Bloodsworth, the suspect from Central Casting

DAN RODRICKS

June 29, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

The first time I met Kirk Bloodsworth, in a pale-yellow room at the Maryland Penitentiary, I was astonished by his looks.

I wonder now if cops and jurors might also have been affected by his physical appearance.

Many people would find his build and features remarkable: barrel chest, large head, receding hairline, heavy brow above small eyes set deep in his face. His teeth are crooked. He had a reddish brown beard.

I'll be frank: Without trying to be, Bloodsworth was a bit intimidating, because of his looks. After again reviewing the body of evidence presented against him in two murder trials in Baltimore County in the 1980s -- most of it was circumstantial -- I find myself reverting to an impression I had that day in the prison:

Kirk Bloodsworth was the perfect suspect.

If you were a cop investigating the assault and murder of a cute 9-year-old girl -- is there a more heinous crime? -- or if you were a prosecutor working for a state's attorney who champions the death penalty, Bloodsworth was the suspect from Central Casting.

And if you were a juror hearing the circumstantial evidence against Bloodsworth, you had to have been influenced by his appearance -- not to mention his decision not to testify at his second trial, or his flimsy "taco salad" story, or his knowledge of the "bloody rock."

And you even might have been prejudiced, in some immeasurable way, by the irony of the defendant's name: Bloodsworth.

So, given my speculations, I can't avoid noting the irony in genetic evidence being the thing that exonerated him.

It was genes that made Bloodsworth what he was -- a hulking man with heavy brow, small eyes, a barrel chest and crooked teeth. And his appearance might have created a passive prejudice in the minds of those who prosecuted and judged him. That's my theory, at least. I offer nothing in support except an instinctual hunch.

Now, we learn, it was those same genes that figured in his freedom.

Bloodsworth's DNA -- his unique genetic code -- did not match the DNA in semen samples taken from the victim's underwear. The underwear was presented as evidence at the trial, even though there was never a physical link between the clothing and Bloodsworth.

As a matter of fact, there was no physical evidence linking Bloodsworth to the crime, and yet the state saw fit to request the death penalty for him. At least once, that request was granted.

What was the evidence against him?

Two boys and an adult who said they saw him near the scene of the crime; Bloodsworth's decision to leave the Baltimore area, suddenly and without notice to his wife or employer, and go to the Eastern Shore about a week after the murder; his talk, among friends, of having done "something terrible" and explaining it as forgetting to buy a taco salad for his wife, leading to an argument and their split-up; his supposed knowledge of the "bloody rock" that apparently had been the murder weapon.

How, then, was he found guilty -- twice -- beyond a reasonable doubt?

This was a horrendous crime against a child; the defendant was a guy with somewhat intimidating looks who did not have a good alibi. Any jury could have developed the passive prejudice that put them over the edge, removing any 11th-hour doubts they might have had.

The police and prosecutors, meanwhile, believed they had the right man and they stuck with him -- despite information that came to them about two other suspects.

One of them was 31 years old and had an impressive similarity in appearance to Bloodsworth. According to court records, this other man appeared without appointment at a health center in Rosedale, just a short walk from where the crime took place, on the day of the murder; he waited three hours to see a counselor. He had scratches on his face. According to a 1988 report by WBAL-TV's Jayne Miller, the man "vividly described a relationship with a little girl."

And yet the police never put this guy in a lineup. And they did not reveal his existence to the defense for two years, until two weeks before Bloodsworth's second trial in 1987.

Did Bloodsworth's prosecution result from zeal to close the book on a horrific murder with a death sentence? I've always had that suspicion. Now I believe it.

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