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DNA Evidence Was Lifeline for Exonerated Death Row Survivor Kirk Bloodsworth

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News, October 28, 2014 Bloodsworth, Full Revised

Kirk Bloodsworth | AAAS/Earl Lane

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence, said he "never really imagined how science would help me in my life" until he found himself facing the death penalty.

While in jail, he was given a book that described how a new technology called genetic fingerprinting had led to the conviction of a British murderer and rapist. "That's where my epiphany came," Bloodsworth said. "If it can convict you, why can't it free you?"

He spoke at a 23 Oct. event marking the fifth anniversary of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, a network of scientific membership organizations dedicated to advancing the use of science and technology in the cause of human rights, and to looking at the human rights implications of advances in S&T.

For Bloodsworth, science was to have a profound impact. He spent nearly nine years in a Maryland prison after being convicted in 1985 of the murder of Dawn Hamilton, a nine-year-old girl. Bloodsworth, then a commercial fisherman, vigorously protested his innocence.

After reading the book about the conviction of British murderer Colin Pitchfork, Bloodsworth pressed to have physical evidence in his case — traces of semen in the victim's underwear — tested for DNA, only to be told that it had been lost. Bloodsworth urged his attorney to press for one more search, and it eventually was found in a paper bag in the trial judge's closet.

Bloodsworth's attorney, who now is a judge, called him excitedly when the DNA results were back. "Kirk, you're innocent, man, you're innocent," he said.

"I know that," Bloodsworth responded.

In 2003, nearly ten years after his release from prison, Bloodsworth learned from the Baltimore County prosecutor's office that prisoner DNA evidence added to state and federal databases had led to the identification of the real killer, a man named Kimberly Shay Ruffner.

"Science freed me and caught the culprit responsible for Dawn Hamilton's murder," said Bloodsworth, who wore a tie with a brightly colored image of the DNA molecule. "The double helix is my thing," he said. "I believe in science."

He now is director of advocacy for Witness to Innocence, an organization of exonerated death row inmates who oppose the death penalty. He also is a strong supporter of the federal Innocence Protection Act, which established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program to help states defray the costs of post-conviction DNA testing.

Bloodsworth urged those gathered at the anniversary celebration to stand steadfastly for human rights. The evening program reflected the diverse interests of the coalition's growing membership of scientific and engineering organizations and individuals who recognize a role for science and technology in human rights.

That role has dual aspects. Tools of science and technology can be used to promote human rights, such as using DNA evidence to exonerate the unjustly imprisoned such as Bloodsworth or using satellite imagery to reveal the impact of war and civil unrest on vulnerable populations. At the same time, human rights advocates can monitor abuses affecting the scientific community, such as the harassment or imprisonment of dissident scientists.

"After 18 months of planning and five years of hard work, gee, we've come a long way," said Jessica Wyndham, the coalition coordinator. "We're still a highly multidisciplinary group, particularly keen to welcome colleagues from the life and physical sciences, as well as engineering. But as a group our understanding of human rights has evolved, and our commitment to addressing human rights as much at home as overseas has also grown enormously."

The coalition currently has 25 member organizations, including the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, and the American Sociological Association.

In addition to the talk by Bloodsworth, the attendees also heard a tribute to the late Andrew Sessler, an accelerator physicist and humanitarian, who died in April. In his honor, the AAAS-Andrew M. Sessler Science, Education and Human Rights Fund has been established to fund activities that spur interest in human rights among aspiring scientists and engineers and increase the ability of human rights practitioners to bring scientific methods and technologies into their work. Sessler's three children provided a generous gift to establish the fund.

Juan Gallardo, an accelerator physicist now retired from Brookhaven National Laboratory, described Sessler as "one of the towering figures in physics, with a commitment to science and society both." He served as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and was a president of the American Physical Society. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was an author on hundreds of scientific papers. In January, several months before his death, Sessler was named recipient of the Enrico Fermi Award, one of the federal government's oldest and most prestigious prizes for scientific achievement. It is administered on behalf of the White House by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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News, 2014, October 29, Protest Prokhorov
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News, October 29, 2014, Scientists for Shcharansky

Above: Andrew Sessler and Morris Pripstein (right); Below: Sessler (far left), along with Gerson Goldhaber, Morris Pripstein, Owen Chamberlain, John McCarthy, Don Glaser, and Ed McMillan, and Avital Shcharansky, the wife of Natan Shcharansky, in San Francisco shortly after Shcharansky was jailed. | Images courtesy of the Sessler family

Sessler was passionately committed to human rights. He cofounded, with Morris Pripstein, Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Shcharansky, an international human rights group concerned with the welfare of dissident Soviet scientists. In 1982, he served as second chair of the American Physical Society's Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, which he and Kurt Gottfried had been instrumental in founding.

In remarks in 2009 on the occasion of the 60th reunion of his Harvard University class of 1949, Sessler said he had lived in very interesting times. "What have I learned? Well, that social change takes longer than youth are inclined to believe, but also that it is often the very youth who make the changes. I have seen the effectiveness — over the long run — of special interest non-governmental groups. Thus I support the efforts of small groups (often of young people) to accomplish change" in areas such as humans rights.

A panel of coalition members also gave brief accounts of some of their organizations' activities, both large and small, during the first five years of the coalition. Bruce Friesen, associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, in a video presentation, told how he and other faculty members had established a Human Rights Think Tank to sponsor events on campus, including an annual human rights conference.

Beth Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research, said her group — with nearly 10,000 members — has been working to encourage interest in human rights among young researchers who will "lead both science research and the interdisciplinary approaches that we need to bring to bear for human rights here in this country and abroad."

Clinton Anderson of the American Psychological Association said his organization has established a human rights webpage, sponsored a series of symposia on human rights, and has mounted a human rights initiative that likely will lead to a policy statement by the APA on the topic.

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News, October 28, 2014, Panel, Half

From left, Betsy Super, Beth Ambos, Margaret Weigers Vitullo, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach and Clinton Anderson | AAAS/Earl Lane

Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, a professor of geography and the environment at the University of Texas who has been active with the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition since 201l, has focused on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right of everyone "to share in scientific advancement and its benefits." Since 1993, she has been doing research on geoarchaeology and the environment in the Maya Lowlands of Central America.

"We study to learn from the past," Luzzadder-Beach said, "but we must think of the current and future conditions for the people living in these places now where we do research and beyond where we do research." It is important, she said, "to poke our heads up from the trench once in a while and go read a local newspaper" to understand the conditions, such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, that can affect the local populations and that researchers can bring to wider attention.

Betsy Super, a professional staffer for the American Political Science Association, described her social media activities on International Human Rights Day (10 Dec.) aimed at raising awareness among the APSA membership about scholarship and teaching resources on human rights.

Margaret Weigers Vitullo, director of academic and professional affairs for the American Sociological Association, described a Science and Human Rights Coalition research effort, using focus groups with145 U.S.-based scientists. The scientists were asked:  "What does it mean to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress in your discipline?" The survey found "considerable evidence that scientists had a shared understanding of the essential benefits of science," she said, with health benefits the most frequently mentioned (including progress in developing drugs and vaccines, increasing vaccine uptake in vulnerable populations, and ensuring that vaccines are not damaged by exposure to heat). The findings of the study were presented to the United Nations in October, 2013.

[Photo credit for teaser image associated with this story: Flickr/Diego Cantalapiedra]