Writing a wrong

The latest chapter in the tortuous tale of Kirk Bloodsworth begins today.

September 09, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE - This is where he always belonged, way outside any kind of city, outside rows of no-till beans invaded by wild turkeys, outside in his Eastern Shore back yard with his Weber gas grill - just plain outside. He'd like to stay, but he's needed elsewhere. Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, of thinning hair and thickening body and 44 next month, is about to embark on another phase of his story of survival.

Bloodsworth, convicted of killing a 9-year-old Rosedale girl in 1984, became the first death-row inmate in the United States to be exonerated through DNA evidence. With his release from prison in 1993, Bloodsworth entered the annals of the American criminal justice system. This country boy from Dorchester County became the spokesman for post-conviction DNA testing and found himself addressing Congress, Oprah and seemingly every person who ever doubted his innocence. In May, Dawn Hamilton's true killer pleaded guilty to the 20-year-old crime. Bloodsworth had known the man in prison.

A book seemed inevitable, and with a subject named Bloodsworth, so did a title. Set for release today, Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA, (Algonquin Books, $24.95) is Potomac author Tim Junkin's account of Bloodsworth's life and near-death story. The 286-page book has drawn early praise from author Scott Turow (Bloodsworth read Presumed Innocent in prison), crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh (who might write the screenplay) and Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote Dead Man Walking.

Now comes the book tour - a 25-city circuit with readings in Maryland, Washington and battleground death-penalty states such as Texas. Once a dead man walking himself, Bloodsworth is honing his book-signing signature and dealing out his business cards. It doesn't cost to hear him speak, yet. "I won't be as expensive as Bill Clinton," he says. A man can get his humor back, too.

Bloodsworth's life story has become his job. He's a full-time promoter of criminal justice reform; he has a paid position with the Washington-based group the Justice Project, which supports legislation now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The Innocence Protection Act" includes the proposed authorization of $25 million over five years to help states defray the cost of post-conviction DNA testing. The program is named for him.

"He's turned his life into a force of justice," Junkin says.

Bloodsworth is not only pitching a book - he's pitching a message: "I'm thinking of a death-penalty-free world one day." Can society afford to make the ultimate mistake with someone's life? A mistake was made in Bloodsworth's case, but he lived to see a book and maybe a movie about his life. He's thinking Matt Damon or Ed Norton would be right for the role.

Kirk Bloodsworth, it seems, will be outlived by his life story.

Watermen have a name for wannabe watermen - they call them farmers. Tim Junkin, lawyer and author of The Waterman, did spend a year as a commercial waterman in 1972. But as Bloodsworth jokes about his book partner, Junkin was really a farmer. As for Bloodsworth, he has the right boat and heritage to be a waterman, but he lost nine prime years to prison - that and the fact rigging a crab boat costs about $30,000 for starters. Bloodsworth's work boat, Freedom, doesn't get out much.

Ten years Bloodsworth's senior, Junkin is also an Eastern Shore guy. Naturally, the Bloodsworth saga caught his eye. A little hometown bias crept into his thinking. "It just didn't compute that a waterman would be involved in this kind of crime," Junkin says.

The two men met through a mutual acquaintance, Robert Morin - now a judge, then Bloodsworth's attorney and Junkin's old friend. They agreed that Junkin would research and write a book and any profits would be split evenly. Bloodsworth would contribute details from his experience and from his 168-page prison journal. Junkin also pored through countless police, court and FBI documents. For sheer storytelling, the facts could not have been improved upon. "The story is so powerful, it speaks for itself," Junkin says.

The story began with the murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton near a fishing pond in Rosedale. Her skull had been crushed by a rock, her throat stomped hard enough to leave a shoeprint, and she'd been raped. Kirk Bloodsworth was in Baltimore County at the time, had a suspicious alibi and was identified, mistakenly, by children who had been playing with Dawn that summer day.

It wasn't me, Bloodsworth told police and his father, Curtis Bloodsworth, who visited his son in jail the day after his arrest. Junkin writes: "They had to speak through a phone. Curtis looked his boy right in the teeth and asked him straight up. `Son, you didn't have anything to do with this crime now, did you?' Kirk looked at his father. He began crying over his father even asking it."

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