Floyd Bledsoe shares what life is like 5 years after exoneration; he’s still pushing for accountability for his wrongful murder conviction
photo by: Contributed Photo
Brynlee Alice Jean Bledsoe is still too young to know the significance, but someday she’ll understand that her middle names are in honor of two of the women who helped free her father from prison in 2015.
Brynlee, who will turn 2 next month, and her two big brothers are making the time pass by much more quickly for Floyd Scott Bledsoe than it did as he spent almost 16 years behind bars.
This Tuesday, Dec. 8, will mark five years since Bledsoe, now 43, was released from prison after DNA and other evidence proved he did not murder his 14-year-old sister-in-law in 1999.
Attorneys at the University of Kansas’ Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies and the Midwest Innocence Project worked for years on Bledsoe’s case. They’re still in the picture, and they’ve become like family, too, Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe’s life is much happier now, but he said he is still dealing with the consequences of the trauma and the time he’ll never get back. He’s also still battling for accountability for state actors responsible for his case and others like it.
photo by: Contributed Photo
‘I want answers’
At age 23, Bledsoe was convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated indecent liberties with a child in the 1999 shooting death of Zetta “Camille” Arfmann near Oskaloosa, despite the fact that his brother, Tom, had already confessed to the rape and murder before Bledsoe was ever charged with the crime.
But Tom later recanted, saying that he confessed because Bledsoe threatened to reveal embarrassing incidents in Tom’s past if he didn’t. Bledsoe was convicted after a three-day jury trial and sentenced to life in prison.
In December 2015, a Jefferson County judge ordered Bledsoe to be released from prison after long-sought DNA testing results and other new evidence showed he could not have been the perpetrator, the Journal-World reported.
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
The new evidence included a suicide note that Tom wrote confessing to the crime, saying the guilt had haunted him for years and that the prosecutor on the case had told him to keep his mouth shut, the Journal-World reported. Tom, 41, was found dead in his car in November 2015 in Bonner Springs, apparently by suicide.
Bledsoe has an ongoing lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. The case, filed in May 2016, alleges misconduct by law enforcement and the Jefferson County attorney responsible for the investigation and prosecution. Most recently, in a 162-page memorandum filed Nov. 18, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.
The allegations his lawsuit makes against the Jefferson County officials include withholding evidence — for instance, Bledsoe and his attorney were told that a DNA test on the rape kit collected from Arfmann’s body was negative; in reality, the testing had been halted by a stop order and was never completed before the trial, the Journal-World reported.
The case also alleges that investigators failed to collect evidence from Tom’s vehicle, including a shovel that Tom claimed Bledsoe had used to bury the body.
Bledsoe also said that some thought it couldn’t have been Tom because a time-stamped receipt was found with the time of 4:30 on Friday, Nov. 5, 1999, approximately when the girl went missing — but it was in military time, meaning 4:30 in the morning, not the afternoon, Bledsoe said.
Meanwhile, Bledsoe’s own whereabouts were accounted for, through that Sunday when the girl’s body was found, according to the lawsuit. But the lead investigator had settled on Bledsoe as the suspect immediately following the girl’s disappearance, the lawsuit alleges.
Even five years after his conviction was overturned, Bledsoe said he still doesn’t know why the state stuck to the case against him — intentionally and maliciously, according to the lawsuit — despite overwhelming evidence of his brother’s guilt.
“I want answers, you know,” Bledsoe said. “And I may never get them.”
Changes in the system
Bledsoe said one major change he has seen in the 20 years since his conviction was the Kansas Legislature’s passage of a law that requires law enforcement agencies to record interrogations in homicide and felony sex crime cases. Former Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law in May 2017.
Bledsoe had testified in favor of the bill. He said that’s important “in these small towns, with these people who think they’re above the law or they are the law, and they get to choose.”
Had the law been in effect in 1999, it could have made a big difference in his own case, Bledsoe said. His statements to police — maintaining his innocence over hours of interrogation — were recorded, but his brother’s were not, he said. Jurors had no chance to hear Tom’s contradictory statements for themselves.
That was a choice law enforcement made, Bledsoe said, and he still wants to see people be held accountable for it.
“If they would’ve done their job in the beginning, you know, I wouldn’t have lost 16 years,” Bledsoe said. “But because of their negligence, because of their willful decisions, that’s what became of it.”
The law license of the prosecutor in Bledsoe’s case is indefinitely suspended, according to Kansas Supreme Court records. But Bledsoe said he wants to see the end of immunity from criminal charges for prosecutors who commit blatant wrongs in cases.
“It came back to individual people making choices over somebody’s life, and that’s where the accountability needs to come in and happen,” Bledsoe said, “because those people chose the things they did.”
He said he didn’t think every little infraction merits a charge, but when there are major issues such as withholding of key evidence or fabrication of testimony, “there needs to be accountability for that. We need a way to rein in rogue prosecutors and rogue officers.”
Disbarment wouldn’t be enough, Bledsoe said.
“If you or I do what they do, then we face criminal charges,” he said, “so why shouldn’t they?”
In 2018, three years after his release, the state enacted a mistaken conviction statute, under which Bledsoe filed a claim. In May 2019, the state agreed to pay him $1.03 million, but his federal lawsuit is still pending.
