Kimberly Shay Ruffner pleaded guilty last May to raping and murdering 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Essex, Md., in 1984.
It was Kirk Bloodsworth, however, who served nine years in prison – two on death row – for the rape and murder that Ruffner committed. Bloodsworth was sentenced to death in March 1985, was granted a retrial upon appealing his conviction, and was re-sentenced to two consecutive life-imprisonment terms in 1987. Bloodsworth was released from prison in 1993 after a DNA test of semen on the victim’s clothing determined that the semen was not Bloodsworth’s.
More than a year before the O.J. Simpson trial made forensic DNA testing widely known and routine in criminal justice investigations, it was Bloodsworth, a Marylander, who was the first American to be exonerated by DNA evidence while on death row.
Bloodsworth’s biography seems like a crime novel, but it was all too real, a collective failure of the jury, police detectives, prosecutors and judges in Maryland’s criminal justice system. Potomac author Tim Junkin chronicled Bloodsworth’s story in “Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA,” published in October by Algonquin Books.
“We’ve had such a tremendous response from so many people we’ve met,” said Junkin, who spent much of the past fall on a signing and speaking tour of the United States.
Bloodsworth was with Junkin at about half of the appearances. At one of them, they met three other men who had been convicted of murder, condemned to death, and later exonerated by evidence not considered during their trial. From the exonerated murder suspects to law school students to anti-death-penalty advocacy groups, Junkin’s book and Bloodsworth’s story hit home with many people around the country.
“BLOODSWORTH” begins with attorney Bob Morin’s 1993 telephone call to Bloodsworth in Maryland Penitentiary, informing Bloodsworth that the DNA tests confirmed his innocence. From there, Junkin describes the disappearance of Dawn Hamilton and the discovery of her dead body, then introduces the reader to Bloodsworth.
After writing two published novels, “Bloodsworth” is Junkin’s first non-fictional publication, but a fondness for Maryland’s Eastern Shore is prevalent through all three books. Bloodsworth grew up in the Eastern Shore town of Cambridge, Md., where he graduated from Open Bible Academy. Bloodsworth joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduation, and was honorably discharged in 1981.
Junkin does not portray the pre-conviction Bloodsworth as a saint — he describes him as a man who was shiftless as a worker, drank and smoked marijuana heavily, and married a “rough” woman two months after he met her — but Bloodsworth had a clean criminal record when he was arrested by police in Cambridge for Dawn Hamilton’s murder.
Junkin goes into detail on essentials of investigation, trial and appeals processes, and even a reader unacquainted with legal terminology will be able to follow Bloodsworth’s conviction. Particularly troubling is homicide detectives’ exclusive use of a 7-year-old boy’s description to create the composite sketch used in finding the murder suspect. Bloodsworth was identified in a police lineup by the same 7-year-old boy, a 10-year-old boy, and three adults whose reliability seems highly compromised. “The detectives yielded, perhaps, to the all-too-human desire to hastily find and punish this child-killer,” Junkin writes, a statement that could easily apply to the prosecutors, judge and jury convinced that Bloodsworth was a murderer who deserved to die.
Details of Bloodsworth’s incarceration are vivid and harrowing. Bloodsworth does what he has to do to survive in a maximum-security facility. After three inmates assault him in the shower, Bloodsworth has to get bloody revenge on each of the three. “He’d never done a violent thing in his life, but he believed [another inmate] that they’d never let him alone if he let this go,” writes Junkin.
And so Bloodsworth lives to get the phone call from Morin after nine years’ hard time. It happened only because Bloodsworth persisted in writing innumerable letters — to federal and state legislators, President Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump and Willie Nelson — before Morin agreed to meet Bloodsworth and take up his case.
No stage of “the system” helped clear Bloodsworth. He had exhausted all legal channels and appeals. Only the persistence of Morin, an attorney who handled a nationwide caseload of death penalty cases, saved Bloodsworth from a lifetime of incarceration for a crime Ruffner committed. After Morin received results of the DNA testing, circuit court Judge James T. Smith (who presided over the retrial) nullified Bloodsworth’s conviction. He was later pardoned by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and received $300,000 in compensation from the state of Maryland.
BLOODSWORTH IS NOW a program officer at the Justice Project, an organization founded by military veterans and dedicated to combating injustice. In this capacity, Bloodsworth was a visible advocate for the federal Innocence Protection Act (IPA), federal legislation that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and signed into law in October this year. The IPA establishes the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which authorizes $25 million over the upcoming five years to defray costs of testing evidence used in capital convictions.
A partner of a Rockville law firm, Junkin went on a national book-signing and speaking tour this fall. Closer to home, Junkin has done recent signings in Annapolis and Easton, Md. He worked his appearances around his obligations to his firm, once flying home for a client’s trial.
Junkin came to know Bloodsworth extensively through the writing of this book. Bloodsworth, he said, is slow to trust people he meets, one of many scars left by his years of imprisonment. But the last few months have been especially gratifying for Bloodsworth, who has been with Junkin at half of his book tour and speaking appearances this fall. “He’s been ecstatic,” Junkin said. “He’s having a much better time than I am.”
Junkin looks forward to relaxing and toning down the touring schedule, and seeing more of his wife, Kristen, and son, Will, a Whitman student (his daughter Isabel is a freshman at Bucknell University). “It’s been incredible, but I’m beat up and tired,” Junkin said. Previously taped interviews with Larry King and Diane Rehm of National Public Radio will air in December.
Junkin’s book, in addition to being an absorbing story, is a sobering reminder to death-penalty advocates of an indisputable mistake made by Maryland’s criminal justice system, and how close the state came to executing the wrong person for a heinous crime.