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February 6, 2013

(In)famous innocence story at heart of efforts to repeal Maryland's death penalty

Today's New York Times includes this notable article, headlined "A Death Penalty Fight Comes Home," concerning a major player in the push to abolish capital punishment in Maryland. Here are excerpts:

Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, a beefy, crew-cut man whose blue T-shirt read “Witness to Innocence,” took the microphone in a church hall here and ran through his story of injustice and redemption one more time.  Twenty years ago, he walked out of a Maryland prison, the first inmate in the nation to be sentenced to death and then exonerated by DNA.

About 60 activists against the death penalty listened with rapt attention, preparing to descend on state legislators to press their case.  Maryland appears likely in the next few weeks to join the growing list of states that have abolished capital punishment.  Some longtime death penalty opponents say no one in the country has done more to advance that cause than Mr. Bloodsworth.  But ending executions in Maryland, the state that once was determined to kill him, would be a personal victory for him.

Even for proponents of capital punishment, Mr. Bloodsworth’s tale is deeply unsettling. In 1984, he was a former Marine with no criminal record who had followed his father’s profession as a waterman on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  A woman glimpsed on television a police sketch of the suspect in the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl outside Baltimore.  She thought it looked like her neighbor Kirk, and she called the police.

From there, with the police and prosecutors under intense pressure to solve the crime, it was a short route to trial, conviction and a death sentence for a man whose Dickensian name, after all, seemed to imply guilt.  “I was accused of the most brutal murder in Maryland history,” Mr. Bloodsworth, now 52, told the church audience.  “It took the jury two and a half hours to send me to the gas chamber.”

Only after nine years in the state’s most decrepit and violent prisons did Mr. Bloodsworth, through his own perseverance and some aggressive lawyering, manage to get the still-novel DNA test that finally proved his innocence in 1993.  Even then, prosecutors publicly expressed doubt about his innocence. “Nobody knew what DNA was then — it was sort of shaman science, a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” he said in an interview. It took another decade — and, again, Mr. Bloodsworth’s own dogged efforts — before officials ran the DNA from the murder scene through a database and identified the real killer, who is now serving a life sentence.  He bore little resemblance to the description that the police had compiled from eyewitnesses....

Even after his release, Mr. Bloodsworth could never quite escape the false charges that had threatened him with execution.  He tried to return, he said, to “a normal life,” but he was haunted by what he had learned about the justice system.  “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody,” he said. He threw himself into work against capital punishment and for justice reform, first as a volunteer speaker and later as a professional advocate.  Last month he began work as the advocacy director for Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based coalition of exonerated death row inmates who push to end capital punishment.

The movement to end the death penalty has garnered more support from politicians and the public as it has shifted from moral condemnation of capital punishment to a more practical argument: that mistakes by witnesses and the police inevitably mean that innocent people will be executed.  While DNA gets the limelight, of 142 prisoners sentenced to death and then exonerated in the last 40 years, just 18 were freed over DNA evidence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Use of the death penalty has been steadily declining, and 17 states no longer have it on the books, with 5 of them abolishing it since 2007, said Richard C. Dieter, the center’s executive director. Executions dropped to 43 last year from 98 in 1999.  “These innocence cases are the biggest single factor, because it has spread doubt throughout the system,” Mr. Dieter said.

Mr. Bloodsworth, a tireless public speaker who has visited state after state to lobby for repeal, handing out a 2004 book on his case, called “Bloodsworth,” has used his own experience to promote those doubts.  “I think no single individual has changed as many minds as Kirk,” said Jane Henderson, the director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, a lobbying group. “He’s articulate, patient, and he’s got a huge heart.”

His homespun eloquence has unmistakable appeal, but his own tale is his most powerful argument.  Prosecutors and jurors ignored glaring problems with witnesses — two were boys who did not pick Mr. Bloodsworth out of a lineup — and dismissed five alibi witnesses who testified that he was home at the time of the murder....

Delegate Barbara A. Frush, a Maryland legislator for 19 years, said a visit from Mr. Bloodsworth two years ago changed her mind about capital punishment, which she had long favored.  “I sat across the desk from him and looked in his eyes and listened to his story,” she said.  “It sent shivers down my spine.  I thought, I can’t take the chance that I might send an innocent man to death.”

