How DNA results brought redemption to a wrongly conficted man and justice to a young victim

May 13

All articles are written by YJDP Student Sports Writers and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.

On a sunny afternoon on July 25, 1984, nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton knew something was wrong. She was “it” in a game of “hide and seek” amongst her friends, who slept over at her house the previous night. She called their names, but heard no response. By herself in the woods, she went back to her house to inform her Aunt Sissy about what happened. “Go back and tell them to come out right now,” her aunt insisted. She watched as Dawn disappeared back into the woods. It was the last time she’d see her alive.

Kirk Noble Bloodsworth had just moved from Cambridge, MD to Baltimore thirty days prior to Dawn’s murder. A 23-year-old honorably discharged veteran, Bloodsworth enjoyed the days where he could go out and catch crabs by the bay. On his days off, he relaxed at home with his wife, but on August 9, 1984, his day off turned into a day that would change his life forever. At 2:45 that morning, Baltimore County Police banged at his door, issuing an arrest warrant for the murder of Dawn Hamilton. Confused and disoriented, Bloodsworth was taken to the Maryland Penitentiary. “954 Forrest Street is an address I’ll never forget,” said Bloodsworth of the penitentiary’s location, which would be his home for the next ten years.

A two-week trial followed after his arrest. When the judge hit his gavel against the desk, his sentence was set. Double life and the death penalty is what Bloodsworth now faced. With no money to hire a private lawyer, a public one was given to him. From here, all positive possibilities seemed bleak, and his time in prison added fuel to the fire. As he walked the halls of the penitentiary, inmates, guards, and security referred to him as a monster. Bloodsworth recalled the constant heckle he would hear almost every day. “We’re going to do to you what you did to that little girl,” inmates would say as he passed them. Motivated by the belief of his innocence, he knew that he had to do something to get out. What he did as time progressed would change American society for years to come.

Just before the trial, two young men, both minors who had yet to reach their teenage years, stepped into the police lineup room to determine Dawn’s killer. They chose another man, who was incarcerated. Bloodsworth was let go, but the boys later recanted their decision, citing him as the actual killer. The description of the suspect was as follows: a 6-foot-5 male with tan curly hair and a skinny stature. Bloodsworth, meanwhile, was only six feet tall, had red hair, and was about 240 pounds. “The court system is flawed. It doesn’t work at all,” he exclaimed to a crowd full of students at Gonzaga College High School in late March. “You must stand up for what’s right in your heart.” That he did, and he soon prevailed over justice.

While in jail, Bloodsworth began to read books almost every day. Not long after he began, he came across a book about DNA evidence. Interested, he called his lawyer to see if there was a way to submit new DNA evidence. When the opportunity arose, he took full advantage of it. Assisted by the Centurion Ministries of Princeton, New Jersey, Bloodworth obtained a court order to test biological material preserved from the murder site. The DNA tests, performed by Edward T. Blake of the Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, California, proved his innocence. Dawn Hamilton’s clothes, a stick found at the scene, and an autopsy slide were compared to Bloodsworth, finding no trace to him. With the use of PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) based DNA tests, the FSA concluded the evidence on the slide was not sufficient enough to link back to him. Soon thereafter, the court and FBI granted confirmation upon the results, and Kirk Noble Bloodsworth became the first person in United States history to ever be exonerated from death row with the use of DNA evidence. On June 28, 1993, he walked away as a free man. Yet, despite his release, he still remembered the burdens of what he endured for the past decade. He tried to return to a “normal life,” but was haunted by what he learned about America’s court system. “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody.”

Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a man who arrived to the jail a month after Bloodsworth’s arrival on a separate rape charge, was convicted of the murder in 2003. A Baltimore County forensic biologist who studied evidence from the case wanted an untested sheet from the murder analyzed. Sure enough, stains on the sheet linked back to Ruffner. Never did Bloodsworth know that the man guilty of the crime was the same man who lifted weights with him in the courtyard. The 5-foot-6, 160-pound Ruffner was given life in prison, and from there, Bloodsworth began his campaign. His opposition to the death penalty is strong and will never leave from within him. “The courts, the money spent,” he pleaded, “the hair samples, ballistics, it’s all wrong. It doesn’t prove guilt.” A true testament lives here in our area, and as he advocates for the death penalty’s abolition, he’s taking initiative to do the same with the rest of the country. Since its passage by Congress in February 2000, Bloodsworth has been an avid supporter of the Innocence Protection Act (IPA). The IPA established the Kirk Noble Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which helps states defray the costs of post-convictoin DNA testing. As he did at Gonzaga, Bloodsworth travels the world sharing his story. “I have traveled all over the world and I am very happy with my life.” The most comforting aspect of his life, according to him: “Dawn finally got justice.”

 

More information and the full story on Kirk Noble Bloodsworth can be found in Tim Junkin’s book Bloodsworth: the True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA.

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