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From Death Row To Free Man


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, I have some thoughts on that Paula Deen fiasco. She's asked for the country's forgiveness and I want to talk about that. That's in just a few minutes. But first, another admittedly very different story about punishment, redemption and forgiveness. Texas is scheduled to execute its 500th prisoner since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976. According to The Associated Press, Texas has carried out about 40 percent of the country's executions since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume. But a number of states have gone in the opposite direction, repealing the death penalty.

Maryland is one of the latest, and that's where Kirk Bloodsworth left death row 20 years ago. He had been sentenced to death by the state for a crime he did not commit - the gruesome rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl. But he also became the first person in the U.S. exonerated with DNA evidence, and today he's the advocacy director for Witness to Innocence, which is an organization trying to repeal the death penalty nationwide. And he's with us now from WHYY in Philadelphia. Hello, Mr. Bloodsworth. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KIRK BLOODSWORTH: Oh, it's my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: When you hear me say that Texas is about to execute its 500th prisoner today, what does that bring up for you?

BLOODSWORTH: You know, I can't help but think of 500 executions. I mean, as an innocent person in that midst - I think Cameron Todd Willingham was one of them - and here we are, we keep executing people with one of the states that's had a lot of problems with exonerations.

I mean, in just one county alone - I understand in Dallas County, they've had so many different wrongfully convicted individuals. I find this appalling to myself and to a lot of our members at Witness to Innocence, as well.

MARTIN: You've had one of those unique experiences. I mean, unfortunately, now we've become accustomed to stories like yours, but yours, as we said, was the first. And I just wanted to ask you if you could take us back to the day that you were pronounced guilty.

BLOODSWORTH: It all started from the testimony, or the - of two little boys. One was eight and the other 10. They described this person as being 6-foot-5, curly blonde hair, bushy mustache, tan skin, and skinny. Well, Michel, if your listeners could see me, I'm about 6-foot tall. My hair in 1984 was as about as red as an apple, I had sideburns almost two-thirds of the way down my cheek, a missing tooth in the front. I've wore glasses ever since a kid. I don't tan, I burn. I'm a fair-skinned, redheaded boy.

As it turned out, after I got out 10 years later, the real killer was caught by the same DNA that freed me, caught him and he was only 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds. It just goes to the fallibility of the human condition. I mean, and then we send people to death row because of things like that is - it's pretty scary.

MARTIN: And there were a number of other - I don't know what even word to use here - kind of miscues, for example, that you had been overheard to say that you were going to get in trouble with your wife. And it turns out, that that's because you had forgotten to go to the grocery store.

BLOODSWORTH: That's sort of right. But it's like, we were just newly married. We were living in this house with seven other people, and she wanted to have this, like, taco salad. And we were having a lot of troubles, my first wife and I, you know, that we didn't see eye-to-eye or get along about anything. And she was a free spirit and did her own thing. Of course, I was, you know, left a couple times.

It's just - she would go two or three days at a time and I just couldn't take it anymore. So I packed up what little bit I had and hit the road and hitchhiked back home. Now I felt terrible about - which is the quote, I think, it's, like - they had switched it from saying, I did something terrible, to, I felt terrible. I mean, you know, that's what I said. I felt terrible, not I did something terrible.

MARTIN: But why did the finger of suspicion point to you, though...

BLOODSWORTH: Well, it was all...

MARTIN: ...Given that you bear no resemblance to these kids?

BLOODSWORTH: ...Because of the neighbor. It was all because of the neighbor. And the neighbor calls the police and says, well, you know, it looks like my neighbor Kirk in the composite sketch. And right at the same time, all this other kind of thing were going on. And, I mean, let's face it, this was a brutal murder of a nine-year-old little girl and everybody wanted to find the real perpetrator. But this is what happens when society and police and the powers that be get, you know, incensed about something. We wind up putting the wrong person behind bars, and that's exactly what happened to me.

MARTIN: You spent nine years in prison overall, two of them...

BLOODSWORTH: Eight years, 10 months, and 19 days. Two years on death row. Yeah, I happen to remember...

MARTIN: Not that we're counting.

BLOODSWORTH: Yeah, well, that's about 75,000 hours. You know, I used to have it all the way down to seconds and minutes. But, you know, it was a long time. Two years on death row. They wanted to kill me, and I kept telling them that, you know, you have the wrong man.

From the moment of my arrest, Michel, 'till the moment of my release, I told anyone and everyone that I was an innocent man. I used to sign my correspondence that way: Respectively submitted, Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, A.I.M., which means an innocent man.

MARTIN: How did you finally secure your release? I mean, as I understand it, you were a very active player in defending yourself throughout that period.


MARTIN: What exactly did you do?

BLOODSWORTH: Well, I read a book by Joseph Wambaugh called "The Blooding." "The Blooding" detailed the account of a first time a new technology was ever used in a criminal case, and that technology, of course, was DNA testing. And so I read in, you know, rapt attention. To make a long story short, they DNA tested the male population of the town of Narborough in England to catch this - whoever was responsible for killing these young girls over there. And semen was left and so forth, and they wound up DNA testing the male population of the town - some 5,500 men.

