from a 'living nightmare'
Innocent man's life shattered by death verdict
|Sunday, November 15, 1998
BY FRANK GREEN
The events in a Baltimore County courtroom 13 years ago sometimes challenge Kirk Noble Bloodsworth for words. He says, simply, "It's about the most horrific thing that could ever happen."
"I was sitting there and everything went kind of tunnellike. I didn't see anything, I didn't hear anything, all I heard was the judge say those words: 'The sentence will be death,' " Bloodsworth remembered.
"I was in utter and total shock. I hadn't done anything wrong. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know whether to scream, cry, holler or what.
"And just about that time that he got those words out of his mouth, that 'I sentence you to death,' the courtroom erupted in applause," he said. "It just killed me. I didn't know what to do."
Bloodsworth is one of several dozen former death row inmates who appeared together in Chicago yesterday as free men, part of the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty.
Each man's story is different. But all suffered through the same experience: They were sentenced to die for a crime only to have their sentences overturned -- some, like Bloodsworth because of DNA, others because of recanted testimony and other reasons.
"Sometimes I believe I dreamt it all. But it's not been a dream, it's been a living nightmare," said Bloodsworth. The stocky, 38-year-old unemployed waterman lives in his native Cambridge, a picturesque waterfront town on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
His nightmare began July 25, 1984, when 9-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton went to play outside her cousins' apartment near Golden Ring Mall in the Rosedale area of Baltimore County.
Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney who helped prosecute the case, said a cousin told Dawn's aunt that she had gone into some nearby woods. Her aunt called police when she could not find the girl. Searchers found her body several hours later.
Dawn had been beaten and raped. A sneaker had made an impression on her neck, and her underwear was found hanging from a tree. A piece of cinder block, believed to be the murder weapon, was found near her head.
Two boys who had been fishing nearby said they saw Dawn enter the woods with a man who had curly blond hair. Police produced a composite sketch of the man that was given to newspapers and television stations.
Three apartment complex residents also said they had seen a man with curly blond hair in the area the day of the slaying.
Bloodsworth, a 23-year-old ex-Marine, was newly married, but the relationship was in trouble. He had followed his wife from their home in Cambridge to the Middle River area of Baltimore County in an effort to save the marriage.
He never had been arrested as a suspect in a crime.
He worked at the Golden Ring Mall and was off the day of the murder. He decided the marriage was beyond repair, so on Aug. 3 he left without telling his wife. Police got an anonymous call saying the composite sketch resembled a man named "Kirk." Then Bloodsworth's wife called police to file a missing person's report.
Police interviewed Bloodsworth, who had returned to Cambridge, and took photographs of him. One of the two boys said Bloodsworth looked like the man he had seen with Dawn Hamilton, even though Bloodsworth has red hair.
Police arrested Bloodsworth. Then, said Bloodsworth, things "turned into a big snowball, and I was in the middle of it for eight years, 11 months and 19 days."
According to news accounts, Bloodsworth's first trial, in March 1985, pitted the word of four government witnesses who put him at the crime scene against the word of Bloodsworth's friends who said he was in his house at the time of the slaying.
He said he had nothing against the two young boys who identified him. "There's an old saying, believe half of what you hear and nothing of what you see," he said. Other witnesses who identified him had seen him on television shortly after the arrest.
There was no physical evidence linking him to the slaying.
He was found guilty by the jury, and Judge J. William Hinkel sentenced Bloodsworth to death.
However, before the trial the police did not disclose they had another suspect in the slaying, a newspaper deliveryman who had helped search for the missing girl and found her underpants.
And in 1986, an appeals court
ruled that authorities should have disclosed the information about the other suspect to the defense, so Bloodsworth was tried again in April 1987. This time, his lawyer chose not to put Bloodsworth or his alibi witnesses on the stand.
This time, Judge James T. Smith sentenced Bloodsworth to life after the jury found him guilty.
In some ways, life with general population inmates was even tougher than the 2½ years he spent on death row, he said. Inmates hold child molesters and killers in special disdain.
"You're the last man on that totem pole, that hierarchy. And, really, you're not even there, you're like a serf, of sorts," said Bloodsworth. He said "they really ostracize you from the group until you prove yourself."
