As It Happens

'It's a gift for their struggle': Former death row prisoner crafts rings for fellow exonerees

After serving nearly a decade in an American prison for a crime he didn't commit, Kirk Bloodsworth was finally exonerated by DNA. Now he's a silversmith, making commemorative rings for others like him.
Kirk Bloodsworth was the first American to be exonerated of a crime thanks to DNA testing in 1993. Today he's a silversmith, and creates special rings for people like him who were exonerated of serious crimes. (Kirk Bloodsworth/Blood Stone Creations)

Story transcript

Kirk Bloodsworth can craft any kind of jewelry you want. But one design in particular holds a deep personal significance: a bulky silver sterling ring with prison bars and the word "EXONEREE" stamped across its front.

It's made for former prisoners like him, who have been cleared of charges and released from the U.S. justice system.

"It's a gesture that they have endured many years of captivity for no fault of their own, just being caught up in the criminal justice system which is America," Bloodsworth told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Raymond Santana, one of the Central Park Five, wearing his exoneree ring. (Blood Stones Creations)
Bloodsworth was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering a nine-year-old girl in 1985. In 1992, determined to prove his innocence, he persuaded prosecutors to use a new forensic tool — DNA testing — on evidence found at the scene.

The next year, he became the first American death row prisoner to be cleared through DNA.

Bloodsworth makes two variations of the ring: one with the word "exoneree" on it, another with "death row exoneree" for those, like him, who were facing the death penalty before being cleared and released.

He made the first run of rings with crowdfunding organized by the Innocence Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted.

He's made about 70 of the rings for fellow exonerees and says he currently has the funds to make another 100. "I'm going to make as many as I can until time runs out for me," he said. "I hope I can make tons of them."

The rings are hefty 28-gram pieces of sterling silver with the images of bars all around, looking something like a prison cell. He makes them in all sizes for both men and women.

They're also highly customizable. Bloodsworth says some exonerees have had the years they entered and left prison added.

Well-known exonerees with rings made by Bloodsworth include Raymond Santana, one of the Central Park Five, who was convicted as a teenager and spent five years in prison before being released, and Obie Anthony, who spent 17 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder and released in 2011.

Anthony added 17 diamonds to his ring — one for every year he spent behind bars.

'Engraved in your mind'

The idea for the rings actually came to Bloodsworth in a dream nearly 30 years ago, while he was still serving time.

"I had this dream of the NFL football commissioner handing me a Super Bowl ring," he said. "I never thought about it again for many years until I became a silversmith and started doing the work."

One may wonder why someone would want to commemorate the years they unjustly spent in prison with a ring similar to a championship or graduation ring.

Bloodsworth shows off one of his 'Death Row Exoneree' custom rings. (Submitted by Kirk Bloodsworth)
Bloodsworth contends that the kind of ordeal he went through isn't one he would ever want to forget — or could forget, if he tried.

"You cannot forget a war. You cannot forget knowing you've been in battle. These things are engraved in your mind," he said.

"So it's something to stand the test of time, that you can also pass down to your family members as well … Once life continues to go on, these rings will last for many years, so we can pass down the knowledge of that their loved ones went through."