1st death row inmate exonerated by DNA to speak at UM
October 11, 2011
For eight years, Kirk Bloodsworth recited the prisoner's mantra - he was innocent.
Except that the Maryland man really was.
On the strength of eyewitness testimony from five people who identified the 6-foot-tall redhead as the short blond man last seen with 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in 1984, Bloodsworth was convicted - twice - of raping Hamilton, strangling her and bashing her head in with a rock.
In 1993, Bloodsworth became the first death row inmate in the country exonerated on the basis of DNA testing that proved he hadn't assaulted Hamilton. That same evidence later convicted Hamilton's real killer.
Bloodsworth brings his cautionary tale to Missoula on Tuesday with a public talk at the University of Montana School of Law.
"I want to tell people if this could happen to me, it could happen to you," he said.
The Montana Innocence Project originally planned to bring Bloodsworth to Montana solely for a training session in Whitefish on Thursday for the state Office of Public Defender.
"But we didn't want to miss a chance to bring him to a Missoula audience, for students and other people in Missoula interested in our work at the Innocence Project and the criminal justice issues that affect us all," said Jessie McQuillan, the nonprofit group's executive director.
The Montana Innocence Project is part of a national group that works to exonerate people who are wrongly convicted. Around the country, some 273 people - 17 of whom spent time on death row - have been exonerated on the basis of DNA testing that proved they couldn't have committed the crimes for which they were convicted, according to Innocence Project statistics. The actual perpetrators later were found in nearly half those cases.
With DNA testing, Bloodsworth said, "you can put the guilty behind bars and free the innocent. It's a win-win."
Last month, Montana's Innocence Project won a two-year $174,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to expand its casework and fund DNA testing. In Montana, the best-known case involving exoneration based on DNA testing is that of Jimmy Ray Bromgard, a Billings man who spent 14 years in prison for raping an 8-year-old girl.
Bloodsworth said he'll speak Tuesday night in support of requiring states to keep DNA evidence for at least 30 years.
Innocence Project statistics show that those exonerated spent an average of 13 years in prison before being freed, but Montana only requires that such evidence be kept for three, McQuillan said.
A bill that would have allowed Montana inmates convicted in homicide and sexual assault cases to request long-term preservation of DNA evidence died in committee during the 2011 legislative session.
Several lawmakers expressed concern about the cost, McQuillan said. But a national grant named for Bloodsworth now helps state defray those expenses, she said.
Bloodsworth said that "prosecutors do the best they can under the circumstances with the information received. But some of that information can be false."
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio
@missoulian.com or on CopsAndCourts.com.
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