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Defying death row in the US

Wrongly convicted American lobbies to get capital punishment abolished.

Last updated: 25 Nov 2013 11:04
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Kirk Bloodsworth was cleared by DNA testing after spending nine years in prison, including two on death row [AP]

Philadelphia, United States - Support for the death penalty in the United States is at its lowest level in 40 years and that's a good thing according to Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American sentenced to die but released after DNA evidence exonerated him.

Bloodsworth is fighting for abolishment of the death penalty in the US, one state at a time, but it's an uphill battle. While a recent Gallup poll found declining support for capital punishment, 60 percent of Americans still want convicted murderers put to death.

The peak was in 1994 when 80 percent favoured executions, but that has declined ever since.   

In the last 10 years, the US has seen a 50 percent decline in both death sentences handed down, as well as a 50 percent drop in executions carried out. Still, 34 people have been executed in the US so far this year.

A majority of the 63 percent of Americans who support the death penalty change their mind and at least feel that there should be a moratorium after hearing us speaking.

- Kirk Bloodsworth, wrongly convicted for murder

Globally, hundreds of people die each year in state-sanctioned killings. In 2012, 682 people were confirmed to have been executed with China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States topping the list.

Worrying anti-capital punishment proponents, several countries have reintroduced executions in the past year, including Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Vietnam, Gambia and Kuwait.

This also worries Bloodsworth, 53, who was wrongfully convicted for a killing he didn't commit.

"A majority of the 63 percent of Americans who support the death penalty change their mind and at least feel that there should be a moratorium after hearing us speaking," Bloodsworth told Al Jazeera. "Those who have the capital don't get capital punishment."

Bloodsworth spent nine years in prison, two of those on death row, for the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl in a forest in Rosedale, Maryland.

Nobel-prize nominated author and anti-capital punishment activist Helen Prejean started the organisation Witness to Innocence in Philadelphia in 2003, together with Ray Krone who was wrongfully convicted of murder. Since then, the group has been instrumental in the abolishment of the death penalty in six US states.

Bloodsworth was a 23-year-old, newly-wed fisherman when his neighbour turned him in to the police for the girl's murder. "They saw me as a monster and it blinded them from seeing the truth," he told Al Jazeera.

Bloodsworth ended up in prison in Baltimore. Lying on his bed, he could touch both walls if he stretched out his arms. His fellow inmates had little empathy for a child murderer.

Seven years into his sentence, Bloodsworth found a book about a new type of DNA test to identify murderers. "It was an epiphany. I thought that if it can prove your guilt then it can also prove your innocence," he said.

But the excitement didn't last long. Bloodsworth's lawyer was told the DNA evidence from the case had been destroyed. "My heart sank to my feet."

Bloodsworth refused to let the issue die, however, and sent his lawyer to look for the evidence himself. The third time he entered the judge's office, there was a breakthrough. The judge was away and a clerk showed the lawyer a box pertaining to the case buried in the judge's wardrobe. In it was the murdered girl's underwear.

"I think the judge felt that something was wrong, that's probably why he kept them," said Bloodsworth.

But despite the evidence, it would take another year to get the DNA test done. The method was so new that there were only two labs in the whole country capable of conducting it.

When the results finally came, Bloodsworth was set free. He was 32 years old and divorced. A year later he received an official pardon by the governor of Maryland, along with compensation of $300,000. That equals an hourly wage of $3.72 for his time in prison.

The euphoria of being free man was quickly replaced with the struggle of everyday life. There are reintegration programmes for convicts who have served their time, but not for innocent people suddenly released.

"It is ironic that the people who are innocent get the least help," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

After Bloodsworth's release he became an activist and lobbied for those wrongly convicted using a new law, the Innocent Protection Act, which gives convicts the right to DNA testing. So far it has freed 15 innocent men.

There is simply no convincing evidence that the death penalty acts as a special deterrent. Instead politicians need to focus on effective solutions to address crime.

- Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International

The single largest reason for wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification, which is what happened in Bloodsworth's case.

"Other times the jury makes mistakes, or the science is wrong. That's why the number of states with the death penalty is going down," said Dieter.

Until now, 143 innocent prisoners with death sentences have been exonerated from American jails since 1976, when capital punishment was reinstated.

London-based Amnesty International recently released the report "Not Making Us Safer" that showed the death penalty fails to reduce serious crime.

"There is simply no convincing evidence that the death penalty acts as a special deterrent. Instead politicians need to focus on effective solutions to address crime," said Amnesty's Audrey Gaughran.

Bloodsworth said US politicians are supporting capital punishment because of public sentiment. "So we try to change people's minds, one person at a time," he said.

Dieter predicted the death penalty will be eventually abolished. "Our constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment. It might come down to that 10 years from now."

For Bloodsworth, even though he lost nine years of his life, he said he is not bitter. Instead he looks ahead and focuses on helping others wrongfully put behind bars. 

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Al Jazeera
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