DNA Evidence Brings Hope, Truth - But Only If Tested

Some Maryland Jurisdictions Slow to Report Findings

By Deidre McPhillips

DNA evidence helped Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine and waterman from Maryland's Eastern Shore, become the first person in the United States to have been exonerated of all charges after being sentenced to death. Photo courtesy of Witness to Innocence.
DNA evidence helped Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine and waterman from Maryland's Eastern Shore, become the first person in the United States to have been exonerated of all charges after being sentenced to death. Photo courtesy of Witness to Innocence.

ANNAPOLIS—Half of a cell can free a man sent to death row, but sometimes, that cell remains untouched, untested, and—in one case—forgotten in a closet for years.

Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Marine and waterman from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was on death row in 1984, convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. In 1993, after nine years in prison, Bloodsworth became the first person in the United States to have been exonerated of all charges after being sentenced to death.

Now, he walks free—because of DNA evidence and his own extraordinary efforts to get it tested.

Maryland now mandates that its police departments test, track and report DNA crime-scene evidence, but one year after a deadline, not all jurisdictions have sent the state their results. Of the two largest jurisdictions, one was more than a year late and the other still hadn’t reported as of Tuesday afternoon.

Bloodsworth said it was fate that brought him “The Blooding,” a book by Jason Wambaugh that details the account of the first time DNA evidence was used in a criminal case in England, through the prison’s library exchange program. It inspired him to write a letter convincing the prosecutor to allow DNA evidence testing in his case.

The prosecutor told him that the evidence had been inadvertently destroyed, he said, but Bloodsworth thought that just because no one had seen it, did not mean it didn’t exist.

Bloodsworth said he kept pushing and the evidence was eventually found in a cardboard box, sitting in the closet of Maryland Circuit Court Judge James T. Smith, who had reduced Bloodsworth’s sentence to life in prison after a second appeal back in 1987. Once found, it was shipped off to California, home to one of two DNA labs in the country at the time.

It took a year for the results to come back, Bloodsworth said, a year of hopeful anticipation. And when the results came, he said, there was finally truth in his case—his DNA was not a match.

DNA evidence testing has seen great advancements since the ’90s.

The average turnaround time for analysis of crime scene DNA evidence in Maryland was 110 days in 2011, according to a 2012 audit by the state’s Office of Legislative Audits—much less than the year it took for Bloodworth’s results to come back.

There were 3,239 cases with untested data in Maryland during a 2011 spot-check of 135 local law enforcement agencies, according to the 2012 audit.

Data from a 2013 DNA evidence collection and analysis was due in to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention for review by April 2014, but 33 of the state’s 133 local law enforcement agencies did not submit their data to the state before the deadline, despite a legal mandate to do so. (There were two fewer Maryland law enforcement agencies in 2014 due to some agency restructuring at the local level.)

The data from 31 of the non-reporting local law enforcement agencies in 2014 would have a minor effect on overall state statistics, as those agencies collected zero or very few DNA evidence samples, according to a special report by the Office of Legislative Audits released in April.

But missing data from the other two—Baltimore City and Prince George’s County—would “likely have a significant effect on the overall data,” according to the special report.

In 2012, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County Police Departments accounted for 80 percent of cases with untested DNA, with 1,349 and 1,244 untested cases, respectively.

This noncompliance frustrates Bloodsworth, who has become an advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty since his release.

“We need transparency and we need people to get their work done in regard to the criminal justice system. Scientists, prosecutors, police officers—they need to play by the rules,” he said. “I take the criminal justice system seriously—I’ll put it that way—and so should they. You can’t skirt around the truth.”

Any delay in testing DNA evidence—whether it be years sitting in a closet or months waiting for police departments to get through their overwhelming load of cases—is a threat to the justice system, Bloodsworth said.

According to a July 2013 report by the United States Government Accountability Office, about $442 million was given to state and local governments by The Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice to reduce the DNA evidence testing backlog from fiscal years 2008 through 2012.

Maryland is one of 14 states—including Virginia—that has enacted statewide reforms to reduce the backlog in rape kit testing, according to data collected by The Accountability Project, a group dedicated to ending the backlog of rape kit DNA testing. Nine others—including Pennsylvania—have proposed similar reforms.

Thomas J. Barnickel III, legislative auditor with the Department of Legislative Services, said the backlog of DNA evidence samples and the timeliness of the information analyzed is of historical concern for lawmakers in Maryland.

“This is information the legislators wanted, and it’s in law to collect,” he said.

