Saturday, January 12, 2013

And They Said What?

I believe he is not guilty.  I'm not prepared to say he's innocent.
That's Maryland State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor at a press conference she held after the release of Kirk Bloodsworth from prison when DNA tests revealed he could not have been the person who raped and murdered nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton.

Bloodsworth spent close to nine years in prison for the crime, a year and a half of that time on death row.  The first death row inmate exonerated by DNA, he spent nine years after his release trying to convince Maryland to submit the DNA profile of the actual rapist/killer to various databases in the hope of finding the guilty party.  When they finally did, they found the killer/rapist.  And convicted him.  The right guy this time.

Roughly, that's the story Tim Junkin tells in Bloodsworth: The True Story of One Man's Triumph over Injustice.*

As are so many of these stories of wrongful convictions eventually set right, Bloodsworth's is a tale of perseverance.  Year after year, he kept insisting on his innocence and fighting for it.  And he managed to convince enough people, and as it happens the right people.  And they too kept fighting and kept searching.  And he kept insisting and digging and searching.

Until eventually.
But as is also the case with so many of these stories of wrongful convictions eventually set right, perseverance wasn't enough.  What Kirk Bloodsworth needed was for random chance to go his way.  Someone in a lab needed to find a spot of semen in a spot that FBI analysts specifically declared did not exist.   Ultimately it did.  He needed the DNA to not be degraded. He needed there to be enough for a retest.  He needed a whole shitload of stuff to go right.  Not right because the law would make it go right or because hard work would make it go right or because really good lawyers would make it go right.  To go right because by chance it did.

Once again, it's not a story of the system insuring that an innocent man wouldn't spend the rest of his life in prison (or that he wouldn't be executed, for that matter).  Bloodsworth is out, recognized as innocent after a time on death row and more time in prison, after two trials and two convictions.  He's out not because of our system of what Paul Kennedy calls "(in)justice."  He's out despite that system. 

In his own words:
Did the system work? I was not released because the system was interested in what happened to me, but because my lawyer was interested. . . . I was lucky to have a lawyer who cared about my case, who worked hard for me, although I was not paying him anything. I was lucky that a laboratory found a semen spot that no one had seen before. If I didn’t have Bob Morin as my attorney, and if the DNA had not been found, I would still be sitting in a jail cell. Still telling everybody that would listen that I was an innocent man.
And still, when he got out, when he was released, when the DNA proved it wasn't him, even then.
I believe he is not guilty.  I'm not prepared to say he's innocent.
So fergodssake, what does it take?

Maybe it takes finding the actual killer - as revealed by the DNA.  And you'd think they'd just do that, because they'd want to know.  But of course that would mean there was a question.

After he got out, after he was not guilty, the state dithered for 9 more years.  For 9 more years, Bloodsworth kept urging them to run the DNA that wasn't his through the databases to see if it came up a match, to try to find the guy who actually killed and raped that little girl. Until they finally gave up and ran the tests and discovered, as I said up at the top, who it was.

And it's a helluva story.

But that's not the part I like.  That's just the true crime stuff.   The detective story.  Cops and robbers and lawyers and judges.

But see, there's the other part.  It began with a phone call from Ann Brobst, the prosecutor who tried the case against Bloodsworth twice, who twice got him convicted and once sentenced to be killed. She wanted to meet with him.
“I just want to see you and tell you in person.

“You haven’t said a goddamn word to me or called me in twenty years and now you want to meet with me?” Kirk cried out.

“Calm down. Please calm down, Mr. Bloodsworth,” Brobst said. “I want to talk to you in person. I owe you that. You pick the time and place. Anywhere you want. It’s important.”
Grudgingly, warily, he agreed.  Neutral territory.  Somewhere public.  The parking lot at a Burger King.  They went inside.
"Kirk, I'm sorry," Ann Brobst said. "I wanted to come and tell you that personally.  I am deeply sorry for what we did to you."
Kirk was still shaking, almost convulsing. He pointed a trembling finger at Brobst. “I have hated you for twenty years,” he said in a loud, bellowing voice. He was almost shouting. “For twenty fucking years! You have called me a monster . . .” His words broke up. He was sobbing, choking back his heaves. It took some time for him to compose himself. “You have called me a child killer . . .” He could hardly continue. Brenda handed him some paper napkins and he tried to stanch his tears. “I am no angel, but I am not out killing little girls . . .” 

Brobst sat there across from him. Controlled. Professional. Inside the Burger King it had turned stone quiet.
Kirk calmed some and studied her. It was just a gesture Brobst had made, coming to Cambridge. Not much after so much pain, so much arrogance. But it was something. “I don’t hate you no more,” Kirk said more softly. He heaved a sigh. He nodded to her. “‘Cause of what you done in coming down here yourself to tell me this. I know it was hard. I know it took a lot. I forgive you.”
I've told this story before.
  • Pierce O'Farrill
  • Thomas Haynesworth
  • Rais Bhuiyan
  • Carol & Roger Fornoff
  • Ronald Cotton
So many others.  Those we cannot conceive of forgiving who do, in fact, forgive.  The ones who forgive the unforgiveable.

Because it's better for them.

