WASHINGTON – Kirk Bloodsworth sat watching the Senate Judiciary Committee argue the merits of legislation bearing his name Thursday — a far cry from the inside of a Maryland prison where he was held until 1993.
The Cambridge resident, the first death-row inmate in the country to be exonerated through DNA evidence, was on Capitol Hill this week urging senators to support a measure that would help local governments use genetic testing in criminal cases.
He was joined in his two-day effort by Debbie Smith, a Virginia rape victim who waited six years after her rape before the evidence she provided was tested and her attacker identified.
The two visited the offices of all 100 senators in preparation for Thursday’s committee markup of the bill.
Bloodsworth was convicted in 1985 for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton in Baltimore County. Originally sentenced to death, his sentence was overturned two years later.
It was not until 1993 that he was released on the strength of DNA evidence in the case. Still, Dawn’s killer was not positively identified until last year with that evidence.
Bloodsworth said he does not want others to have to wait as long for justice as he and Smith have.
“It took God six days to create the Earth and all the heavens,” he said. “Why did it take six years for Debbie to get a DNA test and nine for me to find my freedom?”
The Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act would provide $151 million per year over the next five years to clear the backlog of untested DNA evidence collected from rape victims. The grant program is named for Smith.
The bill also includes the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which is designed to help pay the cost of DNA testing for inmates. It sets aside $25 million over five years for that testing, and initiates a grant program designed to guarantee that defendants in death penalty cases have competent representation.
These last two provisions proved difficult at Thursday’s hearing, as Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., expressed concern that the bill would open the door for frivolous lawsuits by inmates and undermine the enforcement of the death penalty in states where it exists.
Bloodsworth expressed frustration at Kyl’s objections, saying he and others like him have waited long enough.
“I can’t see where he (Kyl) is coming from. He wasn’t sitting where Debbie and I were sitting,” he said. “He needs to look at it from a rape victim’s perspective and an innocent person’s perspective.”
The committee ran out of time after a Kyl amendment was defeated Thursday, and it is scheduled to continue discussion of the bill Tuesday.
If the bill gets out of committee, it still faces a vote by the full Senate and likely a conference committee with the House, which has already passed its own version of the bill. But Bloodsworth remains optimistic about the bill’s chances.
“You’re looking at a man who sat on death row for two years for something he didn’t do,” he said. “So optimism is all I have.”
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