For 16 years, he was Bledsoe 70545. A number. An inmate among many inmates. Eating bland food. Staring at the same scenery day after day. Sleeping in locked cells that never dimmed to complete darkness.
Now Floyd Bledsoe relishes the simplest pleasures.
“I lie in bed and feel the pitch black engulf me to where I can’t see my hand in front of my face, and I’m amazed,” Floyd said. “Amazed at being able to go outside and just walk, feel the gentle breeze, hear the birds, look up at the sky and see the multitude of stars.”
On December 8, Floyd walked out of Lansing Correctional Facility for the last time. Hours later, a Jefferson County judge vacated his convictions based on new DNA evidence and his brother’s suicide note. His handcuffs removed, Floyd could finally embrace the KU Law Project for Innocence advocates who fought so hard to win his freedom.
“It was one of the most emotional days of my life,” said Kaiti Smith, L’13, one of 10 KU Law alumni who worked on Floyd’s case as students over the past eight years. “Floyd turned around and gave me a big hug, and we both just started bawling.”
Taking the fall
Floyd was convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated indecent liberties in the shooting death of his 14-year-old sister-in-law, Camille Arfmann. Her body was found under a pile of trash with four gunshot wounds in November 1999 just north of Oskaloosa, Kansas. Floyd’s brother, Tom, initially confessed to the brutal rape and murder but later recanted and testified against his brother, telling jurors that Floyd had threatened to disclose unsavory information about his past if he didn’t take the fall.
“During the original investigation, all evidence linked Tom to the crime,” said Alice Craig, supervising attorney with the Project. “Tom was unaccounted for when Camille disappeared. The gun he kept in his truck was the murder weapon. He confessed to police and his minister, and he led police to the body. The investigation turned when Tom changed his story and implicated Floyd. The state’s case hinged entirely on Tom’s testimony.”
Despite a verified alibi and a lack of physical evidence connecting Floyd to the crime, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The Project for Innocence began representing Floyd in 2007, after the Kansas Supreme Court upheld his convictions.
A new theory
By the time Kaiti Smith enrolled in the Project as a second-year law student in 2011, federal litigation had failed to obtain relief for Floyd and the Project’s focus had turned to DNA testing. Project supervisors assigned Floyd’s case to Smith hoping her undergraduate degree in forensic science would allow her to help evaluate which evidence to test and the most effective type of testing. Because the victim’s body was found in the trash dump used by Tom and his parents, isolating DNA to establish Floyd’s innocence would be challenging.
“I knew a lot about DNA, so I thought I could help,” Smith said. “I continued in the Project my 3L year and worked exclusively on Floyd’s case. I sifted through boxes and boxes of evidence and paperwork.”
Then early one morning, after a year and a half of poring over transcripts and replaying scenarios in her mind, it hit her: Maybe Floyd’s father helped cover up the murder. Testimony described how Arfmann had been dragged by her feet postmortem. What if genetic material on her socks or pants revealed that someone other than Floyd had helped dispose of her body?
“I remember emailing Jean and asking if we could meet. I told her, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy,’” Smith recalled. On the contrary, Project Director Jean Phillips found Smith’s theory plausible. “We submitted a motion in 2012 to allow us to do DNA testing.”
When Smith graduated in 2013, the ball was rolling. Slowly. It would take two more years and two more students — Peter Conley, L’14, and Emily Barclay, L’15 — to write motions, make phone calls, and shepherd evidence from storage locations in Kansas to the California lab that conducted the tests.
All the while, Floyd Bledsoe — who never wavered in his claim of innocence and never lost hope that his name would be cleared — waited in prison.
“He would call at least once a week, sometimes more, to get updates,” Conley said. “You don’t want to break his heart. But he was always hopeful; his faith is really strong. I wanted to be as confident as he was that DNA testing would overturn his conviction, but I wasn’t always certain that he would be released.”
Floyd’s case got a boost in 2014 when the Project for Innocence formed a partnership with the Midwest Innocence Project, a member of the national Innocence Network. The collaboration provided the financial resources necessary to continue moving forward with expensive DNA testing.
Preliminary results leaned in Floyd’s favor, and Emily Barclay visited the Lansing Correctional Facility with Alice Craig last spring to share the news.
“Everyone was incredibly excited but really cautious,” said Barclay, now a public defender in Johnson County, Kansas. “Nobody wanted to say this is, for sure, going to seal the deal.”
As it turned out, a surprising development would end up corroborating the DNA results so strongly that Jefferson County Attorney Jason Belveal agreed Floyd’s conviction should be vacated. Judge Gary Nafziger concurred.
Not only did final test results (received in September 2015) show the Bledsoes’ father’s DNA on Arfmann’s socks, but it also revealed semen consistent with Tom’s DNA on the vaginal swab taken from Arfmann’s body. Tom, now certain to come under investigation, committed suicide in November in the parking lot of a Bonner Springs Walmart.
In suicide notes, Tom confessed to raping and killing Arfmann and claimed that then-Jefferson County Attorney Jim Vanderbilt urged him to pin the crime on his brother. He also drew a diagram of the murder scene and led detectives to an empty shell casing that remained at the scene.
Further testimony presented at the December 8, 2015 hearing on the new evidence revealed that the initial analysis of Arfmann’s rape kit was inconclusive and that Tom, who was originally believed to have passed a polygraph test, had actually failed.
Even without the DNA and polygraphs, no physical evidence ever tied Floyd to Arfmann’s murder. For the past eight years, Jean Phillips has used Floyd’s case in the Project for Innocence class as a clear example of injustice.
“This case has several hallmarks of a classic wrongful conviction, including prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of trial counsel and an inadequate investigation,” Phillips said. “Studying Floyd’s case helps students understand what issues to investigate while working on their own cases in the Project and later as practicing attorneys.”
Search for the truth
Floyd Bledsoe walked into the Jefferson County Courthouse on December 8, 2015 in a prison uniform and shackles. Three hours later, he left in jeans and a flannel shirt — free for the first time in over 16 years.
He ate steak and drank champagne at a Lawrence restaurant, slept in a soft hotel bed, and woke the next morning to stroll through downtown.
“It’s pretty weird going from a prison cell to the Marriott to Massachusetts Street,” Floyd quipped during a recent visit to meet Project for Innocence students at KU Law.
Since his release, he has spoken publicly in favor of abolishing the Kansas death penalty and inspired legislation to compensate people wrongfully convicted of crimes. He intends to be a voice for prisoners’ rights and work with programs that help men recently released from incarceration reintegrate successfully into society. Floyd urged KU Law students to remember his story throughout their legal careers.
“When I look out in this room, I see future lawmakers, people who will influence the court system, future judges, future prosecutors,” he said. “Always remember that your client is a person, not a number. And always search for the truth. Truth never has to be defended; it will always stand on its own merits.”
Summary written by Mindie Paget, Director of Communications & Marketing at the University of Kansas School of Law. This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of KU Law Magazine.
Click here to hear from Floyd himself about how thankful he is for those who’ve helped him gain his freedom.