Former death row inmate becomes Exhibit A for how eyes can lie—-Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence, fights to reform eyewitness IDs
“Give him the gas and kill his ass!”
That was the first thing Kirk Bloodsworth heard amid the eruption in the courtroom after the verdict came back that found him guilty on all counts.
“I can hear ‘em snickering and laughing,” Bloodsworth remembered. “And everybody thought they had the right man – police department, prosecutor’s office, most of the people … thought they had the man.”
They had reason to think so. Multiple eyewitnesses had spotted Bloodsworth at the scene of the crime – at least they believed they had. According to studies dating back to the 1930s, eyewitness misidentification is the most common element in all wrongful convictions. And after nine years in prison, Bloodsworth became the first American on death row exonerated by DNA, and Exhibit A for this central weakness of the criminal justice system.
Before prison changed everything, Bloodsworth’s story was a simple one. It began on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he grew up fishing and crabbing, just like his father and his father’s father. Bloodsworth had left the waterman life briefly to serve as a Marine. He was honorably discharged, and never had any brushes with the law.
That is, until the early hours of Aug. 9, 1984. Sound asleep at his cousin’s home in Cambridge, Md., Bloodsworth heard pounding on the door. When he opened it, flashlights were glaring and pistols were drawn.
“Step outside, Mr. Bloodsworth,” he recalled one of the policemen at the door saying. “You’re under arrest for 1st-degree murder of Dawn Venisha Hamilton, you son of a bitch.”
A woman had seen on TV a sketch of a suspect in the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl outside Baltimore, and thought it resembled her old neighbor Bloodsworth. She called the police, and when Bloodsworth stepped into the police car that morning, it would be the last time he would see the town of Cambridge for eight years, 10 months and 19 days.
Eyes, ears, noses
In the days after the violent murder, Baltimore County Police circulated a composite sketch put together by two boys, ages 8 and 10, who had been fishing and seen a man with the murdered girl. The cops used an “identi-kit,” a Mr. Potato Head-like array of noses, mouths and eyes, to help the children build the face.
“It’s a random, arbitrary box of eyes, ears, noses, faces, jawlines, hairlines, hair, mustaches, sideburns and so forth,” Bloodsworth said. “But it’s only 25 picks of each thing.” Bloodsworth would later learn the kids weren’t happy with the mustache, saying it was more of a Fu Manchu style. The police ignored that, and that composite ended up on TV. When shown a photo array that included Bloodsworth’s image, one of the boys said the offender wasn’t pictured, while the other identified Bloodsworth but said his hair color was wrong.
When Bloodsworth was arrested, local news stations in Baltimore were all over it. By the time the Baltimore County Police performed a lineup, the so-called perp walk video had been playing repeatedly on the news.
“Everybody in court said they watched me on television the entire weekend before I was in the lineup,” Bloodsworth said.
In the lineup, a few witnesses identified Bloodsworth as a man they’d seen in the area, while others didn’t. The 2 young boys didn’t originally identify Bloodsworth in the lineup, but weeks later, after he was charged, their parents called to say their kids had picked him out – which entitled them to some of the reward.
“I never tried to say that anybody was lying. They just made a mistake,” Bloodsworth said. “There was one witness by the name of James Keller who’d testified that he identified me as the person there that day. And they asked him, ‘Well, where did you identify him from?’ He said, ‘Television.’”
An innocent man
Bloodsworth remembers mouthing the words “not guilty” to the cameras from inside the police car as he was detained.
“From the time I was arrested till the moment I was released, I told anyone and everyone that I was an innocent man,” he said. “I used to sign my correspondence that way: ‘Respectively submitted, Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, A.I.M. – An innocent man.’”
Soon he would become a prison librarian, a duty he held for seven and a half years. He read everything in there, from gestalt psychology to Stephen King. In 1992, he read a novel in the prison library about DNA technology. He demanded the evidence in his case be tested by what at the time was the only forensics lab in the U.S.
The process cost around $15,000, a fee covered entirely by Bloodsworth’s lawyer, Bob Morin. One day, Bloodsworth was returning to his cell when he saw a Post-it note. It said, “Urgent, call your attorney.”
“Kirk, you’re an innocent man, you’re innocent,” Bloodsworth recalled Morin saying.
Bloodsworth said he replied: “I know that. When are you gonna get me out of here?”
