As Maryland votes on death penalty repeal, exonerated man becomes a living reminder

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post - Kirk Bloodsworth is lobbying for the repeal of the Maryland death penalty. Bloodsworth was exonerated with DNA evidence while on death row.

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Exhibit A has been there in the Maryland State House galleries in jeans and a T-shirt, his smokes tucked in his pocket. Sometimes the lawmakers argued about him as if he weren’t there. Sometimes they pointed him out as a living prop, injecting a little show-and-tell theater into the debate.

“He’s sitting amongst us today,” said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), motioning toward Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death-row inmate in the United States exonerated by DNA evidence.

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Death penalty

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Once again, all eyes were on him, the innocent man nearly put to death, a face of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s quest to repeal capital punishment.

Several forces have converged this year to put Maryland on the cusp of becoming the sixth state in as many years to abolish capital punishment — including a strong push by O’Malley (D), the Catholic Church and the NAACP.

But with the House scheduled to take a final vote on the bill Friday, no one is likely to feel a greater sense of personal vindication than Bloodsworth. And certainly no one is getting more attention.

During the four days of emotional debate leading up to last week’s passage in the Senate, Bloodsworth’s name was invoked so often as he sat in the gallery that an exasperated repeal opponent, Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin (R-Cecil), accused the other side of mentioning him 53 times. (It was far less.)

Being the public face of the flaws of the criminal justice system is a role Bloodsworth has grown into. He was the subject of a book about his ordeal and has been profiled numerous times.

Bloodsworth, a burly, plain-spoken former Marine who grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has been followed around Annapolis in recent days by a cameraman for a documentary film. The working title is “Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man.”

He has been featured in recent weeks in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. He even made an appearance on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, playing the straight man in a satirical interview, which ventured into the problems with identifications made by eyewitnesses.

“In my case, they said the person was 6-foot-5, curly blond hair, bushy mustache, tan skin and skinny,” Bloodsworth, wearing a tie depicting DNA, told host Stephen Colbert. “When they finally caught the real perpetrator of the crime some years later, he was 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds.”

“No way he just lost weight and height?” Colbert asked, later generating laughs when he asked whether abolishing the death penalty would make Maryland attractive for someone looking to go on “a kill spree.”

Bloodsworth, 52, said he has not sought the attention and that his life would have been “much different and probably much better” if he had never been wrongfully convicted in 1985 of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl.

“It will be very sweet to get rid of the thing that almost got rid of me,” he said. “I think we’re going to be a lot better state without the death penalty than with it.”

As he listened to the back-and-forth in the Senate last week, Bloodsworth said he was reminded of the closing days of his trial 28 years earlier. Prosecutors in Baltimore County called him a monster.

There were cheers in the courtroom when he was sentenced to death in 1985.

The rest of what happened to Bloodsworth is well known in Annapolis — but repeal advocates say lawmakers cannot be reminded of it often enough.

“What he reminded people sitting on the floor is that anybody could be in his shoes,” Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore) said after her chamber’s debate. “He’s living testament to what can happen to the wrong guy.”

Maryland’s high court overturned Bloodsworth’s guilty verdict in 1986, ruling that prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense. At his second trial, he was convicted again. This time, he was sentenced to two life terms.

He was freed in 1993 after winning court approval for DNA testing from the crime scene, which linked someone else to the rape and murder.

Since then, Bloodsworth has grown into a full-time activist against the death penalty, making speeches at high schools, colleges and churches across the country while becoming a fixture in Annapolis, where he says he has handed out copies of a 2005 book about his case to virtually every lawmaker.

“If I missed anyone, it’s not on purpose,” Bloodsworth said.

He has also told his story to anyone who will listen.

“I know how many people he’s moved, one by one,” said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. “It’s like chipping away at a stone. . . . He isn’t a bitter, angry person, and that really helps.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Bloodsworth was back at it. Dressed in jeans, sneakers, a black T-shirt and a green-gray fleece jacket, he took a few last puffs on a cigarette outside the State House before marching up the steps to the hallway between the chambers where the legislature meets.

The House was set to begin debate on the death penalty that night, and Bloodsworth was there to catch members as they flowed out of the chamber during a recess.

He greeted Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, with a handshake.

Stacy A. Mayer, the governor’s chief lobbyist, got a bear hug when Bloodsworth spotted her hanging out to talk to delegates.

And Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) broke out in a smile at the site of Bloodsworth — even thought the two are odds on the death penalty.

“It’s hard to look the man in the eye and tell the man he’s wrong,” Smigiel said.

Although their meetings over the years haven’t changed Smigiel’s mind, he credited Bloodsworth with being “very effective” at what he does.

Before parting ways Wednesday, Smigiel offered Bloodsworth an early congratulations on the bill’s passage.

The documentary’s camera was there to capture the moment.

 
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