Last week, a story in the New York Times Magazine included this picture.


Those folks are, from left to right, Julie and Michael McBride and Kate and Andy Grosmaire.  The four of them mourn together an horrific crime.  One of those things that decimated both of their families.  The Grosmaire's daughter Ann was murdered.  She was shot to death by Conor, son of the McBrides.  They'd been together for 3 years.  Planned to marry.  Loved each other.

And they were fighting, again, when he went and got a shotgun and while she kneeled and begged him not to he shot her in the head.  Right after he shot her, he went to the police and told them what he'd done.  He gave them the key to the house, where they found her still alive, took her to the hospital.
That night, Andy Grosmaire, Ann’s father, stood beside his daughter’s bed in the intensive-care unit of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The room was silent except for the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator keeping her alive. Ann had some brainstem function, the doctors said, and although her parents, who are practicing Catholics, held out hope, it was clear to Andy that unless God did “wondrous things,” Ann would not survive her injuries. Ann’s mother, Kate, had gone home to try to get some sleep, so Andy was alone in the room, praying fervently over his daughter, “just listening,” he says, “for that first word that may come out.”
Ann’s face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, “Forgive him.” His response was immediate. “No,” he said out loud. “No way. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”
Ann, the last of the Grosmaires’ three children, was still living at home, and Conor had become almost a part of their family. He lived at their house for several months when he wasn’t getting along with his own parents, and Andy, a financial regulator for the State of Florida, called in a favor from a friend to get Conor a job. When the police told Kate her daughter had been shot and taken to the hospital, her immediate reaction was to ask if Conor was with her, hoping he could comfort her daughter. The Grosmaires fully expected him to be the father of their grandchildren. Still, when Andy heard his daughter’s instruction, he told her, “You’re asking too much.”
As Ann's family knew Conor, so his family knew her.  And so, as Michael drove from Tallahassee be with his son, he first went to the hospital.
The hallway outside Ann’s room was “absolutely packed with people,” and Michael became overwhelmed, feeling “like a cartoon character, shrinking.” During the drive, he hadn’t thought about what he would actually do when he got to the hospital, and he had to take deep breaths to stave off nausea and lean against the wall for support. Andy approached Michael and, to the surprise of both men, hugged him. “I can’t tell you what I was thinking,” Andy says. “But what I told him was how I felt at that moment.”
“Thank you for being here,” Andy told Michael, “but I might hate you by the end of the week.”
“I knew that we were somehow together on this journey,” Andy says now. “Something had happened to our families, and I knew being together rather than being apart was going to be more of what I needed.” 
As I said, Ann died.  Conor killed her.  
When Conor was booked, he was told to give the names of five people who would be permitted to visit him in jail, and he put Ann’s mother Kate on the list. Conor says he doesn’t know why he did so — “I was in a state of shock” — but knowing she could visit put a burden on Kate. At first she didn’t want to see him at all, but that feeling turned to willingness and then to a need. “Before this happened, I loved Conor,” she says. “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment — as a murderer — I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.”
She asked her husband if he had a message for Conor. “Tell him I love him, and I forgive him,” he answered. Kate told me: “I wanted to be able to give him the same message. Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.” 
There's more to the story, much more.  I urge you to read it.  It isn't easy for any of the parents.  Conor is serving a 20 year prison sentence - longer than the Grosmaire's wanted, considerably less time than the prosecutors would normally have sought.  (They might, actually, have gone for death or LWOP.)

Here's the thing.  The pain doesn't go away.  The past can't be undone.  The years can't be returned.  The dead can't be resurrected. 

Hatred doesn't help.  Anger doesn't heal.  They're all too human, maybe unavoidable.  I can't imagine that I wouldn't feel them, that I wouldn't want revenge on those who'd done to me what was done to Kirk Bloodsworth or who'd done to my child what was done to Ann Grosmaire.

And yet . . . .

There are those who say that this is all god's work. I don't believe that. No god, at least none understood as omnibenevolent, inflicts such pain or allows it.  Sure, I get the philosophical and theological discussion of the problem of evil. I understand how scholars of Milton and Paradise Lost speak of the Fortunate Fall.  But really, if there's a god so cruel as to inflict this sort of pain, it's not a god I'd want anything to do with.

But here's what I know.  There is a healing power in acceptance and forgiveness.  It isn't easy.  Certainly it isn't instantaneous.  And there's backsliding.  Two steps forward, one and a half back.

Those who can make the journey, take the steps, are the better for it.  The forgivers.  And of course the forgiven.

Mercy, as I've said many times here, isn't about them.  It's about us.

Forgiveness, too.

*The copyright on the book is by both Junkin and Bloodworth, though the latter's name doesn't appear anywhere as actual author.  Nor is the book in the first person.  So it's apparently neither an "as told to" nor a ghost written job.  But clearly Bloodworth was deeply involved in the book.


  1. I had believed that it was Lazarro who stated that he did not still believe Bloodsworth to be innocent, not Brobst. Was it truly Brobst who said this?

    1. No idea who said what. I just know what's in the book. It's O'Connor who's identified as saying, "I believe he is not guilty. I'm not prepared to say he's innocent."