Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA Evidence
Reviewed by Yvonne J. Medley
Tim Junkin is a Maryland attorney and an award-winning novelist, who is passionate about the injustices of incarceration in America. One of my passions is to use the literary arts to empower those owning incarceration experiences and fighting to bounce beyond. Threads of commonality drew me to Junkin’s creative nonfiction telling of a young man, falsely accused of a heinous crime, and spending 10 years in prison before being exonerated by the science of DNA evidence.
During a One Maryland One Book (OMOB) event held on October 3, 2018, I was moved to the mike to ask a couple of questions and to land an overall revelation—I learned by volunteering in prison programs for 25 years, and that is—It’s Easier to Go To Jail Than You Think.
Picture Courtesy of Tim Junkin
The first thing I did, though, was to thank the OMOB program for bringing this year’s literary pick into my awareness. Every year since 2008, OMOB, which is the brainchild of Maryland Humanities (MH), selects a book, and asks Maryland book lovers to take a moment to enjoy the good read.
This year’s jewel is titled Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated By DNA Evidence written by Tim Junkin (Algonguin/Shannan Ravenel, 2004).
“It’s like having a statewide book club,” MH’s director, Phebe Stein, joked. Throughout the year, OMOB tours the author around to nearly every county in the state for an up-close-and-personal account of his or her literary process, and a book signing.
That evening’s meet-and-greet was hosted by the St. Mary’s Public Library, held at the Leonardtown High School in Leonardtown, Maryland.
Junkin revealed how [initial] detectives, charged with exploring the case, consistently hinged their conclusions on assumptions and prideful hunches. “A lot of hubris was involved, but they didn’t follow the science,” Junkin said.
In 1984, Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, a 23-year-old Maryland man, was convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl. His first go-round in the courts, placed him on death row. Bloodsworth managed to appeal, but his second conviction handed him two consecutive life sentences. In summation, by the time his body would gain a presence beyond prison walls, his life and spirit would be void from it.
When Junkin walked into this story, “quite by accident,” he wrote in his book, and shared during OMOB’s event that it didn’t take him long to lick his lips about wanting to write this riveting story. And, yes, this was a true crime/criminal law thriller to behold. So what’s a novelist to do?
“My job was to research and write the story,” Junkin said. “I told this story by looking through the perspectives of everyone [the detectives] charged with solving the crime,” he added.
But first, I would imagine that he must have had to get himself willing to step out of his comfortable fiction-writing box to do it. While in the thick of it, the author shared his frustration about knowing, “I had a great story, but not a who-did-it.” Because not only was both Junkin and Bloodsworth interested in Bloodsworth’s innocence, but also they wanted to expose the monster—guilty of this horrendous crime.
The details of Bloodsworth’s tragic journey is, perhaps, unfathomable to those believing or wanting to have faith that our American justice system is indeed blindfolded and balanced for all. However, like in another story that made recent national headlines about a New York man who was finally exonerated after spending 27 years in prison, much of the evidence of innocence along with the inconsistencies that disproved guilt were simply ignored by overzealous prosecutors.
During the Literary event, a man asked if prosecutors were ever held accountable or reprimanded for flagrantly mishandling cases. The response from the podium was a guarded, “Well, no. Not really.” An audible gasp blanketed the book lovers in the school’s auditorium.
Junkin revealed how, “the prosecutor had called him [Bloodsworth] an animal, and a beast during the trial.”
The author contends in his book that the use of DNA, especially in Bloodsworth’s case is, “a two-edged sword, clearing the innocent as well as identifying the guilty.”
My first question to him centered around the conceived consensus when this breakthrough science became available. “Was it also your impression that the first intentions of detectives and prosecutors was to assure the accused, guilty—rather than to prove the innocence of the possibly wrongfully accused?”
He diplomatically concurred. And he stated a few stats such as, [at least by 2015 stats] “while America has [nearly] five percent of the world’s population, it incarcerates [almost] 25 percent of the world’s population.” Also, he touched on how according to race, black and brown folks are disproportionately imprisoned. And I would contend that the same is true for those entangled in the penal system via lengthy probation periods.
Junkin briefly commented on the for-profit prisons, jails and detention centers that have sprung up throughout the states since the 1980s. Often, its primary goal is to turn a profit, not to rehabilitate.
Reported by The Sentencing Project based on 2016 Bureau of Justice statistics, “The private prison population reached its peak in 2012 with 137,220 people. The population then declined for three years before increasing again in 2016. At the federal level, a 2016 Obama Administration policy to reduce reliance and ultimately phase out private prison contracts was reversed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February, 2017.”
My second question to Junkin was, “Can you speak on the incredible hardship of Bloodsworth’s family, trying to regain their son/husband’s innocence?
Junkin’s response—fully laid out in his book—spoke to the tragedy of not having financial resource, or public and/or political voice in society. Bloodsworth’s family went bankrupt via its exhaustive efforts to accrue an honest stab at justice.
However, throughout Bloodsworth’s ordeal, he never stopped fighting for his freedom. He never stopped learning about the law, writing letters to anyone who held a glimmer of hope, and he never stopped professing his innocence to everyone he could. In the process, Junkin said, “little miracles,” knitted together to make freedom a reality.
There are some ironies, here, about Bloodsworth, an Eastern Shore native—something he and Junkin happened to have in common—but I’ll leave that up to your own reading to interpret. Enjoy, uncover and be encouraged.
Yvonne J. Medley is a feature writer, author, screenwriter and founder of the Life Journeys Writers Guild, Inc. Her novella, turned stage play, titled The Prison Plumb Line, was inspired by her many years, volunteering behind bars. Learn more at www.yvonnejmedley.com .