People who live in Maryland most probably remember the name of Dawn Hamilton, a 9-year-old Cambridge girl who was lured into the woods by a stranger, then raped, strangled and bludgeoned to death with a rock. People probably also recognize the name of the man who was for years assumed to be her killer. Given the circumstances, he has a name that is tough to forget.
In 1984, when he was arrested for Dawn's murder, Kirk Bloodsworth was just out of the Marine Corps, a pot-smoking deadbeat stuck in a bad marriage, a waterman's son accused of a crime he didn't commit. After nearly 10 years, several of which were spent on death row, Bloodsworth was finally released from prison with the help of emerging DNA technology, a semen stain among the evidence and the persistence of a conscientious lawyer.
This is the riveting story that Tim Junkin relates in Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA (Shannon Ravenel Books). Junkin is a celebrated Maryland novelist, the author of Good Counsel (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) and The Waterman (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). Bloodsworth is his first foray into literary nonfiction -- "the story of a lifetime for any writer," as one crime writer told Junkin after he had read the manuscript. After all, it has all the elements of a classic American tale: a gruesome murder and a simple man, falsely accused, who fights the system and wins. The controversial issues of the death penalty and the abuses of the criminal-justice system form the story's core.
But Junkin says that he simply wanted to tell Bloodsworth's story and show readers how the criminal-justice system works -- and sometimes doesn't. "I didn't set out to write a message book," he says. "I wanted to write a compelling, literary book about something that was true." Epigrams at the beginning of some of the chapters might give away a bias, Junkin acknowledges. In one, the Marquis de Lafayette says that he will oppose the death penalty "until the infallibility of human judgment shall have been proved to me." Junkin says such quotes just fit the substance of the story.
And the story is unforgettable, almost unbelievable: After Hamilton was murdered, police began combing Cambridge for suspects, using the uncertain eyewitness accounts of two young boys and the uncertain technique of perpetrator profiling to guide them. Kirk Bloodsworth, meanwhile, was in a rocky marriage, using drugs and having trouble holding a job. Early on, police homed in on a down-on-his-luck Bloodsworth, whose luck was about to get worse.
Police arrested and charged Bloodsworth, despite the fact that his build and features didn't match descriptions given by the two young witnesses. Bloodsworth acted nervous, looked guilty and had no alibi; the public, the press and prosecutors were eager to hang someone for the horrible crime. Bloodsworth's case wasn't helped by the fact that his family couldn't afford a decent lawyer. A public defender was appointed, but the lawyer was thwarted at every turn by the police and prosecutors, who suppressed or overlooked evidence that could have freed him.
Bloodsworth was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985, amid the cheers of his fellow townsfolk in the courtroom. He went to prison and became hardened. One harrowing chapter describes a time when Bloodsworth was attacked in the shower by three inmates, who planned to rape him. Bloodsworth fended them off, but one of his few friends in prison told him it wasn't over. You have to hunt them down and retaliate, his friend told him, or they will never leave you alone.
Years after his conviction, Bloodsworth met Bob Morin, a lawyer who spent his free time defending death-row inmates. Something about Bloodsworth's personality and persistence persuaded Morin he was innocent. Soon the two began talking about new techniques in lifting DNA off of evidence and comparing that to the DNA of the supposed killer. Bloodsworth insisted that they try it.
In the end, prosecutors found that Bloodsworth couldn't have murdered Hamilton; he was exonerated and released from prison in 1993. Ten years later, in 2003, DNA evidence led authorities to a man named Kimberly Ruffner, who eventually pleaded guilty to Hamilton's murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Ruffner had sexually assaulted a girl two weeks before Hamilton was killed, and six weeks after the murder, he stabbed and attempted to rape a woman in Fells Point. He had occasionally lifted weights with Bloodsworth in prison.
Years after Bloodsworth had been exonerated, Junkin read a story in The Washington Post about how Bloodsworth was having trouble reintegrating into the his Eastern Shore community, where many people still thought he was the killer but had gotten off on a technicality. The story mentioned Morin, who was an old friend of Junkin's. Junkin asked for an introduction.
In an interview from his home in Cambridge, Bloodsworth says that many writers had approached him about writing his story, "but nothing gelled" with those writers. When Junkin met Bloodsworth, he brought a copy of his novel The Waterman. Bloodsworth couldn't put the book down, then called Junkin and agreed to tell him his story.
It turned out that Junkin was uniquely qualified for the tale. When he's not writing books, Junkin is a trial lawyer who has experience in criminal defense and death-row cases (but now mainly handles personal-injury and malpractice lawsuits). Junkin also had a longstanding interest in the life of watermen. He spent some formative years near Easton and Oxford, not far from Cambridge. In 1972, after he graduated from college, Junkin bought a commercial boat with a friend and tried the waterman's life for a season, getting up at 4 a.m. and laying lines in the water. Then Hurricane Agnes rolled through and knocked his boat out of business.
"I was thinking about living the pure life, that young idealism," he says, then adds with a chuckle: "After being a waterman for a season, I realized that going to law school would be so much easier."
When he took up Bloodsworth's story, Junkin studied literary nonfiction books, starting with In Cold Blood. But Truman Capote was legendarily loose with the facts in that account, and Junkin wanted to write something more accurate. He reviewed the court documents and the evidence of the case; he says that examining the forensic photographs of the girl and writing about her murder was the toughest part of the project for him. He interviewed Bloodsworth, then did dozens of interviews with his family, his defenders, and his prosecutors and judges.
He says that the prosecutors were chilly at first, avoiding him until the manuscript was well underway. But after Ruffner was identified through DNA, Ann Brobst, a lead prosecutor, agreed to talk with Junkin. "That was a turning point for her," Junkin says. "I think she feels like she owes Kirk now." The detectives who investigated the case, however, never agreed to talk with the author.
Junkin had gone into the project ambivalent about the death penalty and came out of it against it. "In a perfect world, you don't need to put to death the people you have already defanged," he says. Even more, he came out of the book with tremendous respect for Bloodsworth. "As I was writing the book, I asked myself, Would I have even survived that prison?'" he says. "Here is a guy who has not only survived and triumphed, he's living his life for justice, going around trying to improve the justice system."
Bloodsworth lives in Cambridge with his new wife, is devoutly religious and works for the Justice Project, a group that lobbies for the reform of the criminal-justice system. He also goes around the country, telling his story and advocating DNA tests for prisoners.
Caught on a sunny afternoon over the phone, he sounds like any other Eastern Shore waterman, with a thick regional accent. During the conversation he offers a long sigh and says he just got back from the mechanic shop, where he's going to have to shell out money to fix his brakes. But don't get him wrong, it's a good life. "It's great -- you can't beat it," he says. "Hell of a way to get here, though. I'm just thankful. I could be a dead man."