DNA that freed man leads to new suspect

Killing: Kirk Bloodsworth, convicted and then cleared in the rape-murder of a child, learns a man he knew in prison is charged with the crimes.

September 06, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The same DNA evidence that freed Kirk Bloodsworth from prison 10 years ago has now implicated another man in the 1984 rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton of Rosedale, quashing any lingering questions about Bloodsworth's involvement in the crime.

Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a 45-year-old convicted sex offender who went to prison for an attempted rape and attempted murder in Fells Point only weeks after Dawn Hamilton was killed, was charged yesterday with first-degree murder.

The Baltimore County state's attorney's office - which had never publicly acknowledged Bloodsworth's innocence - announced the development, and a prosecutor apologized to Bloodsworth in person.

"Even though I was cleared, there were so many people who didn't believe me," said Bloodsworth, 42, who was reached at his home in Cambridge. "This is the proof everyone needs."

Ruffner is still in prison for the Fells Point attack, with a release date of 2020. Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor said prosecutors will seek the death penalty in Dawn's killing.

"This was a horrendous rape-murder of a 9-year-old girl," O'Connor said. "Whether or not he is incarcerated, he will be held accountable."

While Bloodsworth's supporters said they were delighted with the outcome, they criticized Baltimore County law enforcement officials for not testing the DNA earlier.

In June, The Sun wrote that the DNA in Bloodsworth's case had not been compared to the state's DNA database of convicted felons. As a convicted sex offender, Ruffner's DNA would have been in the state's database as early as 1994.

Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said the comparison was made last month.

"I can't tell you how pleased I am for Kirk, but what happened here today should have happened earlier," said Barry C. Scheck, the co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, which tries to free the wrongly convicted.

Delay in testing

Scheck, who helped exonerate Bloodsworth, said he has been asking for this sort of testing for years. It was after Scheck's most recent letter to the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office that police and prosecutors started moving toward testing the DNA against the database, The Sun reported in June.

Yesterday morning, Assistant State's Attorney S. Ann Brobst, who prosecuted Bloodsworth and who had been criticized by his supporters for refusing to admit his innocence, went to Bloodsworth's home to tell him the news.

"She apologized up and down," Bloodsworth said yesterday. "She had to eat a lot of crow to come. You've got to give her something for it."

O'Connor said Dawn's father, Thomas Hamilton, was also told of the new arrest. He was unavailable for comment.

Death row, then life

Bloodsworth was convicted of Dawn's murder in 1985 and sent to death row. Multiple witnesses had testified that they saw him near the crime scene.

The next year, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. But when Bloodsworth was retried, he was again found guilty and this time sentenced to life in prison.

In 1992, prosecutors agreed to run DNA tests on a semen stain found on Dawn's underwear - a stain that law enforcement officials said they had not noticed earlier. Those tests showed that Bloodsworth was not the person who had sexually assaulted the little girl.

Prosecutors agreed to release Bloodsworth immediately but would not apologize or say he was innocent.

"I believe that he is not guilty," O'Connor said at the time. "I'm not prepared to say he's innocent. Only the people who were there know what happened."

Lingering doubts

Bloodsworth was pardoned by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and given $300,000 from the state. But life after prison was a struggle, one that he now talks about openly.

At first, he had trouble holding jobs and grappled with freedom after nine years behind bars. He heard the derogatory whispers and saw the dirty looks. He once wiped the scrawled words "Child Killer" off his car.

"He has confided to me many, many times that people echo what Ann Brobst kept saying: [The DNA] doesn't mean he's innocent," Scheck said.

In recent years, Bloodsworth married and started working as a consultant for the Justice Project, a Washington advocacy group for justice reform. He has testified for lawmakers and spoken in classrooms across the country about the importance of DNA evidence.

In his own case, he said he has pushed for years for county law enforcement to run the preserved DNA evidence through the state's database.

A month after Dawn Hamilton was killed, Kimberly Ruffner was arrested for the Fells Point attack.

He had broken into a woman's house Aug. 28, 1984, and had tried to rape her, police said. When she struggled, he tried to kill her with a pair of scissors. The woman managed to escape, and police found Ruffner hours later.

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