Connecticut Activists Seek to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Gov. Malloy Says He'll Sign the Bill if it Lands on His Desk
Eyes for eyes
By Jon Campbell
February 15, 2011
Kirk Bloodsworth served eight years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. And the crime he didn't commit was about as awful as it gets: the brutal rape and murder of 9-year-old girl.
Convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony — testimony which may have been contaminated by overly aggressive Maryland investigators — and denied access to exculpatory evidence, Bloodsworth had to fight hard for his release. He was ultimately exonerated in 1993 with the help of DNA evidence, the first death-row inmate in the United States ever to be freed by what was then a very new technology.
Bloodsworth told his story at Hartford's St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church on Jan. 30 as part of a campaign against capital punishment, an effort that has made some progress in Connecticut in the past year. For more than an hour, he told the story of how he, an honorably discharged former Marine with no criminal record at the time of his arrest, was caught up in what he characterized as a deeply flawed criminal justice system. The message he's been spreading is simple: If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.
Bloodsworth hasn't been embittered by his experience, despite some facts that have added insult to injury. For example, Bloodsworth didn't get much for his troubles from the authorities. He explained that even after his release and exoneration, the State of Maryland provided less than $10 compensation for every day Bloodsworth was incarcerated. Then there's the fact that the real killer in his case, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, lived in the same prison after being convicted on unrelated charges. For more than five years, Ruffner resided in the cell block one floor below Bloodsworth's own.
Even so, Bloodsworth has a sense of humor about his ordeal. When he finally won the right to use DNA evidence and the results were returned, he got a call from his lawyer.
“He called me up and he said, ‘You're innocent!'” deadpans Bloodsworth. “And I said, ‘I know.'”
Bloodsworth's story is at the intersection of two major issues currently coursing their way through the Connecticut legislature. First, there's the push for the elimination of the death penalty, which has gained momentum after Governor Dannel Malloy said he'd sign a bill abolishing capital punishment if it made it to his desk.
Then there's the separate push to expand the collection of DNA by law enforcement in the state. While Connecticut currently collects DNA from convicted felons, some Hartford area officials are among those pushing for collection at the time of arrest, before suspects have been found guilty of any crime. The measure has been floated before, and it's coming around again in the current session.
Given his history, you might expect Bloodsworth would want law enforcement to have access to all the DNA they possibly could. But he doesn't.
“Collection on conviction, of course. But on arrest? That would worry me,” says Bloodsworth.
The presumption of innocence is an important part of the criminal justice system, Bloodsworth says, one that's turned on its head when a brush with law enforcement can give the government such intimate information about an innocent suspect. DNA is left behind in hundreds of ways on everyday objects, and the risk for misuse of the information is too great.
State Senator Gary LeBeau, a Democrat from the Third District, which includes East Hartford, has introduced a bill that would require DNA collection on arrest. He said the collection of DNA should be viewed in the same context as any other information collected when a person enters police custody.
“DNA is the fingerprinting of the 21st century,” LeBeau says, and there's no reason not to embrace a technology that's essentially a high-tech version of the old ink pad.
Lebeau says he's familiar with the objections put forth by civil libertarians, but speculated that the relative novelty of DNA technology may be the source of some of that worry. “Would those civil libertarians say they shouldn't fingerprint? I doubt it. They're just not used to the idea,” says LeBeau.
LeBeau points out that DNA databases can be a path to exoneration as easily as conviction, because such evidence can help eliminate a suspect early on in the investigation. Simply put, he says, he hopes his bill will help “convict the guilty and free the innocent.”
Another local lawmaker, State Representative Marie Kirkley-Bey, who represents the northern part of Hartford, has signed on to a separate bill aimed at the same kind of DNA collection on arrest. Kirkley-Bey points to the successful use of DNA evidence to free wrongly convicted individuals like James Tillman, who served 18 years in a Connecticut prison for a crime he didn't commit.
“The Innocence Project [which works to reverse wrongful convictions] has been finding innocent people who have been imprisoned for as long as 30 years. … [A database would] prove right in the beginning that someone's guilty or not guilty,” says Kirkley-Bey. Recalling the recent case of Carlina White, a woman who was kidnapped as an infant in 1987 and just discovered her true identity last year, Kirkley-Bey goes even further, suggesting it might be wise to collect DNA from all children at birth.
Karen Goodrow, Director of the Connecticut Innocence Project, said she didn't support the idea of DNA collection on arrest, which she called “too invasive.” Noting that reasonable people “can and do” disagree, she said her group's goal is primarily to exonerate innocent people, not convict the guilty. She says finding the real culprit is a great outcome when it happens, but isn't the primary goal of the Connecticut Innocence Project.
“I think our legislature has done a good job of balancing, over the years, the interest in privacy and protecting the innocent” with the need to aggressively pursue criminals, Goodrow says.
Kirk Bloodsworth is fully in support of the repeal of the state's capital punishment law, and his speech in January was part of an ongoing campaign by the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. And that campaign may be gaining steam. At a press conference on Feb. 9, dozens of family members of murder victims presented a letter to the state legislature, calling for the elimination of capital punishment. Legislators working toward that goal say they're confident it can be accomplished, especially with Malloy's support.
William Petit, whose wife and two daughters were murdered during a home invasion in Cheshire in 2007, has been outspoken in his desire to see the death penalty handed down to the men responsible, one of whom has already been sentenced to die, and another who will soon face trial.
“Any penalty less than death for murder is unjust and trivializes the victim and the victim's family,” Petit said, as quoted by the Hartford Courant. “It is immoral and unjust to all of us in our society.”
The argument put forth by the families in their letter to the legislature differs from the one made by Bloodsworth; while Bloodsworth argues that the criminal justice system is simply too imperfect to mete out a punishment as permanent as death, CNADP argues that the process creates new victims by forcing families through years of trials and lengthy appeals.
Gail Canzano, whose brother-in-law was stabbed to death in 1999, is one member of the group who feels exactly that way.
“When my brother-in-law was murdered, we were out of our minds with grief. I was in a state of rage that was unbelievable. Well, I'm not that kind of a person, but that's what it does to you,” says Canzano.
Canzano, a clinical psychologist, says the pressure from prosecutors to pursue a death sentence can be considerable. She says she doesn't believe the families of murder victims should be pushed toward that kind of a pursuit during a vulnerable period. If a capital verdict is sought, the process can drag out for decades, Canzano says, and traumatized families may not anticipate the years of pain it will entail. Canzano also points out that Connecticut has executed only one person in the last 50 years. Because of mandatory appeals and the extraordinary length of time typically spent on death row, the suspects in the Petit murders “will never be executed in this state,” she says, even if they are convicted.