A bill signed into law in 2008 requires all law enforcement agencies and the Department of State Police to report to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention bi-annually on the collection and analysis of DNA evidence from crime scenes. Data is to be reported on the numbers and types of cases for which crime scene DNA evidence samples were collected, the average turnaround time for analysis of the DNA evidence, and the number of outstanding cases that have DNA evidence samples submitted but not yet tested.

Maryland’s Attorney General Brian E. Frosh was a state senator in 2008 and voted in favor of the bill that added the reporting requirement.

“Any breakdown in the system means delays in trials and delays in the resolution of cases—with serious consequences for those accused of crimes, as well as the victims of crimes,” he said. “We must look for ways for local law enforcement to have the resources they need to do their jobs.”

This breakdown was a lapse in communication, said Chris Shank, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the organization tasked with collecting the data.

The local law enforcement agencies submit their reports on crime scene DNA evidence collection through an online database, a process that has been reworked over the years to resolve various reporting errors and inconsistencies.

The DNA evidence data is due from the local law enforcement agencies to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention by April 1 of each even-numbered year by law. The Office of Legislative Audits then collects the data from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which, for this reporting cycle, happened in mid-October 2014. Shank took office in January 2015.

“There’s no conspiracy here. It’s all very simple. It was a lack of follow-up, and we are in the process of remedying that now,” he said.

A spokesman for the Prince George’s County Police Department said that the department did not receive a request for the information until April 16, 2015—more than one year later than the data was due to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and 10 days after the report was released by the Office of Legislative Audits. The Baltimore City Police Department could not be reached for comment.

The Baltimore City Police Department has recently submitted their statistics to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, and data from the Prince George’s County Police Department is expected soon, said a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Once complete results are compiled, the information will be posted to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention’s website, Shank said Tuesday morning.

The 2015 legislative session of Maryland’s General Assembly, which concluded this month, was riddled with bills related to DNA evidence.

Some—including one bill that would require the appropriate law enforcement agency to notify the victim of a crime or their representative of updates to a DNA profile in the case if requested, and another that expands the types of crimes that are eligible for postconviction DNA testing—were passed by the General Assembly and were signed by Gov. Larry Hogan Tuesday.

Another—a bill that would require additional testing to confirm a DNA match with a database entry before it is admissible in trial—did not.

For Gale Seaton, DNA evidence is about hope.

“It’s tangible, physical evidence when all else fails,” she said. “It’s DNA—you can’t refute DNA.”

Seaton’s daughter, Stacey, was murdered in Bowie in Prince George’s County in 2005. But it wasn’t until 2009 that the cigarette butt found next to Stacey’s head was tested for DNA evidence.

Leaving DNA samples untested is a problem across the country, said Russell Butler, executive director and litigator for the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center.

“Police are the ones investigating. Prosecutors are the ones litigating. If no one is pushing, they’ll have other unsolved crimes and new cases to focus on. But for victims and survivors, knowledge is power. They can help their case get noticed,” he said.

Seaton said investigators promised her an answer by the time of her daughter’s funeral, but instead didn’t recognize her name when she called.

When the police department called two months later to say there was nothing else they could do, Seaton said, she took it upon herself to keep the case moving.

A 2009 article in a local newspaper, The Bowie Blade, about the unsolved case grabbed the police department’s attention, and they made an arrest within two weeks, Seaton said.

McDonald Abraham III was sentenced to 15 years in prison and five years of supervised probation in connection with the murder of Stacey Seaton, but it was not his DNA on the cigarette butt found near the scene of the crime. The DNA matched that of a man Abraham said he paid to kill Seaton. That man was found not guilty.

But, for Seaton, knowing was enough. The DNA evidence test results brought her a sense of peace, she said.

“My belief system was shattered after Stacey’s death. I believed everything worked right, but I grew distrustful of the police—it almost killed me,” she said. “Now I have to believe that everybody gets justice in the end—whether it’s karma or God, I truly believe that there’s justice.”

Bloodsworth has also been able to feel a sense of relief.

Ten years after DNA evidence proved he wasn’t guilty and nearly 20 years after the crime was committed, Bloodsworth learned that the true killer had been found. The DNA evidence that remained untouched until Bloodsworth’s prompting—semen found on underwear at the scene of the crime—matched that of Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a known sexual criminal who had just been released from prison at the time of the 1984 murder. Ruffner pleaded guilty in a 2004 trial.

Bloodsworth now lives in Pennsylvania, where he enjoys a spending time with his girlfriend and silversmithing his own jewelry, a life afforded to him by what he calls luck.

“I read the book that came to me in the mail and had one of the best genetic scientists test my evidence. The only thing that separated me from freedom was half of one cell,” he said. “That half of one cell cleared me of everything. That half of one cell caught the real killer.”

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