In 1992, Bloodsworth had a new attorney, Robert E. Morin, who was court-appointed to help Bloodsworth with his appeals. Morin arranged to have some of the evidence sent to California for a type of DNA testing not available in 1984. The tests showed that semen found on Dawn's underwear did not belong to Bloodsworth. A second test, performed by the FBI, later would confirm the initial test.
Bloodsworth remembers the day he heard the good news. He just had returned from the exercise yard and had a message to call Morin as soon as possible.
"I couldn't stand it. I was pacing around" the cell until the call could be made. When he got Morin on the telephone, the lawyer said, " 'You're innocent. I've always known it. Now the world's going to know.' "
Morin remembers the day. "I got a call from the lab and got the results. . . . It was just a vindication for me because we took the case on because we believed he was innocent. I felt cleansed. I immediately hung up the phone and called Kirk.
"He just started crying on the phone. He just kept telling me, 'Now people will believe me,' " said Morin.
Bloodsworth said: "I've never been so excited in my entire life. I was running up and down the aisleways, throwing my hands up in the air and screaming, and crying and laughing."
It would take three months, however, before he was freed from the House of Correction in Jessup, six months before Gov. William Donald Schaefer issued a full pardon, and a year before he received a $300,000 wrongful imprisonment settlement from the state.
"And the state's attorney, to this day, says she will not apologize for what they did," he said.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor refused to return calls or answer written questions in connection with Bloods-worth. But Brobst, her assistant who helped on the case, said that while the DNA "undermined the public confidence in that conviction . . . it didn't clear him."
That's bunk, counters Morin, now a Superior Court judge in Washington.
"I can't think of any other way to prove your innocence. There was one killer. He left his semen at the scene. Unfortunately, a little girl died, but there was one killer, and it wasn't Kirk," he said.
Vaginal swabs could not be tested because they were in an advanced stage of decomposition, Brobst and Morin said. Brobst said it was not known how the semen wound up on the underpants.
"Was it because all the laundry was thrown together in one corner of the room or into a hamper?" she asked. Nevertheless, it was enough for her office to ask for a new trial and then drop the charges.
She said that other suspects have been given DNA tests but they were cleared. At the moment, there are no suspects. As far as the Baltimore County police are concerned, it is still an open case.
Bloodsworth was freed June 28, 1993. Since then, he said, "I've had a lot of ups and downs." The money is gone. He gave $100,000 to his father and most of the rest of it, he admits, was frittered away on travel, cars and a girlfriend who disappeared when the money did. "I just partied it up. Had a good time."
Morin said: "It was sort of scary. You can look at this case and say nobody did anything wrong, or in bad faith. That's one interpretation: Everybody was just doing their job. And here was this kid who, when he was arrested, said he didn't do it. Every day for nine years when he woke up, said he didn't do it and nobody believed him.
"And all of a sudden everybody believes him. He never changed what he was saying. It's just, we listen to him differently. . . . It was very strange," Morin said.
"I felt bad for him because when he got out, I knew he was going to need counseling and get through some issues. I talked to him very seriously about it, but to him, it was the happiest day in his life," Morin said.
"He didn't understand why he would need help. It's been a struggle for him. His life never will be the same and never has been the same."
Bloodsworth said he's had a hard time keeping jobs since. Someone recently wrote "child killer" in the dust on his truck.
There always will be people who believe he is guilty, he said. "They still have a Flat Earth Society, too," he said. "I'm not a killer. I'm a human being, and I want to be treated that way."
"It's just been one dang thing after another, and I just can't seem to get on my feet," he said. "I'm unemployed now. Everywhere I go it seems like this daggone thing follows me," he complained.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm real happy to be out. I'd rather be broke and free than rich and in prison."
But, he said, "I've never been able to get over it, and I never will."
Sponsors paid his way to Chicago. "I've been forced into speaking against the death penalty" -- an institution he once believed in. "I'm an ex-Marine. A very patriotic person. I grew up around here. The attitude around here is kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out."
"We all had that feeling: Somebody's done something wrong, they've got to pay the price," Bloodsworth said.
"I don't believe that no more, because you could easily put an innocent
man away real quick."
© 1998, Richmond Newspapers Inc.