May 7th, 2013

After Maryland, 32 States Left to Go


BY JOHN DEAR

Maryland's had the death penalty since 1638, that is, until last Thursday when Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed a law abolishing it. This is cause for great rejoicing and gratitude. Maryland becomes the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. Six states have done so in the last six years. That leaves 32 states left.

"Maryland has effectively eliminated a policy that is proven not to work," O'Malley said. "Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole," he said in a statement. Furthermore, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death. Working together with law enforcement partners, Maryland has driven down violent crime and homicides to three decade lows."

You could say that after nearly four hundred years, Maryland has finally entered the age of enlightenment. O'Malley put it this way: "This is the day we join the rest of Western civilization."

Does that mean that the other 32 states have yet to join Western civilization? Unfortunately, yes.

Many activists worked hard to make this day come true, and they all deserve our thanks. I hope they celebrated well. But I hope, too, that this historic day will inspire other activists, lobbyists and legislators in states such as Delaware, Colorado, and New Hampshire, which are currently considering new legislation, to push for abolition, as well.

In particular, I hope California will redouble its efforts to abolish the death penalty, especially after last November's close state-wide vote. I wish Governor Jerry Brown would join the campaign, and lend his important voice to the movement. I've known Jerry for years, and I like him, but I wrote him not long ago and reminded him that he does not want to go down in history like another certain governor who enforced executions--Pontius Pilate. Jerry Brown needs to take the lead and speak out as Martin O'Malley did and help California join the civilized world.

One of the most moving aspects of Thursday's signing was the figure at the center of it--not the governor, but one-time Maryland death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth. In 1985, Kirk was working as a waterman on Maryland's Eastern shore. A little Baltimore girl had been brutally raped and killed, and police released a terrible drawing based on two boys' description. A neighbor told the police that the drawing looked like Kirk and he was arrested. Despite the testimony of alibi witnesses, Kirk was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. In 1986 his conviction was reversed on grounds of withheld evidence pointing to another suspect. He was then re-tried, re-convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

In 1993, newly available DNA evidence proved he was not the rapist-killer. The prosecution dismissed the case, and after nine years in prison, Kirk was released. Later he was awarded $300,000 for wrongful punishment. Eventually, the DNA was matched to the real killer, someone Kirk knew in prison.

Kirk Bloodsworth is the first person in the U.S. freed from death row because of DNA evidence.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 142 death row inmates across the country have now been exonerated since 1973. That's 142 innocent people not only convicted but sentenced to die.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to be arrested for something you didn't do, for something you are equally horrified at (the rape and killing of a little girl). I can't imagine surviving trial and condemnation, and ending up on death row awaiting execution---all the while knowing you are completely innocent. How would you survive?

How many innocent people have been executed in our country over the years? As civilized people, we need to abolish the death penalty now, if for no other reason than that we cannot ever again risk the murder of one innocent person.

"If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody," Kirk told the New York Times recently.

Since his release, Kirk Bloodsworth has spent his life working for the abolition of the death penalty and advocating for justice. He is a staff member of the Witness to Innocence Project (see: www.witnesstoinnocence.org), and by all accounts, one of the leading activists and most compelling voices for the abolition of the death penalty in the world.

"I kept telling people that I was innocent and it was very frustrating," Kirk said (see: www.oneforten.com). "I used to write letters from the time I was arrested till the time I was released, and tell anybody and everyone that I was an innocent person. I would sign all of my correspondence from jail, 'respectfully submitted, Kirk Bloodsworth, A.I.M - an innocent man.' And it's very frustrating. I used to write to prosecutors at Christmas and judges and everybody, and I'd get no response, and if I did, it was negative. 'We can't help you, we regret to inform you.' These kind of things. It was very frustrating." He continued:

I have a faith, you know, in God, and I had to grab a hold of my own sanity and anchor myself in some kind of way. I worked out like a maniac and I read all the time. I was constantly in books and I was constantly reading the law that pertained to my case and you know, my endeavor to grab my freedom. I had to prove the truth you know. The truth will set you free. I read the Bible 7 times. I communed with God. I had a realization that I was to endure whatever was coming and there was no way out of it and I had to get through to the other side.

How did it feel when I [learned that] the death penalty would be abolished in Maryland? I can tell you that 28 years later, I killed the thing that almost killed me. It was the most gratifying thing I've ever felt in my life. I was so happy, I got instantly tired. You know how when you take a long journey and you take that last step, like a pilgrimage, so to speak. I was so happy. Nobody in the state of Maryland will have to go to death row again, let alone an innocent man. No innocent man will ever be convicted and sentenced to death again. Not in my state.

In the recent New York Times profile of Kirk Bloodsworth, Maryland state legislator Barbara Frush described his visit two years ago and how it immediately changed her mind about capital punishment, which she had long favored. "I sat across the desk from him and looked in his eyes and listened to his story," she said. "It sent shivers down my spine. I thought, 'I can't take the chance that I might send an innocent man to death.'"

The 32 states that currently have the death penalty should take note. We do not need any more Kirk Bloodsworths, those long-sufferers who endure wrongful arrest, conviction, and then the torture of death row, only to be released and spend a lifetime in advocacy. One is enough. We should all listen to his story, as Martin O'Malley and Barbara Frush did.

The story of Kirk Bloodsworth should send shivers down everyone's spine. We can't take the chance of sending one more innocent man to death ever again. Let's give thanks for Kirk Bloodsworth's hard work, and all those who made abolition become a reality in Maryland last week, and redouble our efforts to abolish the death penalty in the remaining 32 states.

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