Editor's note: Defendant Michael Keenan was released from death row last year.
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Joe D’Ambrosio was 26 when police arrested him on Sept. 26, 1988, for the murder of Tony Klann in Cleveland.
The North Royalton, Ohio, native then spent 22 years locked up — including 20 years on Ohio’s death row. At one point, Mr. D’Ambrosio was three days from execution. He is finally free, and is compelled to fight against the death penalty.
“The injustice of it has to stop,” Mr. D’Ambrosio said. “There is no reason for the death penalty. It used to be that it took only the supposed worst of the worst and made the streets safer, but with life in prison without parole, there is no need for it. It is barbaric.”
Mr. D’Ambrosio is the sixth person set free from Ohio’s death row, and the 140th such death row inmate nationally.
A federal judge overturned Mr. D’Ambrosio's conviction in 2009, saying key evidence was withheld from the defense, and he was released. The court also ordered Mr. D'Ambrosio's record to be expunged, but did not bar the state from refiling charges.
Three years later, on Jan. 23, the case ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state’s appeal of the lower court's ruling.
A second defendant, Michael Keenan, also had been convicted of the crime and was released from death row last year. A third man who testified against the other two, Edward Espinoza, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter. He served 12 years in prison and was released in 2001. He died in 2009.
Mr. D’Ambrosio wants to share his story, which also includes the legal battle he has fought against the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Lucky for me, the appeals took that long, or I would have been dead and they would have destroyed the evidence,” he said. “Seventy percent of the evidence was in three places — the coroner’s file, the police file, and prosecutors.”
Catholic Charities Diocese of Toledo is sponsoring the “One.for.Ten Tour,” a state-wide death penalty awareness tour that includes stops in Toledo, Sylvania, and Sandusky. One.for.Ten is an online series of films that documents the stories of several people set free from death row since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The Ohio tour will feature three guest speakers from the films, Mr. D’Ambrosio as well as Delbert Tibbs and Damon Thibodeaux, who served time on death row in Florida and Louisiana, respectively, but were also set free.
Germaine Kirk, social ministry program coordinator for Catholic Charities, wants people on both sides of the death penalty to gain insight from the former death row inmates.
“The Catholic Church is against the death penalty, and if you do some research and study the use of the death penalty there are many flaws in the system,” Ms. Kirk said. “Joe demonstrated that there was evidence withheld from his trial and if they were presented at trial, he never would have spent 20 years on death row and would not have been just three days from execution.”
The northwest Ohio tour times and locations are:
● Meeting rooms A and B at the Franciscan Center at Lourdes University, 6832 Convent Blvd., Sylvania, at 11:30 a.m. today.
● First Unitarian Church, 3205 Glendale Ave., at 7 p.m. today.
● The University of Toledo law college auditorium, 2801 West Bancroft St., at noon Tuesday.
● SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 510 Columbus Ave., Sandusky, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Mr. D’Ambrosio always proclaimed his innocence and insisted he was in his apartment the night Mr. Klann was killed. He was fresh out of the Army with an honorable discharge and no criminal record.
After taking the stand at trial before a three-judge panel, Mr. D’Ambrosio expected to walk free. Instead, he was found guilty.
With help from multiple lawyers and the Rev. Neil Kookoothe, pastor at St. Clarence Catholic Church in North Olmsted, Ohio, the guilty verdict was undone.
“But it took more than 20 years and I’ve lost all of that,” Mr. D’Ambrosio said.
Now he works as a fix-it man in Father Kookoothe’s church and lives in his suburban Cleveland hometown.
“Life is hard and I am still fighting it,” he said. “I am trying to fight to get some type of compensation to rebuild my life. I will not get Social Security because I didn’t pay into it for 22 years, so I am trying to get some payment to survive.”
Mr. D’Ambrosio said he will also fight against the death penalty until he dies — and not at the hands of the state.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com, 419-724-6171, or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.