A cardboard box on the floor of a closet in a Maryland judge’s chambers held the key to Kirk Bloodsworth’s freedom nearly nine years after he was wrongfully convicted of murder.
The judge had kept it there for safe-keeping, believing, one day, someone might need the old trial evidence contained inside.
A still-novel DNA test on 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton’s clothing proved that Bloodsworth had not raped and brutally killed her in 1984. Bloodsworth, an innocent man, had spent two years on death row – and several years imprisoned – at the Maryland Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.
The man later convicted of Hamilton’s murder, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, was a fellow inmate with a history as a sexual predator. The two inmates interacted on numerous occasions but never discussed why Bloodsworth was behind bars.
In the summer of 1993, Bloodsworth became the first inmate in the nation to be sentenced to death and then exonerated by DNA evidence.
Twenty-three years after his release, he is still shaken by the “what-ifs” and the nightmares that cause him to wail in his sleep.
“People ask me, ‘How did you get through it?’ I don’t have an answer,” Bloodsworth said Wednesday afternoon in the lobby of a Concord hotel.
Bloodsworth, now of Pennsylvania, has been in the Granite State since Monday to attend several showings of a documentary memoir recounting his life. The film, Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man, took four years to make and is self-narrated. It is showing tonight at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett at 6.
In highlighting his ordeal, Bloodsworth is advocating for the repeal of the state’s death penalty law. He is working with the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which is sponsoring movie screenings across the state.
Legislation to repeal the law in New Hampshire has failed multiple times. The closest death penalty opponents came to reaching their goal was in 2000, when a bill passed both the House and the Senate. It was ultimately vetoed by then Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.
Bloodsworth, who is now in his mid-50s, recalled Wednesday testifying at the State House about his experiences in the criminal justice system and said he will do so again. He has played a role in the law’s repeal in several states, including in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York.
Michael Addison is the only man on death row in New Hampshire. He was sentenced to death for murdering Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in October 2006 in an alley shootout. Last year, the state Supreme Court upheld Addison’s sentence.
The last time New Hampshire killed a man on death row was in 1939.
“We have to do better than those who do us harm,” Bloodsworth said Wednesday.
He then quoted Freddie Lee Pitts, who was exonerated from death row in Florida, “You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave.”
Bloodsworth said he believes that life in prison without parole is the just alternative.
Seventeen other death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence since Bloodsworth. A total of 155 death row inmates have been exonerated nationally since 1973.
In his early years as an advocate and public speaker, Bloodsworth tried to work one-on-one with inmates on death row who felt they’d been wrongfully convicted. But, he said, he became increasingly attached to the people behind those stories and their pain became too difficult to bear.
He still has nightmares about failed efforts, though imaginary, to get people on death row exonerated, and wonders if he always will. For two years, he slept below the penitentiary’s gas chamber, and he had seen the steel chair with chest straps where others had gone to die.
Before his arrest in 1984, Bloodsworth was a young man dreaming about his future. He had been honorably discharged from the Marines and he had no criminal record.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” he said.
(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)