Death penalty exonerates advocate for abolition, call Delaware to action

Witness to Innocence, Repeal Delaware, and Amnesty International Event
Sarah Swanson/THE REVIEW
Amnesty International, Repeal Delaware, and Witness to Innocence promote abolition of the death penalty.

BY
News Assignment Editor

Two men once wrongfully sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit urged audience members to “stand up” to capital punishment in Delaware at a lecture last night in Kirkbride Hall.

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” Kirk Bloodsworth said his mother repeatedly told him throughout his almost nine year incarceration.

Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham, victims of the criminal justice system, embody this saying as they have dedicated their lives to lecturing on their own experiences with capital punishment and advocating for its abolishment.

Last night they spoke about their experiences at a lecture sponsored by the university’s amnesty international chapter. Bloodsworth was falsely incarcerated for rape and first-degree murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton and spent two years on death row, he said. Similarly, Graham said he was falsely accused of murdering a prison guard and was sent to death row.

Both Bloodsworth and Graham have worked for over 20 years spreading awareness about the death penalty and working towards its eradication, state by state. A bill to eliminate the death penalty in Delaware was introduced last year. It passed in the Senate and is currently sitting in the House to be addressed in March, said State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator Abraham Bonowitz of Amnesty International USA.

In August of 1984, Bloodsworth “became the most hated man in Baltimore,” he said, and people could no longer see past the first syllable of his last name.

Police officers arrived at his home where he was taken into custody before enduring a two-week trial that resulted in his incarceration at the Maryland Penitentiary.

Multiple eyewitnesses had identified him from a composite sketch as having been with Hamilton on the day of her death earlier that summer, although he had an alibi, he said.

Hamilton had been playing hide and seek with her girlfriends on July 25 when she disappeared in nearby woods trying to find them. Later that day, her naked body was located face down in a pile of leaves, her skull crushed, Bloodsworth said.

“This was my life now,” he said as he described the horrors of prison—the beatings, the heat, the cockroaches, the lack of blankets.

Witness to Innocence, Repeal Delaware, and Amnesty International Event
Sarah Swanson/THE REVIEW
Kirk Bloodsworth spoke about his experience with the death penalty.

While for the most part he kept to himself, he befriended Blue, an inmate who had been been incarcerated 25 years prior to Bloodsworth’s arrival. Blue was convinced that Bloodsworth would one day be exonerated and freed, but he must have known his own fate was much more bleak.

Bloodsworth said one day Blue told him he was getting out, and Blue was later found dead after he had shoved two pencils through his eye sockets.

However, Blue must have sensed something was happening for Bloodsworth because soon after, Bloodsworth’s case was overturned on prosecutor misconduct, he said. It seemed as if the prosecutor had ignored controversial evidence to win the case the first time around, but the novel information did not change the verdict, and Bloodsworth went back to prison, he said.

Appeal after appeal was denied, and at this point Bloodsworth was losing steam, but he was on the brink of what he called an “epiphany.”

As a prison librarian, Bloodsworth had access to a plethora of books. He discovered Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Blooding” and learned that DNA evidence could be used in courts to prove a person’s involvement in a case, he said. He contacted his lawyer thinking if someone could be convicted using this method then why couldn’t it be used in reverse to prove someone’s innocence?

So they pursued this avenue and were told the DNA evidence had been destroyed before it was located “in the judge’s closest in a paper bag in a cardboard box sitting on the floor,” he said. The evidence consisted of Hamilton’s underwear with traces of semen.

During the time Bloodsworth awaited the results of the test, his mother died, and she never got to witness her son leave prison a free man. The test proved Bloodsworth’s DNA did not match the semen, and in 1993 he became the first person in the United States to be proven innocent and released from prison by post conviction DNA testing, he said.

Authorities eventually convicted Kimberly Shay Ruffner who had been imprisoned for years in a cell one floor below Bloodsworth’s for the murder of Hamilton.

