For more than 11 years, Joe D'Ambrosio sat on Ohio's Death Row with no visitors, no letters and little hope. His family had all but abandoned him after he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1989. D'Ambrosio insisted he was innocent and wrote letters to anyone he could think of, begging for his case to be reviewed.
"Nobody would help me," he told about 150 people at St. Wendelin Church Sunday night.
D'Ambrosio had to spend nearly 10 more years in prison, but in 2009, he was released, thanks to the efforts of the Rev. Neil Kookoothe. The Catholic priest from the Diocese of Cleveland accompanied D'Ambrosio as the story of deliverance was told Sunday.
The first glimmer of hope came when D'Ambrosio's mother died in 1998. Kookoothe saw the obituary in a Cleveland area newspaper. He was going to visit other Death Row prisoners that day, so he offered to give condolences to D'Ambrosio, who could not be at the funeral. Prison officials allowed a meeting. D'Ambrosio said it was the first time anyone had listened to him during his incarceration.
He didn't want to talk about his mother.
"She's dead. I'm trying to save my life," he told the priest.
Kookoothe was hesitant to take on another inmate. He already was ministering to 34 men on Death Row. But D'Ambrosio begged the priest to read over the trial transcript he had in his possession. Kookoothe said he was surprised how small it was, considering a verdict of guilty meant a death sentence.
Reluctantly, he took the file but made no promises.
"I read the entire trial that night," Kookoothe said.
The inconsistencies of the witnesses' testimony did not add up. In addition, Kookoothe, who has a degree in nursing, noted the physical injuries of the murder victim did not jibe with the testimony. D'Ambrosio's court-appointed counsel apparently did not know what questions to ask or what objections to make in capital punishment cases. In addition, the prosecutor prevented some key evidence from being submitted in court.
The lawyers advised D'Ambrosio to agree to a bench trial instead of a jury trial. A co-defendant in the case was offered a deal to shorten his sentence, and that person pointed the finger at D'Ambrosio. His eyewitness testimony was accepted as true and not thoroughly investigated. As a result, the three-judge panel convicted D'Ambrosio and one other man and sentenced them to death.
Once Kookoothe had convinced himself D'Ambrosio was telling the truth about his innocence, the priest did more digging. Somehow, he located two men who had been with D'Ambrosio at the time of the murder, and a woman who had heard the disturbance in a nearby apartment and had seen the victim unresponsive. Their statements and suppressed evidence that was suddenly "found" led to D'Ambrosio's release.
All charges were dismissed March 7, 2010.
Estranged from his family, the exonerated convict had nowhere to go upon his release. He had no employment record, no current skills, no driver license. He was starting over from square one. Although his record has been expunged and sealed, D'Ambrosio's past is no secret.
"All they have to do is Google my name," he said. "Father and his parish gave me my life."
D'Ambrosio now works as a custodian at Kookoothe's parish, St. Clarence in North Olmstedo. More than three years later, he still is adjusting to life on the outside.
Whenever they are invited, he and his mentor give presentations and interviews to educate the public on the flaws in Ohio's justice system. D'Ambrosio said he was within three days of being put to death when he was granted a new trial.
Kookoothe read off a list of other cases in which people were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for years before being released.
Germaine Kirk, social ministry program coordinator for the Diocese of Toledo, arranged for Kookoothe and D'Ambrosio's appearance. She stated Ohio has 141 men and one woman on Death Row, some of whom may be innocent.
Kirk advised the audience to learn all they can about the legal system and write legislators to demand reforms. Americans tend to be hasty in pointing fingers and seeking revenge, she said, but in doing that, we often make mistakes.
Likewise, prosecutors want to win cases to please the public and enhance their chances at re-election, she said.
Producing a just outcome must be their priority, she said.
Because Lent is a season for prayers, Kirk urged listeners to pray for Death Row inmates and their families, for crime victims and their families, for judges and prosecutors, for law enforcement and correctional workers.