Kirk Bloodsworth's voice still wavers when he recalls the two years he spent on Maryland's death row for a crime he did not commit.
The burly former Marine was 24 years old when a jury found him guilty of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl in Baltimore County in 1984. Almost 20 years were to pass before he could clear his name through DNA testing -- the first death row inmate exonerated by such evidence. Now former prisoner No. 176117 is campaigning to ensure no one else suffers the same fate.
Bloodsworth is at the forefront of lobbying efforts to persuade Congress to pass the Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act. The bill includes provisions to authorize $755 million toward testing the backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence currently awaiting analysis. The bill also would provide $500 million in grants to help make federal, state and local crime laboratories more efficient in conducting DNA analysis. These funds would also be used to train examiners and promote the use of DNA technology to identify missing persons.
Another section of the bill would allow for the authorization of $25 million over five years to help states pay the costs of post-conviction DNA testing. This program is named after Bloodsworth.
The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday began marking up the legislation but postponed further action until Tuesday, largely because of opposition raised by some committee members. Some critics say the legislation would encourage unnecessary appeals and would be too expensive.
The bill comes at a time when the death penalty system in the United States is under growing scrutiny due to the number of inmates exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence. The total now stands at 151, according to figures provided by the Innocence Project, an anti-death-penalty group.
"Nobody should have to wait for justice," Bloodsworth said. "I struggled for nearly 20 years to clear my name. This legislation will prevent innocent people from ending up on death row, and it will ensure that the truly guilty are caught. Congress should pass this legislation and prevent more stories like mine."
Debbie Smith shares Bloodsworth's zeal, joining him over the past year to lobby dozens of senators to help pass the bill. The diminutive Williamsburg woman was raped outside her home in 1989. Even though she submitted a rape kit to the authorities, she had to wait six years before the biological evidence was tested. Her attacker was later identified through a DNA sample and convicted.
"This issue has consumed my life," she said. "This legislation is not going to do me any good now because my perpetrator has been found already through DNA, but I don't want anyone else to suffer. It's about giving people the justice they deserve."
The DNA legislation, introduced last October by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and ranking minority member Sen Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), has 38 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. The bill passed the House by 357 to 67 last November.
Despite such an overwhelming vote in the House and growing support in the Senate, the bill has been held up at the Judiciary Committee because of opposition to a number of the bill's components.
Both Bloodsworth and Smith attended the committee meeting during which Hatch appealed to his colleagues to avoid amendments and pass the bill so that it could go before the entire Senate for a vote.
Leahy told the committee he believed the legislation's passage was being subjected to what he said were "needless delays."
"We have wasted a lot of time in reporting this bill out of committee," he said. "Every day that the bill is stalled is another day that rape kits go untested for lack of funds; another day that inmates with colorable claims of innocence are denied access to the DNA evidence that could set them free and put the real criminals behind bars."
Much of the opposition to the bill hinges on the Innocence Protection Act, part of the DNA legislation, which would allow convicted offenders the opportunity to prove their innocence through DNA testing. The legislation also calls for compensation for those who are able to clear their names.
Some critics say that by allowing people already convicted to seek exoneration through DNA testing, the legislation would encourage a flood of frivolous appeals by inmates. Also proponents of capital punishment believe it may undermine the death penalty system.
After the committee session yesterday, a tearful Smith said, "I'm disappointed that this has been adjourned because I feel like it's just mincing words at this stage. What we're losing sight of here is the urgency behind getting this bill passed."