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Dennis Maher isn’t the kind of guy who typically wears rings. He’s a diesel mechanic for waste management; if he were to wear them, he might lose a finger. He doesn’t even wear his wedding band.
In the past year or so, though, when he’s asked to talk at a university or to attend a reception, he’ll slip a 28-gram sterling silver ring on his right hand. The word “exoneree” is engraved on its face. People will ask him questions about it and, if they don’t already know, he’ll have to tell them how he spent 19 years, two months, and 29 days in prison for violent sex crimes that he didn’t commit. He was exonerated, and became a free man on April 3rd, 2003, one of the thousands of men and women who have been wrongfully convicted in this country.
Maher, who is 57 and lives in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, about an hour northwest of Boston, compares his ring to a Super Bowl championship ring — and it’s as big as one, too. But there’s a key difference between them. “To me, it’s worth more,” he said recently. “I didn’t get paid for what was done to me. And I survived. And I wear it with pride.”
The ring is one of dozens that have been hand-made for exonerees by Kirk Bloodsworth, the first US death row prisoner to be cleared through DNA. In fact, it was on death row that he dreamed of receiving a Super Bowl championship ring from the football commissioner. He never expected that years later, he would take up silversmithing and make his own commemorative rings for fellow exonerees.
And while commemorative rings have long been used to mark an important event or person, Bloodsworth’s rings may be unique by marking the painful experience of wrongful incarceration. He has promised to give a ring to each exoneree in the US, at no cost to them, by raising money online and from friends; each ring costs $100 to make.
“Why shouldn’t they get something that signifies what they endured?” Bloodsworth said. “A lot of these people have spent many, many years in a place where they didn’t belong.”
More than 2,000 people in the US have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Some have been cleared by DNA, others through investigations and hard-won court battles by attorneys working with law clinics throughout the country. The majority of those who have been wrongfully convicted were the victims of mistaken identity, perjury or false confession, or official misconduct.
Bloodsworth spent eight years, 10 months and 19 days in prison after being sentenced to death in Baltimore, Maryland, for the 1984 rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton. He was proven innocent by DNA in 1993, and granted a full pardon by Maryland’s governor a year later. In 2003, DNA testing linked another inmate who had been serving time in the same prison as Bloodworth to the girl’s brutal killing.
After his release from prison, he worked as a fisherman, driving trucks, as a machinist, and for a now-defunct nonprofit committed to criminal justice reform, the Justice Project. But about four years ago, inspired by a girlfriend who gave him a set of beading equipment, he began to dabble in jewelry making. One day, he was inspired to look up the craft online and came across a video on how to make silver rings, by Lance Johnson. That was just the beginning of his journey into silversmithing. “I watched YouTube videos for a year,” he said by phone from his home in eastern Pennsylvania. He figures he watched several hundred clips from jewelers like Soham Harrison and Peter Keep, all the while trying out the techniques that he was learning about from watching them.
“I never thought in my late 50s I’d be doing this,” he said. “I wish I had discovered this years ago.” He formed his own silversmithing workshop, Bloods Stones Creations, in 2015, after making his first piece of jewelry: a silver band. Today his collection includes rings, earrings, bracelets, and pendants, one of which is shaped like a DNA strand.
In 2016, he attended the acclaimed Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, California, where he studied with master goldsmith and founder of the school Alan Revere.
In an email, Revere praised his former student’s efforts to make rings for exonerees. “I find this to be absolutely fascinating,” he wrote. “We jewelers have been making commemorative items for thousands of years, but this is a first. The people who receive them as a token have been through hell, and for no reason at all.”
The design of the rings is exacting: The words “exoneree” or “death row exoneree” are engraved on their faces over a prison cell door; a teardrop represents the exoneree’s wrongful conviction; and three drops of blood represent the person’s past, present, and future. The rings are made in batches from an original mold and cast in wax by a former teacher in California, then shipped back to Bloodsworth to be finished and signed. It takes about a month to make each batch. The biggest challenge of making them may be having to get them the right size for each person. Rings can be customized by the wearer.
Obie Anthony had his ring customized with 17 diamonds to represent the number of years he was wrongfully imprisoned. Anthony was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole on August 1st, 1995. He had been convicted in the death of Felipe Angeles, in Los Angeles, during a possible robbery attempt. His conviction was vacated on October 1st, 2011, after a judge determined that his counsel was ineffective and that there was misconduct on the part of prosecutors.
Today, Anthony splits his time between Missouri and California, where he runs a nonprofit called Exonerated Nation, which helps people like him with re-entry into society by offering job placement, housing, and leadership development.
He received his ring last fall, and describes being “blown away” by it. “It was, how do you say it? It was like I received my fraternity ring by mail,” he said. Though he doesn’t wear it every day, when he does, he says it opens up conversations about wrongful convictions.
He doesn’t think it symbolizes his time in prison. “It’s a reminder for me that the system does work,” he said, because he did get exonerated. “It’s just the people that are inside the system that are broke. If they did the things they were supposed to do, innocent people wouldn’t be in there.”
Bloodsworth said about 35 rings have been sent to exonerees so far. His goal is to make at least 300. So far, he’s got enough money from his online fundraiser for a batch of 100 or so that’s currently in the works. “As many as I can get made, I’m gonna try,” he said. “But I gotta be realistic about it. It costs money to make them. And I also have to make a living.”
Bloodsworth wears the master ring proudly, and recently had it on when he visited Washington state to lobby for a bill that would abolish the death penalty. Wearing the ring is a reminder to him and to everybody else who has one that they have come out of a battle against wrongful conviction, as if they were soldiers. “It’s an exclusive club that we don’t want no more members of,” he said.