Originally published March 10, 2007
By Sarah Fortney
|Photo by Skip Lawrence |
Chris Conover, left, and Kirk Bloodsworth, former death row inmates who have been exonerated, speak to students at St. John's Catholic Prep School on Friday morning.
FREDERICK — A knock on the door of Kirk Bloodsworth's Cambridge home came early on a hot August 1984 morning. He was escorted, barefoot, out of his home and told he was under arrest for the murder of 9-year-old Dawn V. Hamilton.
Witnesses testified against him — even his neighbor said he fit the description.
"It was a grim experience," he said.
Bloodsworth said he had a "eureka" moment when he realized the power of DNA testing.
When Bloodsworth demanded the evidence be re-examined, he was told it was lost and no one could help him. He pushed relentlessly until his DNA was tested.
Eight years, 11 months and 19 days later, he celebrated his freedom by devouring his favorite food — crabs. Hard and soft shelled crabs, crab soup, crab dip, Bloodsworth said.
"I crabbed it up," he said.
He was the first death row inmate cleared by DNA testing in the nation and is fighting to free other innocent people by supporting the Innocence Protection Act, signed by President Bush as part of the Justice for All Act of 2004. The law is designed to combat crimes with DNA technology and provide safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions and executions.
The Innocence Protection Act also helped develop the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which defrays some of the costs of DNA tests.
Bloodsworth was one of two men wrongfully accused of murder who talked about flaws in the judicial system in front of about 300 students Friday morning at St. John's Catholic Prep School.
He and Chris Conover of Kitty Hawk, N.C., shared their experiences as inmates living in cells with cockroaches and indescribable odors while the actual killers were walking around scot-free.
They explained the importance of abolishing the death penalty in Maryland, an issue being discussed among state legislators.
State Sen. Alex Mooney, a Republican who represents Frederick County, will vote on a proposal next week to repeal the death penalty.
"We've been talking to legislatures," Bloodsworth said. "I go all over the country talking about my story."
Conover spent almost 19 years in jail after he was convicted of the 1984 murder of drug dealer Charles Jordan and Jordan's 18-year-old stepdaughter, Lisa Brown. He was to serve triple life sentences plus 80 years without parole until DNA evidence surfaced.
Conover believes his conviction was partly his fault.
"Because of my extensive records I got looked at," Conover said to the students. "I put myself in a suspect pool. It only takes one time for (police) to know about you."
He said he had several drug and armed robbery charges working against him -- he fit the profile of the murderer of a drug dealer.
He said Bloodsworth's action opened doors for him. Without each of them taking a stand for themselves they might not be able to speak about their experiences as free men.
A 2005 study published in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology states that more than 350 people were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated in the United States from 1989 to 2003.
Ninety-six percent of the exonerations were either for murder, rape or sexual assault, according to the study. The remaining 14 cases were six robberies, two attempted murders, a kidnapping, an assault, a larceny, a gun possession and two drug cases.
"There is no evidence that an innocent person has been executed," Conover said.
Conover and Bloodsworth both said they hope to educate the students, who can then question their parents about the death penalty. They could ask their parents if they have called local legislators or written to senators.
"We want them to go home and ask their parents about it," Conover said, specifically questioning how many innocent people they believe should die before the person at fault is penalized. "You can't bet on people's lives."
Quron Lewis, 18, is a St. John's senior. As he waited to hear the men tell their stories, he said it's important to raise awareness about the death penalty. Listening to what they say will make an impact on those who are about to leave for college, free to make their own decisions, including whether they should experiment with drugs.
"It's good to have those lookout messages," he said. "We're all learning. Stuff like this is out there."
Sitting with Lewis was senior Tony Cummings, 18. Lewis said the discussion would be meaningful for the student body.
Angie Galleno, director of campus ministry, said the students have expressed interest in the debate.
"They were absolutely on fire, for lack of a better word," she said.
Several students hung posters around the school with statistics and facts about the death penalty, Galleno said. For example, the United States is the only industrialized Western nation still using capital punishment.
"It's good for them to speak about how they were falsely accused," he said.
Freshman Ecisi Izevbigie, 14, sat in the audience with several friends.
"Through this whole experience, I think the issue about the death penalty has broadened my stance on it," she said. "It has expanded my views and made us realize what needs to be done to abolish the death penalty."