Innocent Man Speaks on Criminal Justice System

Joseph Dilworth, Staff Writer

Joseph D’Ambrosio spent more than 21 years awaiting death in a jail cell the size of a bathroom for a crime that he did not commit. D’Ambrosio and Reverend Neil Kookoothe spoke to an audience at First Church on Wednesday night about life, faith and a criminal justice system intent on killing the people it is supposed to protect.

D’Ambrosio was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1989. He had no prior criminal record and had recently been honorably discharged following four years of service with the armed forces. After rejecting a deal that would require him to testify against his co-defendant and serve a minimum of 10 years in prison, D’Ambrosio was put on trial and convicted in just two and three-quarter days, the shortest capital case in state history.

While awaiting his execution, D’Ambrosio desperately wrote stacks of letters to law schools, journalism schools, innocence projects and television talk show hosts, all in the hope that somebody would take a chance on him and ultimately save his life. His letters yielded no results.

In 1998, Reverend Neil Kookoothe recognized a name in the obituaries section of a local paper. It belonged to Joe D’Ambrosio’s mother. Reverend Kookoothe, who knew D’Ambrosio through his counseling services with death row inmates, decided to attend the service in her son’s stead. He visited the prison to share details of the service with D’Ambrosio, but D’Ambrosio was intent on discussing other matters.

“He wanted to talk to me about my mother,” said D’Ambrosio. “I wanted him to save my life.”

D’Ambrosio pleaded with Reverend Kookoothe to help him with his case. The Reverend initially objected but reconsidered when he discovered the size of D’Ambrosio’s case transcript. In Kookoothe’s experience, most capital cases contained around 15 volumes of transcripts; D’Ambrosio’s was comprised of just one.

Kookoothe’s experience as both a trained nurse and attorney were instrumental in the dismantling of the prosecution’s argument. The Reverend read through the entire transcript in just one night and immediately noticed some glaring errors in the state’s case. His medical background enabled him to see discrepancies in the coroner’s testimony, while his legal knowledge allowed him to effectively navigate through the criminal justice system.

“God sent me the perfect person to save my life,” said D’Ambrosio.

By 2001, thanks to the help of Reverend Kookoothe, an Ohio judge ruled that the prosecution must turn over all of its evidence against D’Ambrosio. These documents included police reports, informant statements, soil samples and DNA results.

In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the evidence withheld in the case would have affected the outcome of D’Ambrosio’s 1989 trial and ordered his release. The state of Ohio has until Nov. 28 to make a final appeal.

Reverend Kookoothe says that D’Ambrosio’s case exposes some of the inherent problems with capital punishment.

“The death penalty is geographically discriminatory based on where you commit your crime,” says Kookoothe. According to the Reverend, 53 percent of Ohio’s death row inmates are from just five counties in Ohio, a staggering statistic considering that Ohio has a total of 88 counties. Kookoothe says that money is the determining factor in death row sentencing. While poorer counties settle for imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the wealthier counties in Ohio have no problem pushing for the expensive, high-profile capital cases.

Reverend Kookoothe also says that the death penalty is racially discriminatory.

“82 percent of Ohio’s population is white, and there are 62 white men currently on death row,” said Reverend Kookoothe. “12.2 percent of Ohio is black and there are 72 black men currently on death row.”

As for D’Ambrosio, life outside of prison has been an adjustment. Changes in technology and transportation have been particularly shocking for the tall, stocky D’Ambrosio. While some wrongfully convicted individuals find themselves consumed with anger and hatred, he refuses to let these emotions dominate his life.

“I’m free,” he said. “I can go anywhere I want. Why should I be mad about that?”