Nearly 20 years after a little girl's beaten body was found in a wooded area of Rosedale, and 19 years after an innocent man was sentenced to death for that killing, the Dawn Hamilton murder case ended yesterday when her true killer pleaded guilty in a Baltimore County courtroom.
Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a former East Baltimore man with a history of sexual attacks, acknowledged that he alone had sexually assaulted and murdered the 9-year-old girl in 1984. He was sentenced to life in prison; he is already serving time for an unrelated assault.
Ruffner said little when he had his chance to speak in court. He made no mention of the Hamilton girl. And he did not speak of Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nine years in prison for the murder before he was exonerated by DNA evidence - the same evidence that later led authorities to Ruffner.
"There is nothing I can say," Ruffner said, his voice raspy.
Bloodsworth, who knew Ruffner in prison, did not come to Baltimore County Circuit Court for the hearing.
"It's Dawn Hamilton's time," he explained over the phone, soon after the hearing. Then he started to sob. "It's finally over."
It was only last year that prosecutors connected Ruffner, 45, to the decades-old crime, when they ran evidence from the case through the state's database of convicted felons' DNA.
Before that August 2003 match, many in law enforcement refused to say that Bloodsworth was innocent - even though testing in 1993 proved that the semen found on the child's underwear was not his.
On Wednesday, Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Stephen Bailey and detectives in the case met with Bloodsworth at his Eastern Shore home to tell him about the scheduled plea agreement in Ruffner's case.
Once again, they apologized, Bloodsworth said.
The guilty plea came in an emotional hearing, in front of tearful relatives, detectives who have worked the case for years and prosecutors who have long been haunted by the brutality of the crime.
At one point, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cadigan ordered Ruffner to look at the photos taken by police that summer afternoon in 1984 - color shots of a bloodied child face-down in the woods, half stripped.
"Look," Cadigan demanded. "It's been 20 years, Mr. Ruffner, since you've seen that. Look at them."
`Death is too good'
Dawn Hamilton's father, Thomas Hamilton, did not come to court. But prosecutors said he had approved the plea agreement, in which the state dropped a number of charges and agreed not to seek the death penalty in return for Ruffner's pleading guilty to first-degree murder.
"He said, `Death is too good for him,'" Bailey recounted. "`I want him to rot in prison.'"
Life without parole was not an option because that sentence did not exist in 1984. The life sentence is to start after Ruffner's current 45-year sentence expires. Although Ruffner's attorney said his client might be eligible for parole in 30 to 40 years, prosecutors said they do not believe he will ever be released.
"This sentence guarantees that Kimberly Ruffner will never see the outside of a prison," Bailey said.
A relative and two friends of Dawn Hamilton's family came to court yesterday to see the child's killer in person. Lisa Helmick was a small child in 1984 and was playing with Dawn the day of the murder.
"It hurts," Lisa Helmick said. "I was 4 when all this happened. I try not to think about it."
Flees the courtroom
Helmick's mother, Elinor, was taking care of Dawn that day while the child's father was at work. As the bailiffs led Ruffner into the courtroom, Elinor Hemlick's face contorted. She clenched her hands into fists and, shaking, ran out of the courtroom. Her daughter comforted her and brought her back.
"It's just so awful," Elinor Hemlick said after the hearing. "He showed no remorse."
She had been a witness in the case before, she said, but had never heard all the details, which Assistant State's Attorney Robin Coffin recited in court.
Dawn was looking for Lisa around a nearby pond when she ran into Ruffner, the prosecutor said. He told the child he would help her find Lisa and led her into the woods, she said.
Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, Ruffner's attorney, said his client had gone to the Rosedale area to smoke PCP. He had just gotten out of jail days before, acquitted on charges that he had sexually assaulted another girl.
Tuminelli said Ruffner also had drunk half a fifth of rum before he saw the girl.
"This was not something that was planned," Tuminelli said.
When Dawn did not come back to the Fontana Village apartment, Elinor Hemlick went out and looked for her. When she couldn't find the child, she called the police.
Police found the body about two hours later. Dawn's little girl's purse was still slung across her shoulder. Her head appeared to have been beaten with a rock, and she had been sexually assaulted.
The next day, an autopsy found that the manner of death was strangulation and blunt force trauma to the head.
Ruffner left town