As it turned out, all those test results came back negative. But a couple days later, a man was overheard bragging to some friends of his in a local pub in Narborough, saying that he took a DNA test for someone else. And the person he took the test for was the real Narborough killer.

That's where my epiphany came, the size of Philadelphia. If they can convict you, why can't they free you? And I started remembering the possible semen stain on the underpants, slides, swabbings, all these different things in the reports. And I asked the prosecutor myself to do the testing and she agreed. And...

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Kirk Bloodsworth. He's the first U.S. prisoner cleared from death row using DNA testing. We're talking to him today on the occasion of the scheduled execution of the 500th prisoner in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. back in 1976. So there's so many elements to your story, but what do you think is the most important? I mean, is it in the initial stages, what you call, like, the rush to judgment, or is it the willingness to use available technology and tools after conviction to be sure that the result is correct? What do you think is the takeaway from your story?

BLOODSWORTH: I think we make mistakes. You know, we've made 142 of them, not to mention, all the wrongfully convicted that we have in the country. And I would never support the death sentence of anyone for anything from what I've seen in the last 28 years. We can execute an innocent person as quick as we blink. I think for me, it was just a rush to judgment and then when they seen what was happening, they didn't want to back up, and they kept going forward.

Even the Supreme Court, in some of their language - Justice Scalia has those kinds of comments, you know, factual innocence is not constitutional. I don't understand that one. But, you know, maybe if he sat in death row, he would feel different.

MARTIN: As you and I are speaking now, there is sadly another terrible story, like the one that implicated you wrongly in Maryland all those years ago, where a 10-year-old girl has been raped and murdered. And a lot of people now are lamenting the fact that whenever the perpetrator of this crime is found that the death penalty won't be available. And of course, the whole country knows about that - the case involving the Cleveland man who is accused and there's very strong evidence indicating that he kept three women captive for years, you know, raped them repeatedly, fathered a child with one, forced the others to miscarry by beating them.

I mean, and there are a lot of people who say if he doesn't deserve the death penalty, if convicted, who does? And when you are - when you are confronted with a case like that, you know, what do you say?

BLOODSWORTH: Whoever would kill a small child - we're incensed by something like this, and the things with the man in Cleveland and other cases - a man goes into a movie theater and shoots everybody in the room. We're going to have mad men. But the truth is, is that the death penalty, in and of itself, has not helped us or deterred crime whatsoever. What we're trying to do is to save the innocent people and kill the guilty, but we have to walk over some of those to do it.

I would never say that we should do that. We need to stay away from the death penalty. And sure, you know, if a person is responsible for that murder of the 10-year-old you were talking about, I mean, prison, where I was at and what I had to endure, is the better punishment for that person. I can assure you. And staying in a cell that you can only take three steps and walk to the door and touch either wall by reaching out your arms, and that's a place where he belongs. And at least for one instant in our lives - and we don't even know the story behind this case. It hasn't even been adjudicated yet. And people will rush to judgment so quickly. That's how we make mistakes.

And we're incensed by a murder like that, and who isn't that has any kind of feelings? I certainly am struck by anybody that would hurt a child. But this is when we should be our coolest and make sure that we have the right person and put him away for the rest of their lives - life. It's - I think it's a better punishment for everyone.

MARTIN: Do you think that the system is any fairer today than it was when you were first convicted?

BLOODSWORTH: Well, since the system is run by human beings, I feel like the criminal justice system, in and of itself, is fallible because, you know, we make constant mistakes. We make errors. We let people out that's supposed to not - are not supposed to come out. We mess up trials where people walk away and we do a lot of things. It's the human condition and that we can't help it.

We just need to put safeguards and things like - like in the state of Pennsylvania, you know, we need preservation laws here in the state of Pennsylvania to preserve evidence, so we can have the real chance to find the real perpetrator one day, and or, you know, exonerate an innocent one. DNA laws need to be really structured. Compensation for people like myself that endure all this hardship, and not just kind of sweep it under the rug.

MARTIN: You lost almost nine years of your life, actually longer, given the whole sort of trial period to this story. When you think about those 10 years, almost 10 years - those nine years, you can't get those years back, but do the changes that you see now, does that in any way compensate you for what happened?

BLOODSWORTH: Well, the changes - certainly Maryland's repeal of the death penalty is one of the, you know, the top rungs of my ladder in life. Nobody in our state's history from this moment on, or 'till the law goes into effect anyway, will ever be executed and be innocent.

I think when it comes right down to it, we're really saying that we can make mistakes, and punishment by putting a person in prison is a far worse punishment than taking their life because let's face it, Michel, everybody has to live with what's happened to someone in crime. The victims, the people surrounding the victims, the family, everybody has to live with it. Well, why shouldn't the criminal have to live with it, as well?

MARTIN: Kirk Bloodsworth is the first person in the U.S. who was exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. He's now the advocacy director of Witness to Innocence. That's an organization that's trying to get rid of the death penalty around the country. He was with us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Kirk Bloodsworth, thanks for speaking with us.

BLOODSWORTH: My pleasure, Michel. Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.