This week, for the first time, he had a private visit with the longtime president of the State Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has decided to allow a floor vote on the repeal bill. Mr. Bloodsworth left the meeting more optimistic than ever.

February 6, 2013 at 04:02 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Ouhie! so now the state's total failure to do the job right is now biting them in the ass via a surviving witness to their criminal action.

Got to love it!

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 6, 2013 7:05:12 PM

So who was wrongfully executed "in the last 40 years"?
Silence.

You're in good hands with Allstate.

Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 6, 2013 9:56:32 PM

Adamakis --

"So who was wrongfully executed 'in the last 40 years'?"

Timmy McVeigh, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and a cast of thousands. They're ALL innocent, dontcha know (as is everyone else in prison, from meth pushers to child rapists).

There is no such thing as guilt. There is only the Oppression of the Fascist State that Makes People Seem Guilty When They Are Really Innocent. Just keep reading the comments section, and you'll get your mind right.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 6, 2013 11:06:32 PM

The Times article isn't journalism, it's activism. What a joke that paper is.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 7, 2013 1:44:32 AM

\\ "a more practical argument: that mistakes by witnesses and the police inevitably
mean that innocent people will be executed." \\

Bill Otis:

Being that from Sr. Prejean & Barry Scheck, to RuPaul & Jose Baez, no one can identify an innocent person who WAS executed, ought not one characterise the "Inevitability Argument", the "Illusory Argument"?

Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 7, 2013 10:30:53 AM

The person here would have been dead without the drawn out appeals process that many people find excessive. This alone is notable.

As to "wrongfully executed," what does this mean? If it means "in violation of specific legal rules," are you saying no one can point out people who in such and such a case was executed w/o those rules followed?

If it means factually innocent, first, that's misleading. "Wrongful" includes a lot of things. Lee Harvey Oswald was wrongly killed though you know I think he killed Kennedy. Second, examples are cited. And, some challenge them.

But, same old same old.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 7, 2013 12:32:43 PM

well Joe based on this!

"Only after nine years in the state’s most decrepit and violent prisons did Mr. Bloodsworth, through his own perseverance and some aggressive lawyering, manage to get the still-novel DNA test that finally proved his innocence in 1993. Even then, prosecutors publicly expressed doubt about his innocence. “Nobody knew what DNA was then — it was sort of shaman science, a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” he said in an interview. It took another decade — and, again, Mr. Bloodsworth’s own dogged efforts — before officials ran the DNA from the murder scene through a database and identified the real killer, who is now serving a life sentence. He bore little resemblance to the description that the police had compiled from eyewitnesses.... "

In This case you can go with "Factually Innocent"

so how is it misleading? Or should we use Illegally convicted by a buch of crooked retards!

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 7, 2013 2:12:27 PM

Convicting the Innocent: An Empirically Justified Wrongful Conviction Rate, by D. Michael Risinger. PDF

"Using 10.5 as the numerator as previously explained and 319 as the denominator yields a true minimum error rate for rape-murder from 1982–1989 inclusive of (pace Joshua Marquis and Justice Scalia) 3.3%.

"So there we have it. A conservative minimum wrongful conviction rate for cases of actual, factual innocence, derived from a real, not insignificant, set of serious crimes, and capital crimes to boot. The question immediately comes to mind: What can this tell us about wrongful conviction rates in general?" p 14

Posted by: George | Feb 7, 2013 3:08:49 PM

Convicting the innocent; sixty-five actual errors of criminal justice ([c1932])

Downloadable PDF

Posted by: George | Feb 7, 2013 3:22:58 PM

Do dead people have standing in criminal cases? Didn't we learn from the Kenneth Lay example that they do not?

Posted by: C60 | Feb 8, 2013 5:12:38 PM

"so how is it misleading? Or should we use Illegally convicted by a buch of crooked retards!"

Not artfully put there, with respect.

I argued that some supporting the death sentences were using words in a way that might be "misleading," not those opposing them, so you might be misunderstanding my point.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 9, 2013 11:53:37 AM

Joe, we'll care what you have to say about those of us who support death sentences when you address the serial dishonesty of one Richard Dieter.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 9, 2013 12:09:07 PM

I don't really know anything about the guy and don't think caring about what I have to say should rise or fall on me commenting on some single individual.

Duly noted though.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 10, 2013 9:13:16 PM

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