A Case for Innocence | Floyd Bledsoe adjusts to freedom

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - What to eat and where to go seem like the mundane decisions of everyday life, but Floyd Bledsoe still finds them a bit overwhelming.

"Just figuring out what I want to do everyday is the biggest adjustment," he said. "For 15 years, the only choice was if you want to go to yard or chapel."

Maintaining Innocence
Bledsoe was released from prison December 8, 2015. It had been 15 years since a jury convicted him of killing his 14-year-old sister in law, Camille Arfmann, the year before.

From the time she disappeared and her body was discovered days later in rural Oskaloosa, through his sentencing the next summer, and in all the years since, Bledsoe insisted he knew nothing about the crime.

Then, two things happened. First, the KU Project for Innocence and, later, the Midwest Innocence Project took on his case and won new testing of DNA evidence.

"When you hear and see somebody come back to you and say, 'I've done the research and I believe you,' it gives you hope," Bledsoe said.

Second, weeks after MIP announced those new test results showed DNA linked to Bledsoe's father and his brother, Tom, on Arfmann's body, Tom took his own life in the parking lot of a Bonner Springs WalMart. He left notes confessing to raping and murdering Camille, along with a map showing where deputies could find a shell casing that was never recovered.

Bledsoe said he has not been in contact with his father since learning the DNA results.

"That's something I'm still working through," he said.

He also described his feelings toward Tom as "complicated."

"This wasn't just some random person who was murdered - it was a family member; and it wasn't just some random person that committed it - it was my brother," Bledsoe said. "I wanted the truth, I just didn't want it to end the way it did."

New Investigation
But it hasn't ended yet. As Floyd walked out of the Jefferson County Courthouse December 8th, the Jefferson County Sheriff's office had already reopened the case.

Det. Kirk Vernon is leading the effort to review hours of videotaped interviews, evidence and old statements. He says Tom's notes did lead them to the shell casing, and they're getting new statements, looking for new evidence to see if it leads to any new answers.

"We owe it to Camille. We owe it to Camille's family. We owe it to the citizens we serve to make sure the information we have present-day 2016 is the correct information," Vernon said. "We thought we had the correct answer in 1999."

Vernon says the benefit of hindsight and advances in areas like DNA testing now let them see where they allowed evidence to take them down the wrong path.

"It's important to know now so that, unfortunately, when this happens again, we can look back and say, 'These were mistakes we made back then. We don't want to repeat any of those same mistakes,'" he said.

Vernon says, at this point, he has no reason to believe Floyd Bledsoe had any involvement in Camille's death. He said he has no timetable for completing his new investigation and would not comment on whether he expects any new arrests. He did ask anyone with information to come forward.

In January, a review of the initial investigation, led by Perry Police Chief and state Rep. Ramon Gonzalez, found no deliberate wrongdoing by those involved in the 1999 investigation.

However, Gonzalez has introduced legislation addressing a concern brought up attorneys involved in Bledsoe's case. While Vernon says he believes all law enforcement interviews with those involved were recorded, Bledsoe's attorneys maintain some key interactions were not. Gonzalez' proposal would require recording of police interrogations in felony cases. (HB 2593 is set for hearing at 1:30 pm February 11 before the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice. You can read the text of it here.)

Forgiveness - and Change
Bledose said he has had 16 years to work through his feelings regarding the investigation and prosecution of the case.

"I'm not angry. I'm not bitter," he said. "Forgiveness means that I no longer harbor the hurt feelings. It doesn't mean people should be held accountable for their actions."

To that end, Bledsoe hopes sharing his story sparks change. He recently spoke to the KU Project for Innocence students, sharing how he left the courthouse with the clothes on his back, no drivers license, no phone, no home, just the little money he saved from his job with prison industries.

"It work out because of students like yourselves," Bledsoe told the class. "Never forget you are representing a person, not a number."

Bledsoe says no one from the state of Kansas has reached out to assist him with reintegrating to society.

"That's the bad thing about our legal system - there's no real help when people get released," he said. "We're dumping people out on the street."

Bledsoe says he's received support from an aunt and uncle, with whom he kept in contract through his imprisonment, as well as friends with whom he's reconnected. He also has maintained close contact with the attorneys and staff at KU and the Midwest Innocence Project.

"Our clients are our family and friends. It's our obligation to be there for them in the same way it's the obligation of society to make up for the fact that we've wronged them," said Tricia Bushnell, legal director for MIP.

A bill introduced in the Kansas legislature this session would allow the state to compensate people, like Bledsoe, who were wrongfully imprisoned. Right now, 30 states and Washington, D.C. have similar laws already in place. (You can read the text of Kansas HB 2011 at this link.)

Compensation from the state would be a start, Bledsoe says, but some things cannot be regained. He has two sons who were very young when he went to prison and, while he declined to discuss them, he did say this when asked the biggest thing he lost to his time behind bars.

"The biggest thing I lost is 16 years with two individuals that I love with everything," he said.

The world Bledsoe stepped back into is very different than the one he left in 1999 and, he says, so is he. In prison, he took up painting, found faith and got job training. He knows some may still doubt, but, at his core, is this:

"Truth is undeniable. It doesn't change."