Voices of innocence
By Katherine Ward
Keva McDonald entered Law School three years ago with a different name and a different outlook on life. After graduating with a nearly perfect grade point average from Mississippi State University, she enrolled in U.Va.’s Law School with the goal of becoming a prosecutor. But her classes and interests have since steered her in a far different direction.
Today, she is 24 years old, preparing to graduate with her husband and classmate, Mark McDonald, and ready to enter the law field as a public defender.
In 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth also was 24 years old. He was a former police officer and three-time all-Marine discus thrower who was hoping to earn a track scholarship to the University of Maryland. On July 25 of that year, 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton was found raped and murdered in Cambridge, Md., and suspects described the killer as a thin man, 6 feet 5 inches, with curly blonde hair and tan skin.
Police arrested Bloodsworth; he was tried and sentenced to death. The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 1986. However, a second jury also found him guilty, and sentenced him to two consecutive life terms. In 1992, at the request of Bloodsworth and his attorney, the evidence from his trial — the victim’s shirt and underpants — was tested for DNA. By June 1993, tests concluded that Bloodsworth's DNA was not the same as DNA found on Hamilton's underpants. On June 28, 1993, Bloodsworth was released from prison after spending nearly a decade incarcerated as an innocent man — the first DNA exoneration in this country of someone who had been on death row.
Fast-forward to October 2004 when Bloodsworth and McDonald’s paths crossed. Through her studies and legal outreach work, McDonald learned of Bloodsworth’s case and invited him to U.Va. to speak to her classmates. He talked about his experiences in prison, the mistakes that put him there and encouraged students to join a new group called the Innocence Project, which helped exonerate him and which McDonald was in the process of founding at U.Va.
His appearance was affecting. He detailed the trauma he endured — (“One of the loneliest moments in my life was when the courtroom erupted in applause” upon hearing he would get the gas chamber, he told the crowd.) — and described how after his exoneration he found out that he knew the little girl’s real killer. He had lived one floor above Bloodsworth in prison, lifted weights with him and delivered library books to him.
McDonald said it was her work with the FBI during a summer Honors Internship Program as an undergraduate that initially pushed her towards becoming a prosecutor.
“I’ve always loved the law, and I’ve been fascinated by criminal behavior — why they do what they do,” McDonald said. “I was also fascinated by missing children cases, and while I was with the FBI I got to look at statements from parents whose children were missing.
“So when I came to law school, I thought I would fall on that side of the law — to prosecute anyone who would harm innocent children,” she said. “I also wanted to prosecute people who were perpetrators of domestic violence.”
McDonald credits her mother, a special education teacher, with instilling in her an interest in helping people. It runs in the family. Her sister, 18 months older, is finishing up medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her brother, 18 months younger, earned the same scholarship as Keva, the Ottilie Schillig Leadership Scholarship — a top Mississippi scholarship that covers all of college expenses — to MSU and will graduate this fall and enter seminary.
Though bent on becoming a prosecutor, McDonald gravitated toward indigent public defense work at U.Va. She joined several groups, including Central Virginia Restorative Justice, the Black Law Students Association and Action for Better Living (ABLE), where she adopted a little sister, whom she mentored for two years.
Through this service work, McDonald began to realize that neither private practice nor prosecutorial work would be right for her. That realization became clearer during the summer after her first year of law school when she worked for a large firm in Birmingham, Ala.
“I just wasn’t into it,” she said. “I felt like I was called to do something better. I realize that when you’re working for a firm in civil defense, you can always say you’re preventing people from losing their jobs if you do yours properly, but for some reason I think that’s still not public service.”
“I decided that what I really enjoy doing is working at the base level,” she said, always hoping to feel that “Because I worked today, someone was able to be free, or someone was able to eat… that’s what I love.”
During her second year of Law School, McDonald began to work as a court-appointed special advocate for children in the custody of the Albemarle Department of Social Services. She took on a teenage girl, with whom she has developed a strong mentor/mentee relationship, one that McDonald will continue after she leaves Charlottesville.
The following summer, she went to work for Alexandria’s public defender office. Not only was she allowed to work on several cases, she used her third-year practice certificate to argue a probation case in court. She was able to see the human side of defendants, even those involved in cases as severe as rape and murder.
“The thing I learned about most of the defendants was that they’d fallen on hard times, for the most part, and I didn’t find anyone who was the truly depraved person that you find on TV. I enjoyed working with them.”
She also squeezed in time last year to marry Mark McDonald. The couple decided they would have more time to get married during school than later in life, as working lawyers, so they seized the moment.
“Keva and I met during our first day of U.Va. Law School, and I noticed her smile immediately,” Mark said. “By the second day of classes, Keva’s keen intellect was also obvious — I know she will be a compassionate and successful public defender.”
It was also during this time that she worked with other law students from around Virginia and Washington, D.C., who were working with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center that employs no full-time attorneys, instead relying on the help of local pro bono counsel and area law students.
The Washington-area project receives and screens requests then distributes them to the participating law schools for students to research and follow-up. Since March 2005, 119 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence, and 157 people have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, according to project statistics.
“I found it fascinating — and shocking — that [innocent] people were sent to prison for long periods of time,” McDonald said. She also found “the violations that led up to someone being wrongfully convicted — whether it was a corrupt prosecutor, a bad defense counsel, some kind of mistake in evidence or a bad eyewitness testimony,” equally as shocking. “A completely innocent person can go to jail for 10 to 15 years” or longer, if no one intervenes.
McDonald felt compelled to act. She contacted the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in Washington to find out the necessary steps for bringing a chapter to the University.
“She presented a well thought-out plan, identified a group of supportive students and our Law School Innocence Project was up and running in record time,” said Beverly Harmon, assistant dean for student affairs at the Law School. “It’s clear that she is personally and professionally committed to ensuring justice for all.”
Now that the project exists, the number of students participating is growing, and the entire board is returning next year to carry on what she started, it’s time for McDonald to say goodbye.
“I’ve left it in good hands,” she said. In fact, the Virginia Innocence Project Group board was just told that it would receive three new cases for the upcoming school year.
If she’s needed, however, McDonald won’t be far away. She is heading to Washington to clerk for Judge Boasberg and the D.C. Superior Court, specializing in misdemeanors, drugs and guns — a prestigious job for a recent graduate. After a year, she hopes to join the elite Public Defender Service.
“Keva is a stellar example of what a public interest lawyer should be,” said Kimberly Emery, assistant dean for pro bono and public interest. “We will miss her but cheer her on as she goes on to fight for the indigent in the nation's capital.”
Bloodsworth said that while he was in prison he wrote to everyone from Donald Trump to the President of the United States, hoping someone would listen to his plea.
"But nobody wants to listen to … an accused child killer," he said.
Turns out, somebody did.
2005 by the Rector and Visitors