On July 25, 1984, nine-year-old Dawn Venice Hamilton was raped and murdered in a wood near Baltimore. It was Kirk Bloodsworth's great misfortune to have been in the area and to have borne a faint resemblance to the composite sketch of the suspect. To make things worse, Bloodsworth, while having no criminal record, was something of a drifter and an admitted dope user. The brutality of the crime and the public outcry to find the killer made the police cut corners in gathering evidence against Bloodsworth and encouraged the state of Maryland to be overzealous in prosecuting him. On March 8, 1985, a jury took only two-and-a-half hours to convict him. Two weeks later, a judge sentenced him to death.

Tim Junkin's Bloodsworth is subtitled The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA, but the DNA factor is of limited significance here. Far more important is the book's exposure of how unfair the judicial system is for anyone who can't afford the best lawyers. The system didn't set out to get Bloodsworth, of course, but once it had him in its sights as a credible suspect, that was all it needed.

Even after his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, Bloodsworth wrote letters virtually every day to anyone who might help him. And he kept his lawyers apprised of advances in DNA testing and insisted they put it to use in his defense. Finally, after nine years behind bars, Bloodsworth walked free. Ten years later, police found the real killer. Or did they? Although the title gives away the story's outcome, Junkin deftly infuses drama into every police lineup, courtroom maneuver and prison showdown. While he is moved by Bloodsworth's courage and tenacity, he unsparingly depicts the character flaws that helped make him an easy target. This is a cautionary tale for everyone involved in seeing justice done. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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