College’s Political Union Hosts Kirk Bloodsworth
Issue   |   Tue, 03/03/2015 - 23:17

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence, spoke about his experience in the Red Room in Converse Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 25. The event was organized by the Amherst College Political Union.

Bloodsworth described how he was convicted of the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in 1985 in Maryland and was sentenced to death. Despite questionable circumstantial evidence, a strong alibi and the youth and unreliability of the eyewitnesses, Bloodworth was found guilty after a trial that lasted just two weeks, which he attributes to incompetent legal representation and recklessness on the part of the police.

“You can’t help but to feel isolated by the experience,” Bloodsworth said in an interview. “Wrongful convictions are one of our greatest social injustices of our time. But [giving] up for me was never an option.”

Bloodsworth described how he asked his lawyers to use DNA evidence, a new technology at the time, to demonstrate his innocence, leading to his exoneration in 1993. The real murderer, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, who coincidentally had served time in the same prison as Bloodsworth for unrelated crimes, was convicted in 2004.

Since his exoneration, Bloodsworth has become an activist fighting for justice system reform and the abolition of the death penalty.

“When I got out, I knew this could happen to anyone,” Bloodworth said. “That’s what led me to the decision to speak out and promote reform.”

Bloodsworth’s advocacy contributed to Maryland’s 2013 repeal of capital punishment. He endorsed life imprisonment as an alternative sentence for severe crimes. In addition to the elimination of the death penalty, Bloodsworth called for reform measures, such as taping police interrogators, alternative police lineup methods that were less likely to result in false identifications and the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which provides funds for DNA testing for the accused.

“The death penalty doesn’t work if you execute an innocent person,” Bloodsworth said. “Life imprisonment is a better punishment, and it’s a safety net in case of innocence. You can’t walk over the innocent to execute the guilty.”

After telling his story, Bloodsworth answered questions from the audience. When asked if he believed that Ruffner, the real killer, deserved to die, he responded, “Did Ruffner deserve to die? Maybe, but we had to save him to save me.”

Amherst Political Union president Liam Fine ’17 said that Bloodsworth’s invitation to campus was partially the result of Bloodsworth’s personal connection with a current student, Tommy Raskin ’17.

“Mr. Bloodsworth first came on our radar in January, after our director of public affairs, Tommy Raskin, expressed his desire to bring him to campus,” Fine said. “Tommy’s father had worked closely with Mr. Bloodsworth in the past to abolish the death penalty in Maryland.”

The death penalty remains a highly contentious issue in the United States, where it is used as punishment for severe crimes by the federal government, the military and 32 states. Capital punishment was struck down by the courts in Massachusetts in 1984. Currently, most countries, including all of Western Europe and Canada, have abolished the death penalty; the United States and Japan are two of the only world powers that have not.

Fine said he hopes the conversation about the death penalty should continue beyond the event itself.

“It is our sincere hope that Mr. Bloodsworth’s event will not be seen as just another interesting speaking event at Amherst, but more importantly, an event which sparks intense discourse on campus and really forces students to exercise their civic duty by becoming educated citizens and bringing about change in the world,” Fine said.