ECPM invited the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, its partner to organize the 5th World Congress, to nominate the abolitionist of the month. They chose Kirk Bloodsworth, advocacy director of World Coalition member organization Witness to Innocence, who was the first US death row prisoner exonerated thanks to DNA evidence.

See also Flurry of abolition bills in the US

Kirk Bloodsworth is one of a growing group of men and women who have the power to change the minds of even the most committed supporters of the death penalty. This power comes from his personal experience, which allows him to go from parliamentary hearing to talk show, saying things like: “I had realized early on in my incarceration that an innocent person could be executed, and I could never support the death penalty with that happening. I stayed in prison for almost nine years, and I have to tell you that if people were looking for a punishment to give a person, honestly, life without parole is no joke.”

Death row exonerees have been sentenced to death in what seemed to the general public to be fair and thorough criminal trials. Death row exonerations expose catastrophic flaws in many parts of the criminal justice system – police procedures, including interrogations; eyewitness identification; ineffective assistance of counsel; prosecutorial misconduct and even judicial misconduct.

Irrefutable evidence of the fallibility of capital punishment

The first person advocacy of death row exonerees provides irrefutable evidence of the fallibility of capital punishment. It is persuasive to the general public, to police professionals, to legislators and government executives, to opinion leaders and to the media. Even people who have supported the death penalty are shocked at the possibility of executing an innocent person.

In a statement after the Maryland legislature abolished the death penalty on March 15, Kirk Bloodsworth said: “Support for the end of capital punishment by both houses of the Maryland General Assembly marks an emotional milestone in my personal journey toward healing from the trauma I suffered here. Soon, Governor O’Malley’s signature will ensure that no one is ever again forced to endure what I did as an innocent man condemned to death, and further, that the state of Maryland will never execute an innocent man.”

Applicable worldwide

This strategic advocacy is directly applicable to the worldwide abolition work of the World Coalition. For all of its flaws, the criminal justice systems in the states of the US have more protections for criminal defendants than most, if not all, other systems where the death penalty is in use.

Responsible government officials can be open to persuasion that the real possibility exists of condemning and executing an innocent person – if it has happened so often in the US, it can happen anywhere else.

This persuasion is even more effective when the reality of wrongful convictions is exposed through the networks and members of the World Coalition. This is an example of the tremendous power of the World Coalition, to multiply the strength of an important message, so that this tragic reality will be known everywhere, and will be known to the public, to civil society, to academics, to the media, to partners in committed abolitionist governments.

Exonerees are a powerful and essential component of abolition strategies in the US, and will grow in their importance in the international abolition arena. Kirk Bloodsworth’s personal story, and his skill and power in conveying the importance of that story, have been tremendously effective, and will translate easily to other retentionist nations.

Elizabeth Zitrin
Vice President
World Coalition Against the Death Penalty