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Published: Thursday, 3/15/2012

Ex-death-row inmate to share experiences

Ohio man, priest who helped him to speak

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ohioan Joe D'Ambrosio spent two decades on death row for murder and was once three days away from dying before a stay of execution was granted. His murder conviction has been overturned. Ohioan Joe D'Ambrosio spent two decades on death row for murder and was once three days away from dying before a stay of execution was granted. His murder conviction has been overturned.
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Joe D'Ambrosio has never counted the numerous execution dates scheduled for him, but after two decades on death row, he knows that number is high.

On one of those dates, he recalled, he was within three days of dying before a stay of execution was granted.

Now with an overturned conviction and after being released from prison for three years, Mr. D'Ambrosio is sharing his experience with hopes of raising awareness about death-penalty issues. He and the Catholic priest who helped him on his path to freedom will speak Thursday in Toledo at Corpus Christi University Parish on Dorr Street.

"I need everyone to be aware of how unjust and how wrong the death penalty is and how the system is flawed," Mr. D'Ambrosio, 50, said in a phone interview from North Olmsted, Ohio. "Ninety percent of my adult life was spent on death row. There has to be awareness."

Mr. D'Ambrosio was convicted of murder by a Cuyahoga County jury for the death of Tony Klann, whose body was found in Rockefeller Park's Doan Brook on Sept. 24, 1988. He was sentenced to death in 1989. The Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed his conviction and sentence in 1995.

It was while on death row that Mr. D'Ambrosio met a Catholic priest, the Rev. Neil Kookoothe, formerly of Toledo, who served as a spiritual adviser to death-row inmates. Father Kookoothe recalled that he was there to bring news of the death of Mr. D'Ambrosio's mother, but instead encountered a man desperate to be heard.

It was the length of Mr. D'Ambrosio's trial transcript -- about 500 pages -- that prompted the priest to take a look. Knowing that most death-penalty transcripts consisted of volumes and not merely pages, Father Kookoothe went home that night and read the entire case.

"I recognized there were some physiological impossibilities in the coroner's report. … Then I thought, 'what else is not right here?' " said Father Kookoothe, pastor of St. Clarence Church in North Olmsted, Ohio. "… We just pulled some loose strings that someone should have pulled in 1988-89. … When you start to accumulate all these pieces of evidence, it really called into question his conviction and sentence."

A federal judge overturned the conviction in 2009, saying key evidence was withheld from the defense, and Mr. D'Ambrosio 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 decision.

"I want people to understand that if it could happen to me, it could happen to them, and if not them, maybe their kids," said Mr. D'Ambrosio, who has earned a living as a handyman. "It's ridiculous, but it can happen."

A second defendant, Michael Keenan, also had been convicted of the crime and remains on death row. 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.

It's only been about two months that Mr. D'Ambrosio has been free to speak about his ordeal. Prior to that, unresolved appeals kept him cautious.

Now, he is willing to speak to anyone interested in listening. In addition to Thursday evening, Mr. D'Ambrosio and Father Kookoothe have been scheduled to speak at St. John's High School next week.

Father Kookoothe said he intends to share facts and figures. Information such as Mr. D'Ambrosio's case is one of 140 in the country and six in Ohio where the death penalty has been overturned since 1973. Only 17 of those cases were the result of updates in DNA.

But it is Mr. D'Ambrosio who will share what it is to live with knowing a room with a needle is just around the corner, he said.

"I've always been against the death penalty, but it was when I started putting faces and names and stories together that it took on a different perspective," the priest said. "Now, I not only feel it's wrong, I think it just doesn't make sense. The only sense it makes is if you want to be vengeful."

Germaine Kirk, social ministry program coordinator for the Toledo Diocese' Catholic Charities, heard the pair speak in a Cleveland-area church in September and invited them to Toledo. She said she hoped to get a cross-section of people at the talk -- those who opposed the death penalty, those who are in favor of it, and those who are on the fence.

"There are a lot of flaws, and I think we need to rethink what we're doing and why we're doing it," Ms. Kirk said, noting that the Catholic Church is against the death penalty and believes offenders can be held accountable in prison. "I want to raise the awareness in the community. I want to get people to start thinking, then start taking action."

The two men will speak about "Innocence and the Death Penalty" from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Corpus Christi University Parish, 2955 Dorr St. The talk is free and open to the public.



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