On Good Friday, Christians are called to meditate on what it means to be followers of the Crucified One—He who was put to death in a perfectly legal execution. In recent years, this day has also become an occasion for religious appeals against the death penalty.
There will be stations-of-the-cross-like processions, in which protestors link the plight of the Suffering Servant to that of death row inmates in the United States. They will ask, as they often do: How can Christians worship their God if they sanction the system of capital punishment by which He died?
A typical rejoinder is that Christ was innocent. Death row inmates, by and large, are guilty as hell.
But the degree to which this presumption of guilt must be qualified has become unsettling to many. A sobering number of those who sat on death row have turned out to be the wrong man, or woman.
Christ was innocent. Death row inmates, by and large, are guilty as hell.
has catalogued the exonerations of 118 death row inmates since 1973, including 18 people in the past two years. They were cleared of their crimes, thanks in some cases to the forensic wonders of DNA testing.
This tally means that for every eight people executed in the United States, one has been freed, according to the Washington-based center, which opposes the death penalty as it is practiced in the United States. The list does not include prisoners who, though not completely exonerated, have been released from death row because of serious doubts about their guilt.
The revelations have provoked widespread rethinking of the ultimate punishment. Juries are less ready to impose death sentences, which have fallen by one half over the past five years, according to the center.
"It's one of the greatest social injustices of our time—the possible execution of an innocent person," said , a 44-year-old crab fisherman in Cambridge, Maryland.
Bloodsworth speaks with personal authority.
In 1984, he was an honorably discharged Marine with no arrest record. But that year, nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton was raped and murdered in a Baltimore suburb, and the red-haired Bloodsworth was sentenced to death after being fingered by several eyewitnesses. Three years later, after an appeals court overturned the conviction, he was re-sentenced to life in prison.
The Death Penalty Information Center has catalogued the exonerations of 118 death row inmates since 1973.
Though he maintained his innocence, Bloodsworth told me that he had felt hopeless, "blown away by the experience." But he gained strength from faith: he converted to Catholicism while in prison.
He began reflecting on how Christ, too, was innocent. He believed God was telling him that this ordeal was not simply about Kirk Bloodsworth. It was about Dawn Hamilton and all of the wrongly convicted.
"I just felt like, well, her death and my unjust incarceration, and almost execution, was not going to be in vain," said the former inmate, whose case is chronicled in the book, Bloodsworth, by lawyer-novelist Tim Junkin (Algonquin Books, 2004).
He went on a quest to not just free himself, but to find the child killer who might have been on the loose.
His prayers on the first count were answered in May 1993. DNA testing revealed that Bloodsworth could not have been responsible for a semen stain found on Dawn's underpants. He became the first death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by such testing. He was let out a month later, after nine years locked up.
Experts say it is exceedingly difficult to prove innocence after execution, partly because courts and defense lawyers rush to other cases.
Still, prosecutors refused to acknowledge his innocence. He walked free, but was followed by suspicion.
"I remember praying incessantly about this. 'I'm here, Lord. Could you find who really did this?'"
Bloodsworth said he pondered the Genesis account of the first murder, and how Abel's blood cried out from the earth. "I said the same thing in prayer, that Dawn Hamilton's blood was crying out through the ground," he recalled.
"It wasn't long after that that they caught the real person," he said, adding—"I really believe that prayer works, and it works in great ways."
That was just a year and a half ago. A decade after Bloodsworth went free, the real killer was identified through DNA testing. He had been a fellow inmate of Bloodsworth's and remained behind bars for a sexual offense. They both had red hair.
The ex-Marine is still fighting. As a consultant to The Justice Project, a Washington nonprofit organization that addresses flaws in the criminal justice system, Bloodsworth has become a symbol of death-penalty reform.
He helped muster support for the signed by President Bush in October. The legislation includes the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which will help states pay for the kind of testing that finally vindicated Bloodsworth after foot-dragging by prosecutors. Now the push is on to get the administration to fully fund the program.
This Holy Week, the U.S. Catholic bishops rolled out an , and Bloodsworth appeared at the press conference. The bishops (like Bloodsworth) oppose capital punishment on moral grounds, not simply because of flaws in the system that have ensnared the innocent. But they have seized on these blunders as one front in the battle for respect of all life, innocent and guilty.
One mark against the death penalty is that it is "grossly, unfairly administered," said Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola, Florida, referring in part to typical findings that racial minorities and the poor are more likely than others to receive death sentences.
Bloodsworth says Bishop Ricard, as a Baltimore auxiliary bishop, brought him into the Church ("he came in right through the bars and baptized me"). In a telephone interview, Bishop Ricard had no such recollection and did not seem to know who Bloodsworth was. That might say less about his memory than his ministry. The bishop explained that he has been "in and out of jail" many times, visiting prisoners and administering sacraments.
The bishops (like Bloodsworth) oppose capital punishment on moral grounds, not simply because of flaws in the system that have ensnared the innocent.
Bishop Ricard said he hopes the new Church campaign will "remind our Catholic people of the values they bring" to this debate, values like forgiveness and respect for life. They have been reminded before. And most analysts would say Catholics and others have been more swayed recently by the exonerations of inmates than by the exhortations of bishops.
That innocent people may have been executed in recent times is disquieting. It is also disputed.
"Indeed, there is no proof that anyone surely innocent has been executed in the modern history of the death penalty in America," wrote New York Times legal correspondent Adam Liptak on January 22.
He was reviewing a book by Louisiana death-row nun , best known for her 1993 work, and the by that title. Sister Prejean believes innocent people have been executed. She believes she has walked with a couple of them into the chambers.
Her new book, includes a chapter about Joseph O'Dell. In 1986, he was convicted of murder and rape based on blood evidence and testimony by a jailhouse informer. Sister Prejean tells how the informer later recanted, and how DNA testing, though inconclusive partly because the technology was new at the time, threw doubt on his conviction. Even so, Virginia gave him a lethal injection in July 1997.
In Liptak's reading, Sister Prejean offers scant evidence that O'Dell and Dobie Gillis Williams, the other man profiled in her book, were innocent. At the same time, he wrote that the two men were "surely not guilty... in the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt sense."
Experts say it is exceedingly difficult to prove innocence after execution, partly because courts and defense lawyers rush to other cases. After O'Dell's execution, the evidence was burned as required by Virginia law. As part of its anti-death-penalty ministry, the Richmond Catholic Diocese had waged a losing battle for post-mortem testing using newer DNA technology.
On the inside flap of Sister Prejean's new book, wrongful execution is styled as the "new moral edge" of capital-punishment debate. (She declined a request for an interview.)
Frank McNierney, who heads Maryland-based Catholics Against Capital Punishment and advises the bishops, disagrees. He said the Church's moral edge is not fear of executing the innocent. It is, instead, the teaching that all human life should be "protected from womb to tomb," he told me.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta: ‘he, too, is a child of God, created for greater things—to love and to be loved.’
In that spirit, the late Mother Theresa of Calcutta appealed for O'Dell's life on the eve of execution, saying all she needed to know was that "he, too, is a child of God, created for greater things—to love and to be loved."
Some would say Mother Theresa was demonstrating how to follow the One who transformed death into life—and forgave right there on the Cross.
Some who know his story might say the same about Bloodsworth.
After the real killer was found, Bloodsworth met in a Burger King with the prosecutor who had engineered his death sentence after a skewed investigation.
"I finally had the chance to end this feeling of hatred between us. And I reached out and embraced her," he recounted. "She was hesitant at first, but then she embraced me.
"And I just told her—'We could have peace now.'"