The DNA results pinpointed a man named Kimberly Ruffner, who had a Fu Manchu mustache the kids had described. As it turned out, Ruffner was already serving time for an assault that he committed after killing Hamilton, and was in the same prison as Bloodsworth.
Catching up with science
Piles of studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is right only about 1/2 the time, nudged or contaminated by certain images and associations or the biases of police. And DNA exonerations have laid bare the central role of eyewitness error in false convictions. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overhaul the system, leaving a handful of concerned states and police forces to tackle the problem.
Later that year, for example, the New Jersey Supreme Court instructed judges to tell jurors all the factors that may have muddled the reliability of an eyewitness, and to point out the research that shows identifying someone of a different race is especially prone to inaccuracy.
And in April, legislators in Bloodsworth’s home state of Maryland passed a bill, requiring witnesses to state how confident they are in their identification and the police to give witnesses the option of “none of the above.”
The Baltimore City and County police departments declined to talk about the Bloodsworth case, or how they’ve reformed their procedures since then. But an hour south, in Prince George’s County, Inspector General Carlos Acosta was adamant about the ways that department has revamped its procedures.
The department has replaced in-person lineups with photo lineups, which must be presented by an officer who is “blind” – unfamiliar with the case and unaware who the suspect is.
“These old-fashioned police lineups are too fallible, because it’s impossible to find people in your police department who all resemble the suspect,” Acosta said. “That’s why we do a photo lineup, and not just any photo lineup; we do it sequentially.”
Acosta said the 1st season of HBO’s “The Wire” perfectly illustrates the need for a blind administrator, someone who has no idea of the identity of the real culprit.
“We’re doing everything we can to lead the way, because we never want there to be another Kirk Bloodsworth,” Acosta said.
Last year, Bloodsworth was instrumental in getting the state that had once wanted to kill him to repeal its death penalty once and for all.
But Bloodsworth believes that what he went through three decades ago could still happen today. To avoid having a televised perp walk bias eyewitnesses, he tells people who are arrested to stay silent and cover their faces.
“Somebody could misidentify them, and it’s happened so many times,” Bloodsworth said. In remembering what he’s gone through, he quoted Albert Einstein: “Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.”
“And he’s very true, he was,” Bloodsworth said. “We superimpose what we wanna see, sometimes.”
(source: Al Jazeera)
September 22, 2014
In a forthcoming documentary, Kirk Bloodsworth fights to keep innocent people from being sentenced to death. (Click here to watch the trailer.)
When he was 22, Kirk Bloodsworth was sentenced to death for the murder of a 9-year-old girl. The case against him relied solely on one person’s eyewitness testimony; no physical evidence linked him to the scene. After he spent eight years in prison, Bloodsworth was exonerated in 1993 through “genetic fingerprinting.” It was the first time DNA evidence led to a reversal of a death row conviction.
“The Supreme Court has told us that factual innocence is no reason to stop a death sentence properly rendered. I’ll be damned, and so shall the death penalty this year,” Bloodsworth says in a trailer for the forthcoming documentary Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man, which centers on his case and his crusade on behalf of death penalty inmates and post-conviction DNA testing.
“I want to kill the thing that almost killed me.”
DNA evidence has led to 317 post-conviction exonerations in the United States since 1993, according to The Innocence Project, a legal advocacy organization that helps prisoners who could be proven innocent with the help of DNA evidence. Of the 317 who had their convictions overturned, 18 spent time on death row.
For some innocent people in prison, the reversal of fortune came too late. Thursday, in Lubbock, Texas, the state unveiled a 13-foot bronze statue in honor of Timothy Cole. Though nothing other than an eyewitness connected Cole to the crime, he was convicted in 1986 of raping college student Michele Murray and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In 2007, a man named Jerry Wayne Johnson, who was serving time on other rape charges, sent a letter to Cole’s mother and confessed to raping Murray. In 2010 DNA proved the same, but it was too late to grant Cole his freedom. He’d died in 1999 while serving the sentence. He is the 1st person in Texas history to be exonerated posthumously.
The base of the new statue in Lubbock reads “And Justice for All.” Cole is seen holding 2 books, the spine of 1 reading “Lest We Forget.”
The Associated Press reported that at the unveiling, Cole’s brother, Cory Session, told the crowd, “The arc of justice is long, but for our family, it bends toward Lubbock today.”
It’s more than likely that innocent people are serving decades-long prison sentences. The stories of Bloodsworth and Cole show that, for many, DNA evidence is their only hope for freedom.