Skip to main content

I was on death row, and I was innocent

By Kirk Noble Bloodsworth
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kirk Bloodsworth: I was first in U.S. sentenced to death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence
  • Witnesses, not physical evidence, tied him to rape, murder
  • Life in prison hell on earth. He found book on DNA testing, lawyer pursued, he was freed
  • Bloodsworth: End capital punishment. I am proof that system is broken beyond repair

Editor's note: Kirk Bloodsworth is the director of advocacy for Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row survivors and their loved ones.

Watch "Death Row Stories," a CNN original series, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Sunday. Join the conversation: Follow us at facebook.com/cnn or Twitter @CNNorigSeries using #DeathRowStories.

(CNN) -- Edward Lee Elmore's story, which is the focus of the first episode of CNN's documentary series, "Death Row Stories," shows that the capital punishment system does not always get it right. Like Edward, I know this first-hand.

I was the first person in the United States to be exonerated from death row because of DNA testing.

Kirk Bloodsworth
Kirk Bloodsworth

In 1984, I was 23 years old, newly married and living in Cambridge, Maryland. I had just served four years in the Marine Corps. I had never been arrested. This all changed on August 9, 1984, when the police knocked on my door at 3 a.m. and arrested me for the murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton.

In a matter of days I became the most hated man in Maryland.

On July 25, 1984, Dawn was raped and murdered in Baltimore County. A man approached Dawn and offered to help her find her friend in their game of hide-and-seek. Her body was found in the park later that afternoon.

The police were eager to find the girl's killer and ease the community's fear. Despite the fact that I did not match witnesses' descriptions of the man who approached Dawn, an anonymous caller suggested my name to the Cambridge Police Department.

"There was no physical evidence against me. During the trial, I was convicted primarily on the testimony of five eyewitnesses who were later shown to be terribly mistaken."

There was no physical evidence against me. During the trial, I was convicted primarily on the testimony of five witnesses who were later shown to be terribly mistaken. It took the jury less than three hours to convict me. When they announced my death sentence, the courtroom erupted in applause.

Life at the Maryland State Penitentiary can only be described as Hell on Earth. I still have nightmares about it. My cell was directly under the gas chamber. The guards thought it was funny to remind me of that fact. They would describe the entire procedure in detail and laugh at my fate. Fortunately, a second trial reduced my punishment to back-to-back life sentences.

I fought to stay safe at the penitentiary and spent long days in the prison library. At the time of my first trial, DNA testing was not a well-understood concept in criminal law. In 1992, I came across a book about DNA testing used to solve murders in England. My attorney, Bob Morin, submitted a request for the evidence in my case to be tested.

The prosecutor almost brought my innocence claim to a halt when she sent a letter with a devastating message: The biological material in my case was inadvertently destroyed. Miraculously, the judge from my second trial had decided to keep some of the physical evidence and store it in his chambers.

One day in 1993 I received a phone call from my attorney. The stain lifted from the victim's underpants did not match my DNA. The DNA told the truth: I was not guilty of this crime. Unfortunately, it would take 10 more years for Dawn's true killer to be identified.

DNA frees 2 men in N.Y. triple murder
21 years in jail for this innocent man
How DNA testing can save lives
Imprisoned more than half his life for a rape and murder conviction, 53-year-old Edward Lee Elmore, center, celebrates his 2012 release in Greenwood, South Carolina. Appellate lawyers Diana Holt and John Blume uncovered information suggesting that evidence was planted or hidden from defense attorneys. Elmore had been sentenced to death three times for the 1982 rape and murder of 75-year-old Dorothy Edwards, a wealthy Greenwood widow. Elmore had no alibi at the time of the killing.
For more, watch "Death Row Stories" on CNN at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday. Imprisoned more than half his life for a rape and murder conviction, 53-year-old Edward Lee Elmore, center, celebrates his 2012 release in Greenwood, South Carolina. Appellate lawyers Diana Holt and John Blume uncovered information suggesting that evidence was planted or hidden from defense attorneys. Elmore had been sentenced to death three times for the 1982 rape and murder of 75-year-old Dorothy Edwards, a wealthy Greenwood widow. Elmore had no alibi at the time of the killing. For more, watch "Death Row Stories" on CNN at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Death row story: Edward Lee Elmore
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Death row story: Edward Lee Elmore Death row story: Edward Lee Elmore

On June 28, 1993, I walked out of the Maryland State Penitentiary a free man. My re-entry into society was not easy. When I returned to Cambridge, I had trouble getting a job. I was harassed by my neighbors. The State of Maryland paid me $300,000 for lost income during the time I was wrongfully imprisoned, but I lost so much more than money in those eight years.

During my 21 years of freedom, I have become one of many exonerees who, with the help of advocacy organizations like Witness to Innocence, travel around the world to share our cautionary tales.

Even people acting in good faith can make serious mistakes. Witness misidentification is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States. Since 1989, DNA evidence has been used to exonerate more than 300 individuals in capital and non-capital cases. Approximately 75% of these cases involved inaccurate or faulty witness identification.

I am living proof that America's system of capital punishment is broken beyond repair.

More and more people are realizing this. In a 2013 Gallup poll, support for the death penalty dropped to 60%, the lowest level in 40 years. Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013, the sixth state in six years to do so. Concerns about innocence, unfairness and other issues have led to a dramatic decline in death sentences and executions since the 1990s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The death penalty is fading away, but in my view, the end of capital punishment in the United States cannot come quickly enough.

I am not here because the system worked. I am here -- like Edward Lee Elmore is still here -- because of a series of miracles. Not every person wrongfully convicted of a capital crime is as lucky.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kirk Noble Bloodsworth.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT