Kirk Bloodsworth has been through hell. In 1984, at 22, he was charged in Maryland with the murder of a girl he didn’t know — 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and beaten with a rock. Bloodsworth was convicted and sentenced to death.
The problem was, he wasn’t guilty.
Bloodsworth spent nine years in prison, including two years on death row, reading and trying to find a way out. He found it in DNA testing after discovering the work of British geneticist Alec Jeffries. DNA testing eventually led authorities to Kimberly Raffner, an acquaintance in Bloodsworth’s cellblock whose DNA matched the sample found on Dawn’s underwear. Raffner eventually confessed. On June 28, 1993, nearly a decade after he was convicted, Bloodsworth became the first person on death row exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.
Just over 25 years later, Bloodsworth has become a part of the movement to end capital punishment. Now, he crosses the country telling firsthand prison stories and serves as interim executive director of Witness to Innocence. He has settled in Ambler, and has discovered a new passion: silversmithing.
Bloodsworth started a company called Bloods Stones, making fine jewelry to honor his history, including a DNA pendant — a necklace with a handcrafted strand of DNA at the bottom — and “exoneree rings,” which he plans to give to all 351 Americans who went through what he did. His signature piece is a 28-gram ring that was inspired by a dream he had in prison about a football commissioner giving him Super Bowl-type ring.
“I wanted to give them a token of appreciation to represent what they have endured as people. And it will go down in history,” he says. “So, 100 years from now, some antique roadshow will have one and say, well, Kirk Bloodsworth made these, and it’ll be a whole history about wrongful conviction. Some of my relatives will probably say, ‘This was handed down through time.’ And someone can say, ‘This is what your grandfather or your grandmother, or your great-grandmother went through.’”
Raymond Santana, who at 14 was one of the Central Park Five wrongfully convicted of rape and assault, is one of the recipients of Bloodsworth’s rings. “I was definitely proud," says Santana, who was an executive producer of The Innocent Man, a documentary about Bloodsworth. "It’s like a championship ring, us exonerees overcoming these obstacles, like the criminal justice system. Us being fighters and not giving up.”
Bloodsworth doesn’t make just wrongful-conviction jewelry. He also handcrafts rings, bracelets, and necklaces inspired by nature and by women’s inherent beauty. They’re dotted with bright blue and green stones, and are made out of metal or beads.
He’s come a long way, he says, through a passion he found out of boredom.
“I’ve been doing it for three years now. I never realized I would love this work,” Bloodsworth says. “My partner, who I live with, she does beading. So I asked her, can I try it? I was just looking for something to do. I was driving myself crazy — I had just left my job in the middle of nothing. But, man, when I found that, I wound up beading everything she had in a week. I’m an obsessive beader.”
He found silversmithing in the same way. “I started watching videos of this stuff and the rest is history. I just went crazy,” he says. “I watched 400 videos, and then I went to school for it for two months, out in San Francisco, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m mad about it. When I say mad — madly in love.”
For now, Bloods Stones will remain a big part of Bloodsworth’s story. “I can’t really see myself not doing it, but I can’t see myself not supporting abolition of the death penalty, either. Time is valuable, and I want people to realize that this took a big chunk out of my life. But I want to have fun,” he says. “There’s no sense in life to sit the hell around and feel sorry for yourself. We’re all going to meet an end. So what are you going to do while you’re waiting? Eat the good food, smell the flowers because, my God, it could be all be taken from you in a split second. So, yeah, I’m happy making jewelry.”