The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate

Exonerated by DNA

By Tim Junkin. Algonquin. 294 pp. $24.95

Franz Kafka's classic novel of paranoia and persecution, The Trial (1925), conjures up visions of an unreasoning society in which "innocent persons are accused of guilt, and senseless proceedings are put in motion against them." Its protagonist is Josef K., a helpless everyman arrested and ultimately executed for an unknown crime. His last words -- "Like a dog!" -- remind us that humanity is the first victim of a totalitarian state.

The Trial is fiction; the story of Kirk Bloodsworth is not.

Tried and convicted for a sadistic murder he did not commit and then sentenced to death, Bloodsworth is an American Josef K., an icon of a system that failed him -- and justice -- at every turn. Imprisoned for nine years, he found solace and, in time, salvation through uniquely human skills: writing and reading. When he chanced upon Joseph Wambaugh's The Blooding (1989), a nonfiction account of the first use of genetic fingerprinting to solve a homicide, Bloodsworth realized that DNA analysis could also be used to clear his name. With the determined assistance of attorney Robert Morin (who is now a D.C. Superior Court judge), he ended his nightmare and opened a new chapter in the debate on capital punishment.

Tim Junkin presents this sobering and at times surreal story in Bloodsworth. Its subtitle -- The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA -- is arguable, since Bloodsworth was not on death row at the time of his release. (His death sentence had been overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals -- a cavil, perhaps, because he then received two consecutive life sentences.) Written with its namesake's participation, this brisk narrative forcefully expresses Bloodsworth's confusion, anger, frustration, despair and, ultimately, forgiveness. Junkin also strives for objectivity and factuality, particularly when revealing how right-minded people -- whether police officers or prosecutors, judges or jurors -- can make spectacularly wrong decisions that lead to the imprisonment and even the death of innocents.

On July 25, 1984, 9-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton was violated and killed in a wooded suburb of Baltimore, not long after two boys had seen a strange man accost her. Days later, young ex-Marine Kirk Bloodsworth abandoned his alcoholic wife and troubled life in Baltimore for his hometown of Cambridge, Md. He told several people he'd done something bad. That unfortunate choice of words helped convince detectives and prosecutors that their flawed homicide investigation was righteous -- and almost sent Bloodsworth to the gas chamber. Yet his experience is not unique and should give pause to those who equate arrest with guilt and question the rights we provide those accused of crimes.

Baltimore County police were eager to take a vicious predator off the streets, but their zeal targeted one unlikely suspect -- and let a monster go free. As Junkin reveals, there was no malice, no mischief, simply a frighteningly banal collision of good intentions, lousy legwork and bureaucratic complacency.

Good police work is everything television says it is not. Cops "let the cow train the horse": following the facts rather than shaping them to fit hunches and theories. When facts prove difficult or elusive, the solution is to pursue more facts -- not to twist or ignore them, however alarming the crime.

No physical evidence tied Bloodsworth to Dawn Hamilton. His conviction was based on what police academy cadets and first-year law students know is the least reliable of all evidence: eyewitness testimony. And here that testimony was voiced by impressionable children, transformed into a dubious composite sketch and channeled through a suggestive lineup -- morphing with dire inevitability to match the man whose picture the witnesses were repeatedly shown.

Junkin also shows how Bloodsworth was victimized by a staple of today's popular entertainment: psychological profiling. Pioneered by the FBI Behavioral Science Unit and romanticized in the novels of Thomas Harris, this investigative technique proposes that crimes, particularly those involving extreme or serial violence, tell a story about their perpetrator -- one that is biographical and predictive. But detectives and even prosecutors read a premature profile of Dawn Hamilton's murderer as an indictment of Bloodsworth instead of using it as intended, to narrow the field of suspects.

Junkin's only misstep is to start this compelling account at its climax: the DNA testing that freed Bloodsworth. Without first knowing the deeply human stories of Dawn Hamilton and Kirk Bloodsworth, readers can't feel, or even begin to comprehend, the extraordinary drama of that moment.

Not surprisingly, Bloodsworth argues (as Kirk Bloodsworth has done since his release in 1993) against capital punishment -- and for the Innocence Protection Act, which would provide federal funds for DNA testing of inmates. But Bloodsworth's ordeal, however chilling, didn't implicate other discomforting facts about the death penalty: that many death-row inmates lacked effective trial counsel and that a disproportionate number of them are African-American. And it doesn't speak to whether certain crimes, like the cruel slaughter of Dawn Hamilton, deserve or even demand retribution.

Death, the civilized world's penalty for murder until the 1950s, remains on the books in 38 states and in federal and military courts. Capital punishment has divided the Supreme Court, legal scholars, philosophers, religious leaders and politicians -- and in recent years has become entangled with issues of abortion, euthanasia and bioethics.

Kirk Bloodsworth's story brings much-needed clarity to the debate. Although Americans may differ on the legality and morality of the death penalty, we can't accept a criminal justice system that makes Franz Kafka's visions real. *

Douglas E. Winter, a Washington, D.C., attorney, is the author of the novel "Run." He reviewed Joseph Wambaugh's "The Blooding" for Book World on its original publication in 1989.