The Washington Post

Ex-Death Row Inmate Hears Hoped-for Words: We Found Killer
By Susan Levine; Washington Post
September 6, 2003; Page A01

At a Burger King on Maryland's Eastern Shore yesterday, Kirk Bloodsworth sat down with the prosecutor who helped send him to death row for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. Nearly two decades later, Ann Brobst told him, DNA had identified the man who had really done it.

"We got a hit on a guy," he remembers hearing, in the immeasurable fraction of a moment before he began weeping, realizing the words' import, realizing that the state at last considered him a completely innocent man. Beside him, his wife, Brenda, broke down and wept, too.

"You know how long I've waited to hear you say that?" Bloodsworth asked Brobst, who twice persuaded a jury to convict him of Dawn Hamilton's brutal death -- and who yesterday apologized for how that shattered his life.

But there was more. The suspect, Brobst went on, is already in prison in Maryland, halfway through a 45-year sentence for burglary, attempted rape and assault with intent to murder. His name: Kimberly Shay Ruffner.

"My God," Bloodsworth said, "I know him."

In a plot twist few involved could have imagined, the Baltimore County state's attorney's office now believes the killer in the 1984 slaying has been hiding behind bars since a month after the crime. Prosecutors announced yesterday that Ruffner, 45, was tagged by a stain of semen analyzed for the first time this spring and then entered into state and federal DNA databases. It was the same kind of evidence that in 1993 led to Bloodsworth's exoneration after almost nine years of incarceration.

During several of those years, he and Ruffner lived only one floor and a couple of cells apart in the state's maximum security prison in Jessup. "He lifted weights with us," Bloodsworth said. "I spotted weights for him."

The two never talked about why Bloodsworth was in prison, but the former Marine and Eastern Shore waterman is sure Ruffner knew.

From the day of his arrest, Bloodsworth maintained loudly and vigorously that he had no involvement, that he had been nowhere near the woods, just east of the Baltimore line, where the girl disappeared in July 1984. Two boys fishing in the area that morning told police they had seen her walking with a strange man. After a suspect's composite was publicized, a hotline tipster suggested that police check out Bloodsworth, who recently had moved up from Cambridge to try to save a failing marriage.

He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. His sentence was overturned in 1987, but he was convicted again and given life without parole. After his pardon and release -- his was the first DNA exoneration in this country of someone who had been on death row -- a growing cadre of supporters urged Baltimore County prosecutors to use the same scientific technology to try to identify the true killer.

The delay in doing so, coupled with prosecutors' repeated hedging on Bloodsworth's innocence, infuriated many.

Yesterday, those supporters exulted with him.

"It must be a huge burden lifted," said Peter Loge of the Washington-based Criminal Justice Reform Education Fund, a group Bloodsworth has worked with as an outspoken death penalty opponent.

At the same time, Loge focused on the "troubling questions" the case continues to raise. "The data was there," he said. "Why wasn't it run before? What if it had already been destroyed? . . . This speaks to the broader reform that is needed, laws requiring DNA evidence [to be taken] and requiring its preservation and testing."

Although Maryland State Police in 1994 began entering felons' genetic samples into the state database, which links with a national system, a spokesman said he could not discuss when Ruffner's DNA became part of that. Regardless, Baltimore County police did not begin working with the system until 2002.

State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said yesterday that her office first asked police to try for a DNA hit in the Hamilton case early last year. It never was done, she said.

Police spokesman Bill Toohey acknowledged the lapse but blamed staffing and funding shortages and the reality that an old case will get lower priority than cases about to go to trial. "We were balancing a lot of needs," he said.

In May, a forensic biologist did pick up the evidence and almost immediately identified new semen stains for analysis. Police requested additional funds to send such evidence to a private lab for further testing. By mid-August, Toohey said, the results were submitted to state police.

On Aug. 28, 19 years to the day after Ruffner was arrested after trying to rape a young woman in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, state police reported back that they had found a positive match for Hamilton's killer.

"I'm very happy that the case is solved," O'Connor said. Her office charged Ruffner with first-degree murder yesterday.

Bloodsworth, 43, said he knew nothing of any developments until Brobst called him at home in Cambridge on Thursday. She said she needed to meet with him. She wouldn't say what it was about.

He was the one who suggested the Burger King parking lot. He showed up with Brenda, his attorney and a cousin. Brobst showed up with two Baltimore County police officers.

They went inside. "They got me a soda," he said. Then Brobst broke the news.

He immediately called his father, one of his staunchest supporters all these years. "I told him, 'They got him, Dad. They got him.' He started screaming, 'Attaboy!' "

Even hours later, the words and tears spilled together over the phone line. "I've been crying all day," Bloodsworth said. "I'm so happy."

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