M. Martinez Photo
Kirk Bloodsworth speaks to a Portland crowd about his experience on death row. The first inmate slated for execution to be exonerated by DNA analysis, Bloodsworth became Catholic while imprisoned in Maryland.
M. Martinez Photo
Kirk Bloodsworth speaks to a Portland crowd about his experience on death row. The first inmate slated for execution to be exonerated by DNA analysis, Bloodsworth became Catholic while imprisoned in Maryland.
No one has a higher right than Kirk Bloodsworth to wear a garish necktie decorated with the double helix of DNA.

Bloodsworth was the first death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence. He became Catholic before he ws freed in 1993 from the Maryland State Penitentiary.

In May, Bloodsworth came to Oregon from his home in Pennsylvania to criticize this state’s death penalty law.

Asked why the average person sitting in the pew at Mass should care about overturning capital punishment, Bloodsworth thinks the answer is obvious.

“Because it could happen to the average person in church, like it did to me,” he said May 12 at a gathering in Portland’s Pearl District.  

At 17, he joined the Marines and became a military policeman. The idea of shooting someone troubled him. It seemed like power inappropriate for a human.

“There is only one Cat I know who is omnipotent,” he says.

In 1985, he was convicted of rape and first-degree murder in the death of a nine-year-old girl in Rosedale, Md. Five witnesses said they saw him with the girl.

In prison, some days he was angry, some days sad, some days indifferent. He began to read the work of Father Andrew Greeley and felt drawn to Catholicism. A deacon visited and eventually Bloodsworth was confirmed and made a profession of faith.

“The Catholic Church gave me a place to stay in a sense — a sanctuary,” he explains.

He describes the experience of being wrongly convicted, sentenced to death and waiting on death row for eight years as akin to “The Twilight Zone,” the eerie show from the early days of television in which surreality curses the protagonist.

“People think, ‘It’ll never happen to me,” he says. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”  

By 1993, DNA evidence pointed to another man, who eventually confessed to the murder.  

Bloodsworth contends that though Oregon doesn’t use its death penalty, as long as the law is on the books, there is a chance that an innocent person could be sentenced or killed. He likens the Oregon law to an old throw rug that should be put in the trash so no one will trip.

Bloodsworth keeps in touch with other exonerated people. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others are addicted to narcotics. Most have trouble getting work.

But Bloodsworth has learned the art of jewelry making and hopes someday to have his own shop. While in Portland, he met with a hero of his, the downtown Portland jewelry designer Paul Bartnik. Bartnik embraced the exonerated man.    

Bloodsworth was brought to Oregon by the Oregon Innocence Project, which trains law students and searches out wrongful convictions. The organization, begun two years ago, has had more than 200 inquiries from Oregonians who've been convicted of a crime and are making a claim of innocence. The project is now working on five cases.

About 160 people have now been exonerated from death row in the U.S.