‘I’ve been really blessed’
Bledsoe, speaking by phone from Hutchinson on Friday, said it’s still a bit surreal to him that it’s been five years since he was released.
He described his home life now. He enjoys being outside in the country, he said.
“We have a small acreage outside of Hutch,” he said. “We’ve got a few cows and a few dogs and some chickens.”
He married his wife, Amanda Ingram, in 2016. Blake, 5, is Bledsoe’s son by marriage; son Bryce, 3, and daughter Brynlee complete the family.
photo by: Contributed Photo
“I’ve been really blessed with some great kids,” he said. “We have a lot of fun, and just take every day and enjoy it.”
Innocence Project attorneys who worked on his case — KU’s Alice Craig, Jean Phillips and Elizabeth Cateforis, and MIP’s Tricia Rojo Bushnell, to name a few — are still “very much part of my life,” Bledsoe said. He joked that his wife made him cut Brynlee’s middle names down to two.
“It’s because of them that I do what I do in a day, or I can do what I do today,” Bledsoe said. “… They give me encouragement whenever I’m down; they give me advice whenever I need it.”
He is working for a nonprofit called Freedom Challenge that does programming to help inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. He was a participant in the program while he was incarcerated, he said.
Some might think Bledsoe would want to get as far away as possible — “You wouldn’t be the first,” he said with a laugh.
He works with “about 25 guys,” he said. The group recycles mattresses and builds various products out of the recycled materials, Bledsoe said. According to the Kansas Department of Corrections website, “As the only mattress recycling center in Kansas, the facility has recycled more than 17,000 mattresses, which consisted of 46,000 pounds of foam, 287,000 pounds of steel, 22,000 pounds of wood and 46,000 pounds of cotton.”
He also teaches employment skills to inmates in Hutchinson’s South unit.
“I want to help guys transform their lives and be able to be successful when they get out of prison,” he said.
Bledsoe said he has his eye on a few ongoing cases in Kansas, and he does remain active with the Innocence Project, including attending its annual conference. He also travels and does speaking engagements at various colleges.
Hundreds attend the conferences, Bledsoe said, and he’s made a lot of connections. He said he’s good friends with fellow exonerees Amanda Knox, Ryan Ferguson and Eddie Lowery.
So, when is his Netflix documentary coming out?
“Actually, I have a film crew that wants to do one,” Bledsoe said. “I don’t know if it’ll be Netflix, but yeah.”
In 2015, he showed the Journal-World some paintings he’d completed in prison. He said he still paints when he can find the time — but he has a lot less on his hands nowadays.
photo by: Richard Gwin/Journal-World File Photo
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Timeline: Floyd Bledsoe murder conviction overturned
• Aug. 22, 2019 — Court: Attorney can’t claim immunity in Floyd Bledsoe case
• May 23, 2019 — State to compensate Floyd Bledsoe $1M for wrongful conviction
• Dec. 13, 2015 — Kansas has no law on payouts for wrongly incarcerated prisoners
• July 8, 2012 — Objection to DNA testing not likely
• June 20, 2012 — Motion seeks DNA testing in 1999 murder of teen
• Sept. 30, 2009 — Further appeals limited in Bledsoe case
• July 5, 2009 — 1999 murder case won’t settle
• June 28, 2009 — Federal court reverses release in murder case
• Feb. 3, 2007 — Court upholds murder conviction
• Feb. 2, 2002 — Murder conviction is upheld
• Dec. 5, 2001 — Attorneys appeal conviction of teen-ager’s murderer
• Dec. 2, 2001 — Oskaloosa murder case to be heard
• July 15, 2000 — Victim’s family unsure justice was served
• July 15, 2000 — Bledsoe gets life
• July 14, 2000 — Bledsoe sentenced to life in prison
• June 23, 2000 — Bledsoe sentencing delayed
• May 31, 2000 — Lawyer: Mother’s story changes
• April 30, 2000 — Minister supports Bledsoe in spirit
• April 28, 2000 — Bledsoe found guilty
• April 28, 2000 — Bledsoe murder case goes to jury
• April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe charges amended
• April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe prosecution rests
• April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe murder trial wrapping up
• April 26, 2000 — Tom Bledsoe seeks to explain lies
• April 26, 2000 — Bledsoe told his mother he didn’t kill Arfmann
• April 25, 2000 — Pool of potential jurors knows all about case
• April 25 2000 — Trial starts in murder of girl, 14
• April 24, 2000 — Murder trial to begin today
• Dec. 10, 1999 — Family of victim tries to cope with pain, loss
• Dec. 10, 1999 — Murder suspect enters innocent plea
• Dec. 9, 1999 — Murder suspect to be arraigned
• Nov. 30, 1999 — Case pits brother vs. brother
• Nov. 18, 1999 — Friends relieved charges were dismissed against Oskaloosa man
• Nov. 16, 1999 — Wife proclaims husband’s innocence in girl’s death
• Nov. 14, 1999 — In-law jailed in slaying of teen-ager
• Nov. 14, 1999 — Family, friends mourn Camille
• Nov. 10, 1999 — Quiet hearing for defendant charged with girl’s slaying
• Nov. 10, 1999 — Bledsoe recieves murder charge
• Nov. 9, 1999 — Police hold relative of slain girl
• Nov. 9, 1999 — Girl’s death leaves family, children with questions