Similarly, Graham was also convicted of a crime he did not commit. However, his incarceration was in the midst of racism and segregation. Graham was guilty of a robbery and was sent to prison at age 18, but he said jail time changed him.  

After denouncing his past and gang activity, he joined the political movement spreading through the prison to fight racism, and he said he was targeted as a consequence. He was falsely accused of killing a guard, extending his time behind bars and ultimately landing him on death row at age 21, he said.

While he has been a free man for 37 years, he still suffers and struggles with his past. He endured prison violence from the moment he was jailed, but the severity at death row was far greater than anything he had experienced before, he said.

“I’m not just a survivor of death row,” Graham said. “I’m a survivor of torture.”

Witness to Innocence, Repeal Delaware, and Amnesty International Event
Sarah Swanson/THE REVIEW
Shujaa Graham called Delaware to repeal capital punishment.

However, Graham said he is still here because of two individuals—Cindy and Brian, white schoolchildren—who worked to help him find justice. They skipped school and went to an earlier of Graham’s four trials and told him that they were going to get him out of prison.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time, but they went out, started selling cookies, coffee, speaking at universities, churches and telling people about what happened to me,” Graham said. “And they started raising money.”

After his fourth trial, at age 31, Graham was finally exonerated and freed. He said at the time he was very angry, and his wife, Phyllis Prentice, who had been a nurse at the prison until she joined the movement full-time to free him, can attest to that. They are married with three children and five grandchildren.

Graham said he believes if he had been white instead of black he would not have had to endure one trial.

Bloodsworth and Graham have dedicated themselves to helping others who face death under the justice system. Bloodsworth founded The Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program to grant money to states “to defray the cost of DNA testing,” he said. To date, the federal grant program has aided about 15 prisoners. Graham and his wife serve on the board of directors of Witness to Innocence, one of the most renowned anti-death penalty organizations in the United States.

Graham said he made a promise to do the best he could to fight against the death penalty if he was ever released, and he has tried his hardest to keep that promise.

“I wish I could turn back the hands of time but I can’t,” he said. “And all I can do is try to make up for what I did as a young person and try to help other people. I can’t bring my 11 years back, but I can make sure that what happened to me never happens to anyone else.”

He urged the audience to find their vocation for social justice and to make Delaware a better state by repealing the death penalty.

“When you do this you’re gonna make my life more precious,” Graham said. “Make my sacrifice more worth it than I ever thought it would be.”

Bonowitz said residents need to contact their representatives and express anti-death penalty feeling. Advocates can volunteer to help Amnesty International with phone banks to call registered voters to spread word about this issue, Bonowitz said, because we need to be sure other people who live here know about this.

“Fewer than one percent of the people who are eligible for the death penalty actually get it,” Bonowitz said. “And when you look at that one percent, it’s the poor people who can’t afford their own attorney. It’s the people who kill in a county that can afford a death penalty trial. It’s the people who kill white people, and more often than not, people who are people of color who kill white people.”

Generally, most people who are educated on the issue of capital punishment prefer the alternative of life without the possibility of parole, Bonowitz said. When more people are made aware of this issue, it will no longer be a question of whether or not someone who committed murder deserves death.

Do we rape rapists? Do we rob robbers? These were questions Graham posed to the audience. Of course not, he said. He concluded that nor should we kill those who have killed.

Providing an education forum to talk about capital punishment was the intention of the university’s chapter of Amnesty International when they decided to host the event in conjunction with the Delaware Repeal Project and Witness to Innocence.

Junior and President Amber Johnson of the university’s chapter of Amnesty International said today’s young people often think they cannot make an impact, but that is not the case.

“In truth, when we gather together and when we really rally, a lot of things can change.”

And change is exactly what Bloodsworth and Graham hope for.

“Delaware, repeal the death penalty,” Bloodsworth said.  “Just get rid of it. Because if it happens to me and Shujaa, it can happen to anybody.”

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