“Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA,” by Maryland author Tim Junkin, is a cautionary tale of the first time DNA evidence was used to prove a man’s innocence.
The novel is this year’s selection for the One Maryland One Book statewide reading program. A discussion, question session and book signing were held Wednesday at the Leonardtown High School auditorium.
Published in 2004, Junkin said he was inspired to research and write the nonfiction account after reading a newspaper article about Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine who was wrongly accused in 1984 of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl in Baltimore. Bloodsworth spent almost 10 years trying to prove his innocence until he fought to have his DNA tested against evidence collected at the crime scene, Junkin said.
After arguing with his wife, Bloodsworth reportedly quit his job as a waterman without notice and headed to Baltimore, Junkin said. Bloodsworth had purchased marijuana while in the city and was approached by law officers after they found the child in a nearby wooded area, he said.
“He was worried about the weed in his shoe,” Junkin said.
After being tried and convicted twice of the crimes he didn’t commit, Junkin said Bloodsworth sought as much information as he could from newspaper articles, books and other sources to prove his innocence. He was later exonerated of the crimes in late 1993. Junkin said Bloodsworth is now the deputy director of the New Innocence Project in Philadelphia.
Micheal Blackwell, director of St. Mary’s County Library, said the book is “partly police procedural, partly courtroom drama and chock full of human interest.” He said it’s a cautionary tale of “an injustice overcome on the basis of facts, evidence and the triumph of the scientific method in a time when those things are challenged.”
Junkin said law enforcement officials reportedly used psychological profiling to target Bloodsworth. The author said profiling should be considered “nothing but a tool,” and added that the process is not intended to replace “digging through the facts.”
Lorraine Okrie of Leonardtown said she would recommend the book, particularly to potential and current jurors. She said she was concerned how those who work in law enforcement might react to the novel, and if they would assume people had a worse opinion of them after reading the nonfiction work.
“In the end, good overcame evil,” she said, adding that she now has a better appreciation for “how far we’ve come in forensics.” She said Bloodsworth showed perseverance during the decade he spent to prove his innocence.
Yvonne Medley of Waldorf said she and her husband have been volunteering for 25 years in prison programs. She said when DNA testing was first introduced, people thought it was “going to catch more people than exonerate.”
She said the ability to test became a way to “free people who were incarcerated and had not done the crime.”
She said “it’s easier to go to jail than you think. Just because you’re sitting there doesn’t mean you [are guilty] or the penalty fits the crime.”
Junkin said DNA testing is “now a potent tool” to solve crimes. Since 1989, as many as 2,200 felons were found to be innocent, Junkin said.
He said prior to the second trial, Bloodsworth’s family had “sold one of their cars, went into debt about $100,000 and hired a fancy lawyer.” Bloodsworth was “convicted a second time” despite spending the additional money, the author said.
Junkin said “when you arrest, charge and convict an innocent person of a certain crime, [you’re] disrupting if not destroying him or her and their family.” He said the “monster who did this is not brought to justice and the whole community is at risk.”
Vic Kennedy of Prince Frederick asked Junkin what could be done to hold prosecutors who may be “overzealous [and] overstayed what they should have been doing.”
Junkin said because “we live in a competitive culture,” people may act on feeling overly confident in their abilities rather than “dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’.” He said prosecutors may be fined or suspended but “rarely they are charged” with criminal activity, because it would be difficult to prove a prosecutor acted with intentional malignant behavior.
Phoebe Stein, director of the educational nonprofit group “Maryland Humanities,” said she likes to think about the One Maryland One Book, the only statewide community centered reading program as “the state’s largest book club.” People are encouraged to read the selected book, and libraries and other venues host events related to the selection.
She said groups like high school classes, book clubs, public libraries, senior center, correctional facilities and others are participating in the reading program this fall.
Stein said this year’s nonfiction work is “a true testament to our collective interest in seeking justice,” adding that programs like One Maryland One Book “use the humanities to explore our ideas, our stories, our values to foster understanding among people with diverse perspectives and strengthen our ability to interact meaningfully with other people.”
She said the topics presented in the novel are “timely and relevant” like injustices within the criminal justice system, the death penalty, being a self advocate and freedom.
Through Junkin’s research and writing, Stein said it shows how Bloodsworth “did not give up during nearly 10 years that it took to regain his freedom from the Maryland criminal justice system.”
For more about the program, visit a local public library or check out the website www.mdhumanities.org/programs/one-maryland-one-book.