Thursday, 22 February 2007

Listen to Kirk Bloodsworth; Stop Capital Punishment

Listen to Kirk Bloodsworth; Stop Capital Punishment

Kirk Bloodsworth does this for a living now, telling people who truly
believe that killing a killer is the right and just thing to do that they
are mistaken, that man is too flawed, too prone to error, to render the
kind of final judgment that we read about in Scripture.

Bloodsworth tells his story nearly every day. And still, his voice
thickens, and still, the big man shudders and stifles a sob, as he did
yesterday before a Senate committee in Annapolis that is considering
repealing Maryland's death penalty. Bloodsworth -- a former waterman who
grew up on the Eastern Shore, served in the Marine Corps and had never
been arrested -- spent eight years, 11 months and 19 days in prison and
two of those years on Maryland's death row, until his brute persistence
finally persuaded authorities to conduct a DNA test. Bloodsworth, it
turned out, did not commit the rape and murder of which he was convicted.
Kimberly Ruffner committed those crimes, and in 2004, he pleaded guilty.

The taxpayers of Maryland paid Bloodsworth $300,000 as compensation for
the income he lost during all those years. That's $92.39 a day, $23,000 a
year. That doesn't include the millions the state spent to convict him,
twice. Or the millions it cost to keep him on death row. It doesn't begin
to compensate him for the fact that while he was wrongly kept in a box, he
lost his mother. "And I lost my dignity," he told me. "Everybody said they
were doing the right thing. And everybody was wrong."

On too many nights, even now, 14 years after his release, Bloodsworth's
wife, Brenda, must shake him awake because he is in distress, in a cold
sweat, having yet another nightmare about Maryland's death chamber, the
room he slept under for hundreds of nights.

On this day, Bloodsworth told his story to men and women who have been
elected by their fellow citizens to decide whether it is right to take the
life of a fellow man who committed a terrible wrong. On their foreheads
this day, several of those who must make this decision bore the sign of
the cross in black ash.

They had taken time out of their workday to have a priest mark them in
recognition of their penance. The priest had blessed them with these
words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."

On this Ash Wednesday, Maryland's governor, having received his blessing,
made a rare appearance before members of the legislature to urge them to
do as his conscience commanded him to do and repeal the death penalty.

Martin O'Malley did not run for governor with any promise to abolish
capital punishment. This new governor entered office looking to avoid the
most volatile issues, hoping, he said, to focus on "the things we agree

But now O'Malley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that "the
death penalty cannot coexist with a republic founded on the belief in the
inalienable dignity of the individual." The governor urged lawmakers to
accept that the death penalty is "inherently unjust," that it is
preposterously, pointlessly expensive, that it is flawed and therefore a
danger to the innocent, and that it plain doesn't work as a deterrent.
"Repeal the death penalty in our state this year," he said. Capital
punishment is on hold in Maryland following an appeals court's ruling last
year stopping lethal injections until the state issues new regulations for
the procedure.

Neither Brenda nor Kirk Bloodsworth had any strong view about the death
penalty before it became the defining concept in their lives. Most of us
don't have to have a position on capital punishment. Politicians do, and
their stands tend to be sharply defined; their jobs depend on it.

So turning around a state's policy on this issue is no simple task. Yet in
one state after another this year, lawmakers are voting to repeal or put a
moratorium on capital punishment. The death penalty seemed right to so
many for so long, but now, in this era of DNA evidence, in this time when
people are questioning the nature of truth and evidence in so many spheres
of life, it just doesn't seem quite as clear.

Sen. Lisa Gladden from Baltimore, sponsor of the repeal bill, handed her
colleagues dimestore mirrors to help them examine themselves before
deciding whether the state should be in the killing business.

But if yesterday's parade of witnesses slamming the death penalty as a
counterproductive, flawed, expensive relic changed any minds, nobody was
admitting to it. The committee is expected to say no to a repeal, probably
by a 1-vote margin.

Nobody on the committee argued that the death penalty is fairly
administered, not in a state where every single man executed since 1978
killed a white person, not where every single executed prisoner committed
his crime in Baltimore city or county. And nobody argued that the system
is error-free.

No, the politicians who still believe in the death penalty were relegated
to grasping at straws, repeatedly asking what the state would do without
having the ultimate punishment to use against prisoners who are serving
life sentences and then kill a prison guard. "What punishment do we give
that guy?" asked Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents Cecil and
Harford counties.

No one had an answer for her. The voices on the other side of the issue
were looking at this from a completely different altitude. Bloodsworth
told the politicians this: "The possibility that we could kill an innocent
person -- that trumps it all."

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