ISHI 26 featured Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person sentenced to death who was exonerated through DNA evidence. Twenty of the 336 people who have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in the United States served time on death row.* The true perpetrators have been identified in 166 of those 336 exonerations, and went on to be convicted of 146 additional crimes, including 77 sexual assaults, 34 murders, and 35 other violent crimes while the innocent sat behind bars for their earlier offenses.* Post conviction DNA testing both rescues the innocent from the grips of the criminal justice system and keeps society safer by opening cases to be accurately solved.
Written by: Stefanie Anderson, Director of Communications, Witness to Innocence
Kirk has been an ardent supporter of the Innocence Protection Act (IPA) since its introduction in Congress in February 2000. The IPA established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, a program that will help states defray the costs of post-conviction DNA testing. He is also a member of Witness to Innocence (WTI), the nation’s only organization dedicated to empowering exonerated death row survivors to be the most powerful and effective voice in the effort to end the death penalty in the United States.
Witness to Innocence initially began its program operations in 2003 under the fiscal sponsorship of the Moratorium Campaign Education Fund, a project of renowned anti-death penalty activist, author, and Nobel Prize nominee Sister Helen Prejean. Its first visible national organizing campaign was launched in September 2005, when 25 exonerated death row survivors, family members, and allies came together near Atlanta, Georgia, for a three-day gathering of the exonerated community. Since the official launch in 2005, members have played an essential and unique role in the anti-death penalty movement by sharing their stories with millions of people around the country and the world. Witness to Innocence is a member of the Innocence Network.
Witness to Innocence exoneree members do public speaking events such as the ISHI symposium, testify in front of state legislatures, do media work, and actively participate in our nation’s cultural life, helping to end the death penalty by educating the public about innocence and wrongful convictions.
Witness to Innocence provides an essential network of peer support for the exonerated. Exonerees commonly experience PTSD and other serious health issues, very limited employment prospects, lack of access to training programs, and challenges with securing and keeping stable housing, among other roadblocks to reclaiming a semblance of a normal life after death row. The organization hosts an annual Gathering of members and friends, and has a monthly call for members to connect and share the happenings of their lives. In 2015 a Community Resources Coordinator was brought on staff to provide a social work program, accomplishing things such as coordinating a local church’s help to trim an unruly tree that threatened the safety of an exoneree’s home, and encouraging an exoneree to get his first medical checkup in fourteen years. WTI also administers an emergency fund that provides financial assistance to exonerees in emergency situations.
Because most death row exonerees receive no compensation or access to reentry services when released from death row, WTI has launched a campaign to win federal compensation for them. The campaign consists of meetings and testimony to key members and committees of Congress, a media and public speaking strategy targeting core constituencies and the general public, and outreach and collaboration with others who have been wrongfully convicted and denied compensation after being released from prison.