Q&A with Kirk Bloodsworth, first death row inmate exonerated by DNA testing
Your case helped launch the innocence movement. How have you seen that movement grow?
Bloodsworth: Witness to Innocence has grown in the last 10 years and certainly since I’ve been out since 1993, the advent of, or reflecting upon innocent people being arrested and charged and sentenced to death, has been one of the movement’s greatest answer to the question should [we] have a death penalty or not. I would have to say that over a period of time, it has grown so largely that it’s hard to contain at this point.
There’s a lot of different things. Compensation for wrongfully convicted is a big deal. There’s no mechanism to recognize that individual in society really, unless you do it through the legislature or through a private lawsuit. These men and women have spent years upon years on death row and have basically given up their lives because of a criminal justice system that has quite frankly betrayed them.
Some of the systemic flaws within the criminal justice system that get wrongfully convicted people convicted –witness identification—to name one, and just so many other—bad forensics, bad lawyering—take your pick. It’s really identifying those things, and it’s a constant struggle to keep them fixed.
You were instrumental in the Justice For All Act, which includes the Innocence Protection Act, legislation that, among other things, grants any federal inmate the right to petition a federal court for DNA testing to support a claim of innocence. This now applies to some states. It’s up for reauthorization right now. What other legislation do you think we need?
Bloodsworth: One of the greatest systemic troubles is the preservation of evidence. There is no preservation of evidence law here in the state of Pennsylvania where I reside. They’re nonexistent in some places. We have to protect the evidence. We can’t save it for just like a little bit and then throw it away.
Honestly, wrongful convictions will never cease, but at least if we don’t have the death penalty, they won’t be executed and we can get to them if they are still alive.
We need a compensation law within the United States. There should be an avenue for every wrongfully convicted individual who spent time on death row. Our members included, there’s 142 of us in total within the United States, and some of [have] passed on and whatever we could get for them could go to their families. And then, of course, the wrongfully convicted in general, which goes into the figures of 311 DNA exonerations right now on the books. The national registry has about a 1,000. We have our own culture going on here. It’s not an exorbitant amount of money. We need to do things. Some of these men and women suffer greatly from post-traumatic stress, as I have and do on a daily basis.
You serve as a director of advocacy for Witness to Innocence, an organization that seeks to empower exonerated death row survivors. Your work centers on abolishing the death penalty. Exonerees are your messengers. Why do you feel that’s the most important part of this fight?
Bloodsworth: We cannot execute our citizens to start with, let alone executing innocent ones, and that is the price we pay of having the arbitrary sentence of the death penalty. Racial disparity—there’s so many disparities within the death penalty itself—economic, social—you name it. I think innocent men and women serve as great messengers for this. Witness of Innocence has proven that over the years. We go from state to state and people tell their stories in an educational forum and talk in front of legislators and in front of governors and U.S. congresspeople and senators across the country to say the death penalty is wrong because we could execute innocent people. And people are listening. Finally, after a long time, they’re really starting to listen, and we need to take that listening into action.
I’m reading the word ‘exoneree’ on my page right now. You’re probably aware that it gets underlined in Microsoft Word. Spell check pops up. It’s not a word in the dictionary.
Bloodsworth: It’s not?
It’s not. ‘Exonerate’ is. But ‘exoneree’ has not been added as a word to numerous dictionaries. I think this speaks to how we regard exonerees. It’s almost as if they don’t exist. How do we need to be addressing their needs?
Bloodsworth: We have to be recognized. Witness to Innocence has shown people what exoneree really means. It’s time to not to ignore these things and sweep them under the rug. It’s time to be proactive and do something about it. Before it’s all said and done with, everyone will know what exoneree means. Maybe I can try to force Webster Dictionary to put it in.
Is there ever making up for lost time?
Bloodsworth: No. You cannot get it back. You’re in a state of visceral amnesia from your life. You don’t have a chance to get back. I was 23 years old, going into my 24th birthday when all this was happening. I got out when I was 31 years old. I lost all that time. Most people would have went to college. I was just newly married. I never had a chance to have children that whole decade, and then another decade trying to fight for people to believe in my innocence and it wasn’t until we caught the real culprit that that came to pass.
What kind of challenges did you face in the early days of being an exoneree?
Bloodsworth: Getting a job, just that was a big deal. Nobody wanted to hire me right away. Lucky for me, my father had a business and I could work for him. It wasn’t easy doing all those things. Social interaction was tough. I suffered from post-traumatic stress. This thing had greatly ripped my life apart, and I was trying to put it back together.
Do you feel like the state has you in its back pocket?
Bloodsworth: We are subject to the whims of what our systems do. And when they fail, we say, well, we didn’t really mean it to fail. But it still does. It’s disturbing. The states are recognizing that they cannot just go willy-nilly with the criminal justice system. We have to address this stuff, mass incarcerations of different people in the United States. Oh my god, it never ends. Privatized prisons, it’s ridiculous. Three strikes laws, mandatory minimums – you name it. It’s caused all this. So when you speedin’ up the conveyer belt, the system can’t catch up … I liken the criminal justice system to a milled stone of grain. We go in. The kernels go in one side and they all come out, but whatever is in that bag of corn, whatever it be stones, gets ground up with the cornmeal just the same. We cannot afford that.
Were you against the death penalty before your tragedy?
Bloodsworth: I certainly didn’t really have an opinion. I was a Marine. I was young. I really never got into it. I never thought about it in those terms. I thought people got what they deserved in life when they did things wrong. The problem is that we’re doing it for the wrong reason. ‘Killing a person to say killing a person is wrong is not right.’ (said) Sister Helen Prejean. We can do without it. We don’t have to kill people anymore to prove a point. It’s really an oxymoron if you ask me. We beat our chests and say how bad you are, but at the end, it’s just human beings.
The word ‘exonerate’ comes from a Latin word that means to be freed from a burden. The exonerees that I’ve talked to say that does not ring true for them. Does it ring true for you?
Bloodsworth: It does not. I have to agree with my comrades in arms. It doesn’t ring true because it still exists. It keeps going. They’re still going to put innocent people away. There’s nothing we can do, the totality of that, necessarily, but make the system better. People are going to slip through the cracks and get convicted.
If I have anything to say about it, and if my fellow members have anything to say about it, and if this organization has anything to say about it, ‘exoneree’ will be a new word for everybody to know.