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Former death row inmate becomes Exhibit A for how eyes can lie

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence, fights to reform eyewitness IDs

“Give him the gas and kill his ass!”

That was the first thing Kirk Bloodsworth heard amid the eruption in the courtroom after the verdict came back that found him guilty on all counts.

“I can hear ’em snickering and laughing,” Bloodsworth remembered. “And everybody thought they had the right man — police department, prosecutor’s office, most of the people … thought they had the man.”

They had reason to think so. Multiple eyewitnesses had spotted Bloodsworth at the scene of the crime — at least they believed they had. According to studies dating back to the 1930s, eyewitness misidentification is the most common element in all wrongful convictions. And after nine years in prison, Bloodsworth became the first American on death row exonerated by DNA, and Exhibit A for this central weakness of the criminal justice system. 

‘Step outside’

Before prison changed everything, Bloodsworth’s story was a simple one. It began on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he grew up fishing and crabbing, just like his father and his father’s father. Bloodsworth had left the waterman life briefly to serve as a Marine. He was honorably discharged, and never had any brushes with the law.

That is, until the early hours of Aug. 9, 1984. Sound asleep at his cousin’s home in Cambridge, Md., Bloodsworth heard pounding on the door. When he opened it, flashlights were glaring and pistols were drawn.

“Step outside, Mr. Bloodsworth,” he recalled one of the policemen at the door saying. “You’re under arrest for first-degree murder of Dawn Venisha Hamilton, you son of a bitch.”

A woman had seen on TV a sketch of a suspect in the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl outside Baltimore, and thought it resembled her old neighbor Bloodsworth. She called the police, and when Bloodsworth stepped into the police car that morning, it would be the last time he would see the town of Cambridge for eight years, 10 months and 19 days.

Eyes, ears, noses

In the days after the violent murder, Baltimore County Police circulated a composite sketch put together by two boys, ages 8 and 10, who had been fishing and seen a man with the murdered girl. The cops used an “identi-kit,” a Mr. Potato Head–like array of noses, mouths and eyes, to help the children build the face.

“It’s a random, arbitrary box of eyes, ears, noses, faces, jawlines, hairlines, hair, mustaches, sideburns and so forth,” Bloodsworth said. “But it’s only 25 picks of each thing.”

Bloodsworth would later learn the kids weren’t happy with the mustache, saying it was more of a Fu Manchu style. The police ignored that, and that composite ended up on TV. When shown a photo array that included Bloodsworth’s image, one of the boys said the offender wasn’t pictured, while the other identified Bloodsworth but said his hair color was wrong.

When Bloodsworth was arrested, local news stations in Baltimore were all over it. By the time the Baltimore County Police performed a lineup, the so-called perp walk video had been playing repeatedly on the news.

“Everybody in court said they watched me on television the entire weekend before I was in the lineup,” Bloodsworth said.

In the lineup, a few witnesses identified Bloodsworth as a man they’d seen in the area, while others didn’t. The two young boys didn’t originally identify Bloodsworth in the lineup, but weeks later, after he was charged, their parents called to say their kids had picked him out — which entitled them to some of the reward.

“I never tried to say that anybody was lying. They just made a mistake,” Bloodsworth said. “There was one witness by the name of James Keller who’d testified that he identified me as the person there that day. And they asked him, ‘Well, where did you identify him from?’ He said, ‘Television.’”

An innocent man

Bloodsworth remembers mouthing the words “not guilty” to the cameras from inside the police car as he was detained.

“From the time I was arrested till the moment I was released, I told anyone and everyone that I was an innocent man,” he said. “I used to sign my correspondence that way: ‘Respectively submitted, Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, A.I.M. — An innocent man.’”

Soon he would become a prison librarian, a duty he held for seven and a half years. He read everything in there, from gestalt psychology to Stephen King. In 1992, he read a novel in the prison library about DNA technology. He demanded the evidence in his case be tested by what at the time was the only forensics lab in the U.S.

I never tried to say that anybody was lying. They just made a mistake.

Kirk Bloodsworth

The process cost around $15,000, a fee covered entirely by Bloodsworth’s lawyer, Bob Morin. One day, Bloodsworth was returning to his cell when he saw a Post-it note. It said, “Urgent, call your attorney.”

“Kirk, you’re an innocent man, you’re innocent,” Bloodsworth recalled Morin saying.

Bloodsworth said he replied: “I know that. When are you gonna get me out of here?”

The DNA results pinpointed a man named Kimberly Ruffner, who had a Fu Manchu mustache the kids had described. As it turned out, Ruffner was already serving time for an assault that he committed after killing Hamilton, and was in the same prison as Bloodsworth. 

Catching up with science

tudies have shown that eyewitness testimony is right only about half the time, nudged or contaminated by certain images and associations or the biases of police. And DNA exonerations have laid bare the central role of eyewitness error in false convictions. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overhaul the system, leaving a handful of concerned states and police forces to tackle the problem.

Later that year, for example, the New Jersey Supreme Court instructed judges to tell jurors all the factors that may have muddled the reliability of an eyewitness, and to point out the research that shows identifying someone of a different race is especially prone to inaccuracy.

And in April, legislators in Bloodsworth’s home state of Maryland passed a bill, requiring witnesses to state how confident they are in their identification and the police to give witnesses the option of “none of the above.”

The Baltimore City and County police departments declined to talk about the Bloodsworth case, or how they’ve reformed their procedures since then. But an hour south, in Prince George’s County, Inspector General Carlos Acosta was adamant about the ways that department has revamped its procedures.

The department has replaced in-person lineups with photo lineups, which must be presented by an officer who is “blind” — unfamiliar with the case and unaware who the suspect is. 

“These old-fashioned police lineups are too fallible, because it’s impossible to find people in your police department who all resemble the suspect,” Acosta said. “That’s why we do a photo lineup, and not just any photo lineup; we do it sequentially.”

Acosta said the first season of HBO’s “The Wire” perfectly illustrates the need for a blind administrator, someone who has no idea of the identity of the real culprit. 

Editor's note: This clip from "The Wire" contains graphic language. Skip to the 2:18 mark for an example of eyewitness misidentification.

“We’re doing everything we can to lead the way, because we never want there to be another Kirk Bloodsworth,” Acosta said.

Last year, Bloodsworth was instrumental in getting the state that had once wanted to kill him to repeal its death penalty once and for all.

But Bloodsworth believes that what he went through three decades ago could still happen today. To avoid having a televised perp walk bias eyewitnesses, he tells people who are arrested to stay silent and cover their faces.

“Somebody could misidentify them, and it’s happened so many times,” Bloodsworth said. In remembering what he’s gone through, he quoted Albert Einstein: “Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.”

“And he’s very true, he was,” Bloodsworth said. “We superimpose what we wanna see, sometimes.”

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