updated 5/11/2013 1:18:31 PM ET 2013-05-11T17:18:31

Kirk Bloodsworth was 22 when he was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Maryland. He later became the first U.S. death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA evidence in a state that just last week repealed the death penalty.

When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill repealing the death penalty in the state, it must have felt like vindication to Kirk Bloodsworth.

In 1985, Bloodsworth was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Maryland. That was until eight years later when he became the first U.S. death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA evidence. In Bloodsworth’s initial trial, five eyewitnesses positively identified him for allegedly killing and assaulting a nine-year-old girl. He successfully appealed his conviction but was sentenced to life in prison at a new trial; he later received a full pardon in December of 1993.

Since 1973, 142 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. More than 1,300 have been put to death since 1976, and there are currently more than 3,000 people awaiting execution.

The Mississippi State Supreme Court issued a stay of execution Tuesday for Willie Manning a mere four hours before he was scheduled to be killed due to serious questions over the validity of the case’s evidence. The Department of Justice sent three letters to that case’s prosecutors, an unprecedented step that could save Manning’s life and force death penalty supporters to consider the number of innocent people that have been put to death in error.

As debate rages over whether to seek the death penalty in cases of Jodi Arias, the Cleveland kidnapping, and that of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Bloodsworth’s experience is a stark reminder that punishing guilt can have horrific consequences. On Saturday’s Up with Steve Kornacki, he brought a perspective the panel’s discussion of the death penalty that few people have.

“The policy has failed us in large part. This is the time when we have to think. When crimes of this nature happen, it’s a real heady thing and people are going to make choices. We need not make too hasty a choice,” he said on the show. “You cannot climb over an innocent man to kill the guilty.”

Watch the full discussion and watch Up with Steve Kornacki every Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m. ET.


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