CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A judge declared Joe D'Ambrosio a free man Friday afternoon, ending more than 21 years of incarceration -- mostly on death row -- for a crime he has always said he didn't commit.
D'Ambrosio, 48, remained subdued as supporters hugged in the courtroom. He marched from the Justice Center to the nearby probation offices to have an electronic bracelet removed from his ankle, the last vestige of his imprisonment.
Joe D'Ambrosio is free man to go where he wants after Judge Joan Synenberg's ruling on Friday.On the way back out, he extended his hand to one of the guards.
"Take it easy," D'Ambrosio said. "I'm done."
"Enjoy your life," the guard replied.
D'Ambrosio's newfound freedom is the culmination of a long struggle to win the release of a man several judges ruled was denied justice by prosecutors.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg dismissed all charges against D'Ambrosio and ordered him released without any conditions. The move came two days after U.S. District Judge Kate O'Malley ruled D'Ambrosio cannot be retried for the 1988 killing of Tony Klann.
"Mr. D'Ambrosio, you are free," Synenberg said, after first reviewing details of the case, including several instances where she said prosecutors attempted to turn her court into "a circus."
Several judges have ruled D'Ambrosio likely would not have been convicted if prosecutors turned over several pieces of evidence that could have exonerated him, as they are required to do.
D'Ambrosio's case became a rallying point for supporters of "open discovery," the legal process in which prosecutors turn over all their evidence to defense lawyers, rather than just the evidence they deem applicable.
Plain Dealer coverage of the Joe D'Ambrosio caseD'Ambrosio tempered his emotions Friday, mindful of an appeal the state filed that challenged O'Malley's ruling.
The Rev. Neil Kookoothe, the Catholic priest whose investigative work lead to the discovery of evidence that freed D'Ambrosio, couldn't hold back his emotions after Synenberg dismissed the charges. His head dropped. Then he turned and hugged Joe Bodine, a former attorney for D'Ambrosio and now a law professor at Capital University.
Bodine said he felt blessed getting to know D'Ambrosio and working toward his release, even though the process gave him six ulcers. He gives the state's appeal little chance of succeeding.
Timeline of events
Sept. 24, 1988: A jogger finds Tony Klann's body in Doan Brook.
Sept. 26, 1988: Joe D'Ambrosio and Eddie Espinoza are arrested.
Oct. 6, 1988: D'Ambrosio is indicted for murder.
Feb. 6, 1989: A three-judge panel convicts D'Ambrosio. Eddie Espinoza and Paul Lewis testify against D'Ambrosio. He is later sentenced to the death penalty.
Aug. 23, 1993: Ohio Supreme Court upholds D'Ambrosio's conviction.
January 1998: D'Ambrosio gives his trial transcript to the Rev. Neil Kookoothe.
Nov. 25, 2002: U.S. District Judge Kate O'Malley orders all records and evidence from D'Ambrosio and Lewis cases turned over to Ohio public defender's office for examination.
March 25, 2006: O'Malley rules D'Ambrosio is entitled to a retrial.
June 6, 2008: A federal appeals court upholds O'Malley's ruling and orders D'Ambrosio must be let out of prison and given a new trial.
Sept. 11, 2008: O'Malley rules D'Ambrosio must be tried in 180 days or released.
March 2009: Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg sets D'Ambrosio's bond at $50,000. He is allowed to live in an apartment in Parma under house arrest. O'Malley later extends the 180-day trial deadline after ruling prosecutors again withheld evidence from D'Ambrosio.
April 26, 2009: Edward Espinoza, the main witness against D'Ambrosio, dies.
April 27, 2009: O'Malley denies a motion from D'Ambrosio asking her to block his re-prosecution.
April 30, 2009: Prosecutors learn Espinoza, their star witness, is dead.
July 2009: Prosecutors inform O'Malley Espinoza has died.
Aug. 14, 2009: D'Ambrosio files another motion asking O'Malley to block his retrial, arguing the death of Espinoza denies him a fair trial because he cannot challenge Espinoza's account of the killing with the withheld evidence.
March 3, 2010: O'Malley grants D'Ambrosio's motion, ruling that he cannot be retried. She notes that Espinoza's death, which came after the 180-day deadline she set, precludes D'Ambrosio from getting a fair trial.
March 5, 2010: Synenberg dismisses the murder charge against D'Ambrosio and orders him released. Prosecutors appeal O'Malley's ruling.
"I would be dumbfounded if Judge O'Malley's opinion were reversed," he said. "That was a work of art."
The attorney general's notice of appeal did not specify on what grounds they were appealing her ruling, and his office declined to elaborate.
In her ruling Wednesday, O'Malley forbade prosecutors from retrying D'Ambrosio for killing Klann. She also used space in her 37-page order to blast Cuyahoga County prosecutors, from those who handled D'Ambrosio's case in 1989 to those who she said ignored her orders and D'Ambrosio's rights in recent months.
"To fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice," O'Malley wrote. "Indeed, it would pervert those interests."
D'Ambrosio was convicted of killing Klann but proclaimed his innocence. Michael Keenan was tried separately and also was found guilty and sentenced to die. He maintains his innocence, too, but remains on death row pending appeal.
Edward Espinoza, the third person charged with killing Klann, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter in exchange for testifying against D'Ambrosio and Keenan. He served 12 years in prison and was released in 2001. He died last year.
The turning point for D'Ambrosio came in 1998 when he met Kookoothe, who trained as a lawyer and nurse before becoming a priest. Kookoothe looked into D'Ambrosio's case and found several concerns.
Further investigation determined the person who directed police to D'Ambrosio had his own motive for killing Klann. Physical evidence also suggested Klann had not been stabbed to death at Doan Brook in Cleveland's Rockefeller Park, as Espinoza testified, but that Klann was killed elsewhere and his body dumped in the stream.
O'Malley overturned D'Ambrosio's conviction in 2006 after ruling Cuyahoga County prosecutors withheld 10 pieces of evidence that could have prompted a three-judge panel to find him not guilty. In September 2008, she ordered prosecutors to release D'Ambrosio or retry him within 180 days.
O'Malley extended that deadline after she said prosecutors again withheld evidence from D'Ambrosio.
D'Ambrosio then went from state prison to an apartment in Parma, where he was allowed to live under house arrest pending the outcome of the new murder trial.
In April 2009, O'Malley expunged D'Ambrosio's record but still allowed for a retrial, unaware that Espinoza had died the previous day. But she ruled this week Espinoza's death now makes it impossible to give D'Ambrosio a fair retrial, because his lawyers could not challenge Espinoza's version of the killing with the witheld evidence that contradicts his testimony.
While on house arrest, D'Ambrosio has been living with Rosalie Lee, a 70-year-old he considers mom. But with Synenberg's order, he's now free to go wherever he wants.
"Although perhaps not swift, justice did prevail," Synenberg said.
D'Ambrosio declined to talk with the media, but he smiled and hugged his supporters.
Lee said she doesn't know what the man she has come to love like a son will do next.
"There's people that have offered him jobs," she said.
When Kookoothe was asked if he might give D'Ambrosio work around the church, the priest declined to say.
"What Joe does from this point on is his business," Kookoothe said. "He's a free man." http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2010/03/d.html