Innocent on Death Row in USA

In the United States of America 143 death row prisoners have been released in the last four decades alone, after evidence emerged during their appeals process of the wrongful conviction. Most of these death row prisoners had spent more than a decade locked inside single tiny cages for 23 hours per day 7 days per week. Some had come within hours of being executed.

The USA boasts to have the best-of-the-best criminal justice system in the world, but nothing can be further from the truth. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ criminal justice system - legal mistakes do occur. The fact that some mistakes were discovered in time strongly suggests that there have been other occasions when mistakes were not discovered in time and wrongly convicted people have been executed. Nobody knows for sure - a corpse cannot talk!

The following is a story of one wrongly convicted man Kirk Bloodsworth, in his own words ...

"I know this first-hand that the death penalty system does not always get it right. I was the first person in the United States of America to be exonerated from death row because of DNA testing.

In 1984, I was 23 years old newly married man and living in Cambridge, in the state of Maryland. I had just served four years in the Marine Corps. I had never been arrested. This all changed on August 9, 1984, when the police knocked on my door at 3 a.m. and arrested me for the murder of 9-year-old girl named Dawn Hamilton. She was raped and murdered. A man approached her and offered to help her find her friend in their game of hide-and-seek. Her body was found in the park later that afternoon.

In a matter of days I became the most hated man in the state of Maryland.

The police were eager to find the girl's killer and ease the community's fear. Despite the fact that I did not match witnesses' descriptions of the man who approached Dawn, an anonymous caller suggested my name to the Cambridge Police Department.

There was no physical evidence against me. During the trial, I was convicted primarily on the testimony of five witnesses' who were later shown to be terribly mistaken. It took the jury less than three hours to convict me. When they announced my death sentence, the courtroom erupted in applause.

Life at the Maryland State Penitentiary can only be described as Hell on Earth. I still have nightmares about it. My cell was directly under the gas chamber. The guards thought it was funny to remind me of that fact. They would describe the entire procedure in detail and laugh at my fate.

Fortunately, a second trial reduced my punishment to back-to-back life sentences. I fought to stay safe at the penitentiary and spent long days in the prison library. I came across a book about DNA testing used to solve murders in England. My attorney submitted a request for the evidence in my case to be tested.

The prosecutor almost brought my innocence claim to a halt when she sent a letter with a devastating message; The biological material in my case was inadvertently destroyed. Miraculously, the judge from my second trial had decided to keep some of the physical evidence and store it in his chambers.

One day in 1993 I received a phone call from my attorney. The stain lifted from the victim's underpants did not match my DNA. The DNA told the truth; I was not guilty of this crime. Unfortunately, it would take 10 more years for Dawn's true killer to be identified.

On June 28, 1993, I walked out of the Maryland State Penitentiary a free man. My re-entry into society was not easy. When I returned to Cambridge, I had trouble getting a job. I was harassed by my neighbors. The state of Maryland paid me $300,000 for lost income during the time I was wrongfully imprisoned, but I lost so much more than money in those eight years.

During my 21 years of freedom, I have become one of many exonerees who, with the help of advocacy organizations like 'Witness to Innocence', travel around the world to share our cautionary tales. Even people acting in good faith can make serious mistakes. Witness misidentification is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Since 1989, DNA evidence has been used to exonerate more than 300 individuals in capital and non-capital cases. Approximately 75 percent of these cases involved inaccurate or faulty witness identification.

More and more people are realizing that the death penalty system is not perfect. In a 2013 Gallup poll, support for the death penalty dropped to 60 percent, the lowest level in 40 years. Concerns about innocence, unfairness and other issues have led to a dramatic decline in death sentences and executions in the USA.

I am living proof that America's system of the death penalty is broken beyond repair. I am not here because the death penalty system worked. I am here because of a series of miracles. Not every person wrongfully convicted of a capital crime is as lucky."

Kirk Bloodsworth is the director of advocacy for 'Witness to Innocence', an American national organization of death row survivors and their loved ones.

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Editor's Note:
A reminder that Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia in 1967, was also convicted based solely on unproved, unsigned, unrecorded, allegations of verbals/confessions. There is no scientific ballistic forensic evidence, whatsoever, to prove Ryan guilty. There were dire inconsistencies in all fourteen eyewitnesses for the prosecution and alleged missing pieces of vital evidence that would have cleared Ryan of murder. Ryan maintained his innocence to the end on handwritten letters to several people. These letters were written on toilet paper in the execution holding cell.

Read more on the Ronald Ryan case ...