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The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Former Ohio death row inmate Joe D'Ambrosio, finally free, speaks out

Joe D'Ambrosio
Source: Gamso - For the Defense
Attempted murder. That's what Joe D'Ambrosio wants the prosecutors to be charged with. He says the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office tried to kill him by withholding 10 pieces of evidence at his trial, evidence that could have led to a not-guilty verdict.

Instead, D'Ambrosio sat on Ohio's death row for more than 20 years.

He is finally free.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the state's appeal against him. The ruling wipes D'Ambrosio's legal slate clean.

They can erase the charges but they can't give him back his life.

D'Ambrosio was 26 when the police arrested him on Sept. 26, 1988 for the murder of Tony Klann. He's now 50 with nothing to show for his life except a '97 Ford Ranger with no radio, no air-conditioning and crank windows.

D'Ambrosio is angry at the prosecutors who withheld information, who called him a liar on the stand.

"They had the truth in their files," he said. "They're all guilty of attempted murder . . . . They tried to do to me what they said I did."

Take a life.

What would he like to tell the prosecutors who withheld the evidence?

"I'll see you in court," D'Ambrosio said. "I'm going to use their law to get justice for me."

D'Ambrosio plans on filing a civil lawsuit.

He has always proclaimed his innocence. He maintains that he was in his apartment the night Klann was killed. At the time, Sgt. Joseph D'Ambrosio had been honorably discharged from the Army after four years. He had no criminal record.

D'Ambrosio took the stand at his trial in front of a 3-panel judge. He'd grown up watching Perry Mason. He expected his attorney to prove his case. He expected to walk out free.

One word changed his life forever:


"I was floating over my body looking down over the defense table and judge," D'Ambrosio said. "It was like a dream – no, a nightmare."

In prison, he clung to his faith. God sent him a Catholic priest, who happened to be a registered nurse and an attorney.

Father Neil Kookoothe, pastor at St. Clarence Catholic Church in North Olmsted, was visiting an inmate on death row at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. The inmate told him to see the guy in the next cell who was probably innocent.

D'Ambrosio asked Father Neil to read his court transcript. The priest read it in one night.

Father Neil looked D'Ambrosio straight in the eye and said, "Tell me you didn't do this. If you ever, ever lie to me, I will drop you like a hot potato."

Joe looked him dead in the eye and said, "I did not kill Tony Klann and had nothing to do with it."

With the help of the priest and endless attorneys, the guilty verdict unraveled. It took over 20 years.

What was D'Ambrosio's worst day on death row?

Pick a day, any day. The day they came to tell him his mom had died. The day he found out the Ohio Supreme Court denied his retrial. Every day locked in a cell with one tiny window and solid wall with a slot big enough for the food tray to pass through. Every day he wasn't allowed to touch another human without a glass wall or fence or phone between them.

What kept him sane?

"My belief in God and my innocence," he said.

When Joe was released from prison 2 years ago, every time he came to a door he waited. That's how it worked in prison. The guards opened the doors, not the inmates.

Freedom still amazes him. To be able to vote, to see the sky. He hadn't seen stars in 20 years.

He got his best night sleep on Monday, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision. He watched it on a computer with Father Neil, then he went home and slept for 12 hours.

Joe D'Ambrosio will never get the apology he deserves from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office. They still insist he is guilty and believe they could have proved it at another trial.

Rick Bell, criminal investigations chief for the prosecutor's office, insists that D'Ambrosio was not exonerated.

"To use the word exonerated is a misrepresentation," he said Tuesday. "He has not been found innocent."

But in this country's legal system, we are each presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. That court tossed out the guilty verdict, so D'Ambrosio is innocent.

Bell couldn't tell me why prosecutors withheld those 10 pieces of evidence.

He did share changes that have been made in the prosecutor's office but insisted that those changes were made since Joe's case, but not because of it.

The office created a case management system where each prosecutor is ethically responsible for his or her own case files from beginning to end instead of having many prosecutors touch each case file.

The office switched to an electronic case management system so every scrap of paper is date-stamped and placed electronically in the file and retained forever. This allows the prosecutors to see what was provided to defense attorneys.

Joe D'Ambrosio is the 6th person on Ohio's death row to be set free and the 140th inmate on death rows across America to be exonerated.

His future is a mystery. He moved back to North Royalton where he grew up.

He's got no pension, no retirement. He'll get $35 a month in Social Security.

"I didn't pay into it. I have zero," he said. "I have my truck and my apartment. They took everything from me."

He works as a subcontractor doing odd jobs. He hopes a civil lawsuit will compensate him for the missed years of work.

If he could peer into the future, what would he like to be?

He paused for a long moment before answering:

"Happy, I hope."

Source: The Plain Dealer, January 26, 2012

Related articles:
Jan 23, 2012
The state had wanted the court to review a ruling last August by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of former inmate Joe D'Ambrosio, according to The Associated Press. D'Ambrosio was convicted of murder in the death ...
Mar 16, 2010
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg ordered Joe D'Ambrosio released without conditions Friday, two days after a federal judge ruled he cannot be retried because a key witness has died. The state is ...

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