The first man found innocent using DNA evidence after being sentenced to death is sharing his story with South Dakotans. Kirk Bloodsworth is telling students at the University of Sioux Falls how he came to find himself convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to die when he had no connection to the crimes. He spent years in a Maryland prison before science proved him not guilty. Now Bloodsworth works to reform the criminal justice system.
"This whole thing started by a next door neighbor saying, ‘The composite sketch looks like my neighbor Kirk,'" Bloodsworth says.
In 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth was 23 years old with no criminal record. He was an honorably discharged United States Marine with a new marriage. Bloodsworth lived in part of Maryland for less than one month before he was identified as the last person to have seen a 9-year-old girl who was raped and murdered.
"It didn’t stop for eight years, 10 months and 19 days later. I was convicted twice and, in the first trial, sentenced to death and spent two years on death row as well," Bloodsworth says.
Bloodsworth says he spent his years incarcerated soul-searching and trusting that time would prove his innocence, all while knowing he was condemned to die in a gas chamber.
"And stuck in a cell that I could take three steps from the back wall and go to the cell door and touch either wall by sticking my hands out. If your listeners could understand what I’m doing, I’ve got my hands out like a cross, and I go from one inch to either side, and I could touch them," Bloodsworth says. "And that was the place I lived in for a long time. People were passing you by and you can’t get it out. It’s one of the most grotesque social justice problems in the United States I think today. It almost ruined me in the end."
In 1993, Bloodsworth was released from that prison. He and his attorney worked to have D-N-A evidence preserved from the crime tested. Science proved the genetic material didn’t belong to Bloodsworth. A decade later, authorities discovered the real rapist and murderer.
Kirk Bloodsworth was the first death row inmate in the United States released from prison after DNA evidence showed he wasn’t guilty, but he wasn’t the last.
Bloodsworth says the country needs to comb over its justice system to make reasonable changes that could help avoid wrongful convictions.
"Instead of just a straight lineup with six or seven people in the same lineup, you show one person at a time versus all six, the same way you would do with photograph array – like one picture at a time. And you also have the caveat that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup," Bloodsworth says.
Bloodsworth says convicting people who aren’t actually responsible for crimes is only part of the problem. The other challenge is dedicating resources – including DNA testing – post-conviction to making sure people really are guilty.
"We can’t think of ourselves as being omnipotent," Bloodsworth says. "Even if we think we’ve got everything right, we could still be wrong."
Bloodsworth says he’s heard South Dakota’s Attorney General talk about the narrow application of the death penalty in the state, and he tends to agree that it seems to be used judiciously. But, Bloodsworth says, applying the death penalty in some cases inherently values some victim’s lives above others.
The man once wrongly condemned to die says he opposes the death penalty; however, that’s his personal opinion.
"You know, it’s not my place to tell you what to believe. I think you should glean from my story what you will," Bloodsworth says. "And I think the final analysis – if it can happen to me, it can happen to you – will come clear."
Bloodsworth says he’s told his story of wrongful conviction and sentence for 21 years, and he sees more people recognizing that innocent people can be found guilty of horrendous crimes…and those men and women deserve their own justice.
Three men currently sit on death row in South Dakota. They are Charles Rhines, Briley Piper, and Rodney Berget.