and a few months later the state gave Mr. Bloodsworth $300,000 in compensation.

Still, Mr. Bloodsworth lived under a cloud of suspicion. Sandra O'Connor, the Baltimore County state's attorney at the time, famously said, ``I believe that he is not guilty. I'm not prepared to say he's innocent."

Mr. Bloodsworth had trouble keeping a job. "He lived in a world where people questioned his innocence," Mr. Leahy told his colleagues in the Senate in 2003, "where rumors followed him everywhere he went, and where he was unable to find stable employment."

It was nearly 10 years before prosecutors checked DNA evidence from the crime against the state's database of convicted felons. That led to the real killer, a convicted sex offender who was charged with the heinous crime.

When that occurred, Ms. Brobst went to the Eastern Shore with two county detectives, met Mr. Bloodsworth at a fast-food restaurant in Cambridge, told him the news of the real killer's arrest and apologized for her role in his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

That was the first time anyone from the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office, which had twice prosecuted Mr. Bloodsworth, acknowledged his innocence.

Monday, Ms. Brobst said the encounter in 2004 with Mr. Bloodsworth and the apology were her idea. She also said she had a role in the push for post-conviction DNA testing of evidence in the case, despite being pressured not to.

A lot of people familiar with Ms. Brobst's work would say that, on balance, she has done far more good than bad over 30 years in the courts -- so the focus on Mr. Bloodsworth is unfair.

Monday, she spoke candidly about the case and about being identified in the press as "the Bloodsworth prosecutor." She accepts that, despite having smartly prosecuted so many other criminals who deserved to go to prison, Mr. Bloodsworth seems to be the case that sticks to her -- at least it did last week in reports of her appointment to the bench.

"Obviously, what happened to him should not have happened to anybody," Ms. Brobst said. "It's something I think about every day -- I mean that, every day. It certainly changed me ... It shook me."

I asked how.

For one thing, Ms. Brobst said, that a jury could be persuaded to convict the wrong man went from being an intellectual understanding to something real, with a name and a face. "It made me a better prosecutor," Ms. Brobst added, "and it's going to make me a better judge. We made a colossal mistake in a case I believed in -- and in which there was a lot of evidence -- and it has made me more mindful of how powerful the criminal justice system is and the harm it can cause."

So Ann Brobst, with all her years of experience and her lessons learned, prepares to become a judge. Kirk Bloodsworth, exonerated and a free man for 15 years, prepares for Tuesday's gala and the award ceremony and more speeches on the value of DNA testing. The real killer of the little girl sits somewhere in a Maryland prison. That all sounds something like justice.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun