Almost exactly 20 years ago, I became the first death row prisoner in the United States to clear my name through DNA evidence.
The crime for which I was convicted was the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl named Dawn Hamilton. My community in Maryland was devastated and needed someone to blame, so the district attorney’s office built a capital case against me based on a few flimsy pieces of so-called evidence.
My arrest followed my neighbor’s call to the police, in which she claimed that I resembled the sketch shown on TV — a sketch that had been crafted through the eyewitness accounts of two young boys. I didn’t look much like the culprit they described, and neither did the real killer, who was identified through the very DNA evidence that saved me.
I spent nine years in prison wondering if I’d be executed for a crime I did not commit. After my release, it wasn’t easy to piece back together a normal life.
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But a turning point came when I saw how sharing the story of my innocence influenced the way others viewed the death penalty. I realized then that the best way to move forward would be to help prevent what happened to me from ever happening to anyone else.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, 142 of us have been exonerated from death row. That’s 142 innocent people who were saved, some at the last minute. Today, I work alongside many of those exonerated men and women at Witness to Innocence, where we share our stories with the world to advocate against the death penalty.
Thankfully, the death penalty is outlawed in 18 states. The sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment is my home state of Maryland, the state that almost executed me.
But there is much work still to be done. In the last year, North Carolina repealed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed for death penalty appeals based on racial bias in jury selection. In Florida, which has the largest number of death row exonerations of any state, Gov. Rick Scott just signed the Timely Justice Act, which limits the appeals process for death row prisoners. Many of my fellow exonerees owe their lives to multiple appeals, making this law far from just.
We should acknowledge by now that our criminal justice system is extremely flawed. Cases like mine are rife with eyewitness misidentification and prosecutorial misconduct. There are tremendous racial disparities in the application of the death penalty.
Plus, by nature, humans make mistakes. While we can’t change the human conditions, we can ensure that the humans who run our government don’t make fatal ones.
The only true path to justice is to put the death penalty to death.
Kirk Bloodsworth is advocacy director of Witness to Innocence. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.