In 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth, 23 years old and newly married, lived in Maryland in the United States.
“I had never been arrested a day in my life. This all changed on August 9th, when police knocked on my door at 3 o’clock in the morning and arrested me for the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, Dawn Hamilton,” he says. “In a matter of days, I became the most hated man in Maryland.”
Despite the fact that he did not fit witnesses’ descriptions, he was convicted and sentenced to die in Maryland’s gas chamber after an anonymous caller suggested his name to the police.
Bloodsworth spent nearly nine years in prison, two of them on death row, before he was exonerated by DNA evidence, becoming the first person in the United States to escape execution through DNA testing.
“I am not here because the system worked. I am here because a series of miracles led to my exoneration,” he says. “If a country cannot ensure that they won’t kill an innocent citizen, they shouldn’t kill at all.”
Bloodsworth, now an activist against the death penalty, narrated his story at meeting on moving away from the death penalty, organised by the UN Human Rights Office on 3 July 2012 at the United Nations in New York.
“The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by legal process,” Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, told the meeting.
Many speakers underlined the fact that even the most scrupulous of legal processes cannot prevent someone being wrongfully condemned to death.
“Can you trust the state to get it right? When we look at wrongful convictions in the United States, not all were due to involuntary errors,” said Barry Scheck, a lawyer who has helped to clear a number of suspects facing the death penalty in the United States and co-director of The Innocence Project.
“Improvements in the reduction of wrongful convictions can be achieved by various means including science – DNA testing, but also by video taping interrogations, which some countries, including China, are undertaking,” he added.
A number of speakers cited the discriminatory application of the death penalty as a major concern.
“A death sentence is often imposed on less privileged individuals who do not have sufficient access to effective legal representation. Membership of a minority has often been identified as a significant factor in the decision that led to the sentence of death and execution,” said Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“It is those who don’t have the ‘capital’ who get capital punishment,” Kirk Bloodsworth concurred.
Decisions on which condemned prisoners to pardon or execute can also be biased.
“If executions took place, they were politically motivated and critiqued both nationally and internationally,” said Valentin Bagorikunda, Burundi’s Prosecutor-General, describing the situation before his country formally abolished the death penalty in 2009.
Underlining the point that the death penalty does not deter crime, he observed that since its abolition, Burundi had not seen any noticeable increase in the number of serious crimes.
In 2007, the General Assembly called for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Since then, the death penalty has been abolished by a number of countries, including Argentina, Burundi, Gabon, Latvia, Togo and Uzbekistan. More than 150 States have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it.
“The call by the General Assembly for a global moratorium is a crucial stepping stone in the natural progression towards a full worldwide abolition of the death penalty,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The General Assembly will take up the matter again later this year.
The panel discussion was also addressed by Ivan Simonovic, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Federico Mayor, President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty; Douglas Mendes, Justice of the Belize Court of Appeal and President of the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights; Cousin Zilala, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Zimbabwe; Blanca Aída Stalling Dávila, Director-General of El Instituto de la Defensa Pública Penal of Guatemala; and Maiko Tagusari, Secretary-General of the Center for Prisoners' Rights in Japan.
3 July 2012