From Death Row to Exoneration Thanks to DNA Testing

Hands of man prisoner gripping rusty prison bars

Imagine being convicted of a crime for which you are not guilty—not some minor crime, but one of the most heinous crimes imaginable: the rape and murder of a young girl. Would you feel shock and anger at the injustice? Disappointment in the legal system that could make such a horrible error? Sadness and depression at the thought of spending time imprisoned for a crime that someone else committed? Probably all of those emotions and more. At your sentencing hearing, the situation gets worse; you are sentenced to death. Now, this horrible crime will prematurely claim the life of two innocents: the young girl and you.

This is the situation that Kirk Bloodsworth faced in 1985: a death sentence for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton. Although Bloodsworth didn’t know it at the time, DNA testing would eventually prove his innocence and save his life.

In 1984, the body of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton was found in a wooded area near her home. Law enforcement officers investigating her rape and murder interviewed two boys who had been fishing nearby and were the last to see Dawn alive as she entered the woods accompanied by a skinny man with curly blond hair. They also spoke to three local residents who had seen a man with curly blond hair in the vicinity of the murder that day. From their descriptions, police artists created a composite sketch of the suspected killer. After the sketch was released to the media, police received an anonymous call from someone saying that the sketch resembled a man named Kirk. At about the same time, Bloodsworth abruptly left town to escape his failed marriage, and when his wife filed a missing persons report, police asked themselves “Was this a coincidence or a lead in the case”?

Police brought Bloodsworth in for an interview. One of the boys thought Bloodsworth looked similar to the man he had seen with Dawn that day, even though Bloodsworth had red hair, not blond, and weighed more than 200 pounds. Several of the eye witnesses were not able to identify Bloodsworth during a police lineup, but law enforcement was not deterred. Bloodsworth became the primary suspect. Upon further investigation, there appeared to be a match between marks on the victim’s body and his shoes. Based on this evidence, he was later arrested and convicted in Baltimore County, Maryland, and eventually sentenced to death for his alleged role in Dawn’s death.

Later when asked about this experience, Bloodsworth recalled

“It’s about the most horrific thing that could ever happen. I was sitting [in the courtroom] and everything went kind of tunnel-like. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything. All I heard was the judge say those words ‘The sentence will be death’. I was in utter and total shock. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to scream, cry, holler or what.”

From death row, he appealed his sentence in 1986 and was granted another trial at least in part because information about the investigation had been withheld from his defense attorney during his trial. His conviction was upheld in 1987, but his sentence was “reduced” to life in prison.

In 1992, Bloodsworth was offered new hope: a new attorney and DNA testing methods that were not available in 1984. Semen found on Dawn’s underwear at the crime scene was submitted for DNA testing, and two different labs confirmed that the DNA did not belong to Bloodsworth. Finally, he could prove his innocence. He had to wait another three long months until he was freed from prison, and another six months before he received a full pardon from the governor. He had spent 2½ years on death row and a total of nine years in prison.

It wasn’t until 2003, that DNA was able to identify the real killer. A forensic analyst assigned to the cold case located new biological evidence, which resulted in a complete DNA profile and a match in CODIS, the FBI’s national DNA database. The DNA evidence pointed to Kimberly Shay Ruffner as the killer. This name was familiar to Bloodsworth; he and Ruffner had interacted with one another in prison and had even lifted weights together in the prison gym. Law enforcement was also familiar with Ruffner, and in hindsight, he probably should have been an early suspect. He had a history of sexually assaulting three young girls, all of which occurred very near Dawn Hamilton’s home in the early 1980s. At the time of the 1984 murder, he had just been released from jail.

Despite his history and proximity to the crime, Ruffner escaped suspicious. During his time in prison, in a cell directly above Bloodsworth’s, Ruffner didn’t say a word about Dawn Hamilton’s murder; he was perfectly content to let an innocent man serve time for his crime. It wasn’t until 2004, when faced with the DNA evidence, that Ruffner finally confessed to the killing. He was sentenced to life in prison.

What is Kirk Bloodsworth doing with his freedom? He is now an advocate for the wrongfully convicted and speaks publicly to highlight the real risk of wrongful convictions and the dangers of the death penalty. His work was instrumental in eliminating capital punishment in Maryland. In 2003, US legislators approved the Innocence Protection Act, which established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program to provide funding for DNA testing in criminal cases. 

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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