Innocent man's ordeal raises many questions

January 09, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

With a Christmas pardon from the governor, Kirk Noble Bloodsworth regained his status as an innocent man -- something he lost almost 9 years ago when he was convicted in the rape and slaying of a 9-year-old Rosedale girl.

The pardon from Gov. William Donald Schaefer clears Mr. Bloodsworth's name. It also opens the door for a financial settlement from the state for wrongly imprisoning him.

But it also raises troubling questions.

How was Mr. Bloodsworth convicted not once, but twice? Why do prosecutors still refuse to say they had the wrong man, even after a sophisticated DNA test showed he could not have been the man who raped Dawn Venice Hamilton on a summer day in 1984?

And if Mr. Bloodsworth didn't commit the crime, who did?

In retrospect, the case of Mr. Bloodsworth was messy and riddled with inconsistencies from the start. A mixture of bad luck, mistaken identity and a defense strategy that misfired put him in jail. And once he had been convicted the first time, police and prosecutors in Baltimore County weren't eager to reopen a case they thought they'd solved -- even when new evidence came to '' light.

The following account, gleaned from hundreds of pages of court records and interviews with the principals, shows how Mr. Bloodsworth got into jail -- and out again.

At 10:30 a.m. on July 25, 1984, Dawn Hamilton finished watching "The Facts of Life" on TV with her two younger cousins and went to play outside their Fontana Village apartment near Golden Ring Mall. She came back a moment later to tell her aunt, Cissy Helmick, that her cousin Lisa had gone into the woods nearby. Cissy Helmick asked Dawn to tell Lisa to come back.

By 11 a.m., Lisa Helmick had returned. But Dawn had not. Alarmed, Cissy Helmick searched for the missing girl. When she couldn't find her, she called police and Dawn's father, Tom Hamilton. Police and neighbors combed the area.

Several hours later, searchers found the body in the woods.

Dawn's death was gruesome and painful. She had been sexually abused and beaten. A sneaker footprint was imprinted on her neck. Near her head, police found a chunk of stained cinder block. They believed it was the weapon.

Dozens of police officers combed the area for witnesses. They found two boys, ages 7 and 10, who had been fishing at a nearby pond earlier in the day. They said Dawn had asked them to help find her cousin. They had declined.

But the youngsters gave investigators their first clue. They said they saw Dawn go into the woods with a man who had offered to help her. He had curly blond hair.

Homicide detectives focused on him. With the description from one of the boys, they produced a composite sketch that was distributed to newspapers and television stations.

Four other residents of the apartment complex said they had seen the man with curly blond hair. Three saw him the day of the slaying, one a few days before. Their identifications were critical evidence against Mr. Bloodsworth. But as with many eyewitness reports, there were inconsistencies.

* The 10-year-old's description was the most detailed. The man he saw had curly blond hair and a mustache. He wore a tank top with an Ocean Pacific label on it, tan shorts, tennis shoes and tube socks. By the boy's estimate, the man was 6 feet 5 feet 5 inches tall and of slim-to-medium build.

* The 7-year-old boy remembered less. He did describe the man as "skinny," however.

* James Keller saw a man with curly blond hair about 6 a.m. that day as he left Fontana Village on his way to work. The man he saw was wearing shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. Mr. Keller said the man was "pretty tall" but "kind of heavy set."

* Fay McCoullough was also leaving for work when she apparently saw the same man Mr. Keller did. She said he had curly blond hair, a sleeveless shirt and khaki shorts.

* Leonard W. Zacho, a security guard at Golden Ring Mall across Philadelphia Road from the apartment complex, ran into a man with curly blond hair and a sleeveless shirt that morning. He put the man at 5 feet 8 inches and 180 pounds. He also said the man had "mean eyes."

Cambridge native

In July 1984, Mr. Bloodsworth was 23. The tall, muscular ex-Marine had just moved to Baltimore from his native Cambridge to live with his new wife, Wanda, in a Middle River house they shared with several other people.

He had bounced from one job to another since his discharge in September 1982.

"I was, like, trying to find what I wanted to do in life," Mr. Bloodsworth recalled. "You know, basically a kid at that age didn't have much direction, I suppose."

He had grown up near the water in Cambridge, where his father, Curtis Bloodsworth, operates a seafood distribution business.

Kirk Bloodsworth graduated from the Open Bible Academy in 1978 and signed up for a four-year hitch in the Marines, where he threw the discus for the Marine Corp track and field team. He had never been arrested or charged with a crime.

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