On next Thursday it will be 25 years since British scientist Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys invented the DNA fingerprint in his laboratory at the University of Leicester. The professor’s ‘eureka’ moment came at 0905 on the morning of Monday 10 September 1984, when he went into his darkroom to develop an X-ray film from an experiment looking at highly variable bits of DNA.
The film threw up an unexpected and awesome result – every individual in the sample had a different bar code and could be identified with stark precision. Today, more than 30 million people worldwide have had a DNA profile. It is a major tool in solving crime, and the standard method of resolving paternity and immigration disputes.
Yet Kirk Bloodsworth has more reason than most to appreciate the impact of the this amazing technique. He was the first man to be freed from death row in the United States’ history on the basis of DNA evidence. Speaking to Newsnight at his home in Cambridge, Maryland, Mr Bloodsworth described what Prof Jeffreys’ work had meant for him: “He may not have known it at the time, but he was saving my life – and the lives of many others.”
Offer for liberty
Mr Bloodsworth spent nearly nine years in prison, and two on death row, convicted of the violent rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl near Baltimore in 1984. Five eye-witnesses said that they saw him at the scene. He was 24 years old when he began his sentence. Stretching his arms out wide he described his prison cell: “I could take three steps to the back and touch either wall if I put out my hands,” he said.
It was in his cell in 1992 that Mr Bloodsworth read a book describing how DNA fingerprinting in Britain had solved the killings of Dawn Ashworth and Lynda Mann in Leicestershire. The prime suspect in the case had been found to be innocent, and Colin Pitchfork had become the first man to be convicted of murder on the basis of DNA fingerprint evidence
Mr Bloodsworth says that while reading the book he had his own ‘eureka’ moment. He realised that he could use DNA fingerprint evidence in his case, and that if it could be used to convict someone, it could be used to free them, too. At that time, there were only two laboratories in the US carrying out DNA profiles, but Mr Bloodsworth pushed for the material evidence against him to be tested. Initially he was told that the evidence, traces of semen in the victim’s underwear, had been “inadvertently destroyed”.
Though, he persisted, and the evidence eventually turned up in a paper bag in a judge’s chambers. The results of the DNA test came back, and his lawyer told him over the telephone that he was “excluded 100% as the person responsible”. Mr Bloodsworth described “screaming and hollering” as he ran through the corridors of the prison, knowing that he was soon to be free man.
He was released from prison and paid compensation, but he was not formally exonerated. It was this, he said, that inspired him to track down the real killer. Mr Bloodsworth spent the next decade pushing for the DNA sample to be run through a database containing DNA data from crime laboratories in the US, to check if it held the identity of Dawn Hamilton’s real killer.
Despite multiple witnesses having placed Mr Bloodsworth at the murder scene, the man eventually found guilty of the murder, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, turned out to be an entirely different height and weight to Mr Bloodsworth. In an extraordinary twist, Ruffner, who was already in prison serving time for attempted murder, was held for a time in the same facility as Mr Bloodsworth.
He slept on the floor below and the two men came into regular contact, even lifting weights together. But Ruffner never gave any indication he was responsible for the murder which Mr Bloodsworth was serving time for. “We spent four or five years together,” Mr Bloodsworth told me. “He never said a word.”
Prof Jeffreys still works in the same laboratory at Leicester University where he made his discovery. He described meeting Mr Bloodsworth at a London awards ceremony a few years ago: “It was a great privilege,” he said. “One of the most emotional and touching moments of my life. No question about it. To actually meet a man whose life had literally been saved by DNA, was quite remarkable.”
Prof Jeffreys added that he had read Mr Bloodsworth’s book detailing his experiences and said that he was “amazed it hasn’t been made in to a Hollywood movie”. Mr Bloodsworth, however, has higher goals. He now works for the Justice Project, fighting wrongful convictions.
He was instrumental in the passing of a piece of legislation called the Innocent Protection Act, which has a provision known as the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Programme. With $15m of federal funding to help states pay for DNA testing, it is already making a difference across the country.
“I don’t want the fact that I was the first person to be freed because of DNA testing to be my only legacy in life,” Mr Bloodsworth explained. “I want it to be that I showed the world, I showed the US, that if it happened to me, it could happen to you. “I know there’s more mistakes out there and none of us should ever sentence an innocent man to death or prison.”
In a final homage to Prof Jeffreys, Mr Bloodsworth quoted Sir Isaac Newton: “Newton said: ‘If I see furthest, it’s because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.’ Jeffreys is one of those giants now, a phenomenal man. “I just can’t thank him enough for what he’s done. It’s unbelievable. His gifts in life will be all the men and women he’s got out of jail and convicting the ones that need to go.”