Updated: Jan 17, 2019
Students listened to author Tim Junkin present his findings on the first death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence at Salisbury University Thursday night.
Junkin is the author of the novels “Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA Evidence,” “The Waterman: A Novel of the Chesapeake Bay” and “Good Counsel.” Junkin is a practicing attorney and an award-winning novelist who resides in Maryland.
All three of his novels take place on the Eastern Shore. His novel “Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA Evidence” is the 2018 One Maryland One Book selection.
Kirk Bloodsworth is the first American to be sentenced to the death penalty and be exonerated due to DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was convicted in 1985 for the 1984 first-degree murder and rape of Dawn Hamilton.
Police captured Bloodsworth in his home when he was 22 years old. He was later gassed multiple times in prison.
Bloodsworth was released 19 years after his arrest.
Bloodsworth is now a national spokesperson for prison reform and has gone on tour with Junkin presenting the novel. Bloodsworth was exonerated in 2004, but the death penalty was not eradicated in the state of Maryland until 2013.
The United States spends over $80 billion on incarceration each year. The United States comprises about 5 percent of the world’s population, but it houses approximately 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
The death penalty is used disproportionately against minorities, with 50 percent of death row inmates being black.
Junkin said that Bloodsworth became a symbol of hope and justice for people after speaking on their book tour and speaking at law schools together. He said Bloodsworth is a symbol of wrongful conviction and the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S.
“We have a burgeoning crisis of mass incarceration in our prison system,” Junkin said.
Bloodsworth was represented by lawyer Bob Warren. At the time of Bloodsworth’s conviction, only two labs in the country were performing DNA testing.
In the United States, 162 people have been exonerated from death row after Bloodsworth.
DNA evidence has convicted the serial sexual offender and rapist Kimberly Shay Ruffner as the killer of the 9-year-old girl whose body was found in Rosedale. Ruffner was an absolute DNA match with the semen and blood samples found on Hamilton’s clothing.
Junkin’s novel has experienced a renaissance in popularity recently despite having been released in 2004. Junkin said the themes of justice and wrongful conviction still ring true to audiences in 2018.
“I think it’s got some really important parallels for today,” Junkin said. “Everybody that comes in contact with him thinks he’s innocent.”
Junkin read about Bloodsworth’s case in the newspaper and was inspired to find the truth. He studied police notes and the grand jury testimony, and he spoke directly to Bloodsworth and the people working the case.
He researched his case as an investigative journalist, speaking to every source that was willing to talk to him. He said the only people who refused to talk to him were the two homicide detectives in charge of the case.
He decided that creating a first-person narrative from Bloodsworth’s point of view would be the best way to create sympathy and understanding with the reader, but he also only wanted to write information that was factual in his novel.
“Of course I wanted to write this story from Kirk’s perspective,” Junkin said, “But, I also wanted to write from the perspective of the investigators and the prosecutors.”
Junkin believes that people in the community wanted to accept Bloodsworth as the killer without DNA evidence because it gave them a sense of security for their children. He said they wanted a simple case of justice that was solved quickly.
“The community is terrified,” he said, “And they’re afraid to let their kids out of the house.”
Bloodsworth had weed in his shoes and was sweating nervously after having a fight with his wife at the time his psychological profile was performed. Junkin said this profile led the police to “key in on Kirk.”
The case also relied on 10- and 7-year-old eyewitnesses who described a tan, blond, mustached man. Junkin said that Bloodsworth had red hair and pale skin that did not tan.
Junkin believed that Bloodsworth was innocent, but he did not want to make any assumptions as he investigated his case.
Molly Welch, a social work and community health major, thought the lecture was insightful and had an interest in the case because she wants to specialize in the criminal justice field of social work. Welch grew up in Somerset County around a family working in law enforcement, and she said working with people in this field has made both her and her family stronger.
Welch said people are “quick to jump to conclusions” whenever a child is harmed because people want to keep children innocent and safe. She thinks adults are better able to protect themselves than children, and children are also less mentally developed than adults.
“You wanna feel safe as a society, but you also don’t wanna put others at risk and not have them be safe,” Welch said. “In this country, we have a problem with knee-jerk reactions, and especially when it comes to children because we wanna protect children— we love children.”
Brittany Tignor, a Snow Hill High School librarian, took a group of students who read the novel and were interested in the case on a field trip to learn more from the author himself.
She thought her students found the lecture very informative, and she felt the lecture clarified things for both her and her students, especially the question and answer portion.
Tignor feels that people wanted a quick and decisive ending to the case because uncertainty is uncomfortable to live with. She said people wanted clear answers, not a list of possibilities to choose from.
“It’s a great example of how broken our system has become,” Tignor said. “I understood the prosecutor and the investigators’ desire to solve the case, but I didn’t understand the desire to just, like, find somebody to pin it on and be done with it.”
Tignor enjoyed Junkin’s novel, not from the perspective of the crime drama, but from the perspective of the characters. She said the novel made her believe in Bloodsworth’s innocence and made her root for his character.
“As a former English teacher, I am not a big fan of crime drama — I’m not really a big fan of law books in general, but I loved how Tim Junkin made me care about the characters and sort of wove the characters throughout the process of the court system and everything,” Tignor said.
“You become very attached to Kirk … and you’re sort of cheering him on through the whole thing.”
By MELISSA REESE
Featured photo: Author Tim Junkin presented his findings on the first death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence (Melissa Reese image).