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Death Row Inmate Saved By Priest After Spending Over 20 Years In Jail For Crime He Didn't Commit

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Death Row Inmate Saved By Priest After Spending Over 20 Years In Jail For Crime He Didn't Commit

Joe D'Ambrosio spent more than 20 years on death row and, at one point, was just days away from execution - for a crime he didn't commit.

In 1988, just 26 at the time and having recently left the army, Joe was accused of murdering 19-year-old Anthony Klann, whose body was found near a Cleveland creek, with his throat cut from ear-to-ear.

After receiving a tip-off claiming he and two colleagues at a landscaping firm - Michael Keenan and Eddy Espinoza - were responsible for the brutal killing, police stormed Joe's apartment.

Espinoza quickly cut a deal, which saw him given 12 years while Keenan and Joe were sentenced to death.

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The trial lasted less than three days - the shortest ever trial in Ohio's history - and hinged on Espinoza's testimony.

Speaking to LADbible, Joe, now 58 years old, is seeking compensation from the state and is working tirelessly to put an end to the death penalty.

Anthony Klann was just 19 when he was murdered. Credit: Richard Klann/CNN
Anthony Klann was just 19 when he was murdered. Credit: Richard Klann/CNN

"After they arrested me, I didn't tell anybody that I was sitting in jail, because I kept expecting for them to just let me go," he says.

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"I was going to come back and be like, 'you'd never get a guess where I was' kind of thing.

"But in a blink of an eye, the next thing I know, I'm convicted, I have the shortest trial in the state's history - two and three quarter days from, 'let's start' to 'die'."

He added: "Even after I got convicted, I kept expecting them to be like, 'you know, we got the wrong person', but it never happened."

Joe D'Ambrosio was sentenced to death in 1989 for the alleged murder of Anthony Klann. Credit: Cleveland Police
Joe D'Ambrosio was sentenced to death in 1989 for the alleged murder of Anthony Klann. Credit: Cleveland Police
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It was more than a decade until someone took a chance on Joe.

Father Neil Kookoothe, a former lawyer and nurse, was visiting another inmate at the prison and offered to take Joe through his mother's funeral as he wasn't allowed to attend it.

"I'm thanking him profusely for doing this, but I'm like, 'you have to help me, they're trying to kill me, and I didn't do this'," Joe explains.

"And it wasn't until I told him how short my trial was that the attorney in him kicked in."

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Father Neil says he couldn't believe it only took a little over two days to convict someone of murder and put them to death, so he started doing a little digging and found that Cuyahoga County prosecutors had hidden evidence that would have saved Joe's life.

He said: "A death penalty case usually has 15 volumes of material for a trial that is four to six weeks long. And when he told me that they spent two and a half days on the trial, with just one volume that recorded the whole history of that trial, I was stunned.

"Joe had a copy of the trial volume in there and asked me to take it home."

Part of the evidence, which was based on Espinoza's testimony of that night, alleged that Klann had his throat slit and then ran away screaming for help.

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But according to Father Neil, this just couldn't have been the case.

He said: "It is physiologically impossible that he was screaming. I worked with trachea patients every day as a critical care nurse, and when your trachea is compromised, you can't talk. Yet the coroner took the stand and said he was running away from his perpetrators screaming for his life.

"And I thought to myself, if that's wrong, what else is wrong in the case?"

LADbible True Crime
LADbible True Crime

This led him to uncover more details that have been withheld by the prosecution, including the fact that the man who tipped off the police about Joe's alleged involvement in the murder was a suspect in a rape case in which Klann was the key witness.

Not only this, but the prosecutor in both cases was the same person, who said he saw 'no connection' between the two incidents.

Father Neil said: "I was down at the county courthouse sifting through microfiche files, and the very last file that I looked at was Anthony Klann's, and I saw that he had witnessed a rape.

"And I'm, like, 'whoa, wait a minute, where did this rape come from?' It hadn't been heard before."

He added: "My heart just went down into the depths of my stomach, because had this been heard back in 1988, in the court case, it might have saved somebody from being in prison for 22 years."

It was this piece of the puzzle, along with other physical evidence, that led Judge Kathleen O'Malley, in 2006, to overturn Joe's conviction.

In 2008, with Joe still sat on death row, Judge O'Malley ordered prosecutors to release him or retry him within six months - which was extended.

It was later found that the prosecution had once again concealed further physical evidence and the fact that their star witness, Espinoza, had died following his release, denying Joe the chance to contest his version of events.

As a result, in March 2010, judge O'Malley barred Cuyahoga County prosecutors from retrying Joe for the murder of Anthony Klann.

And despite an appeal by prosecutors to have the decision overturned, Joe became the 140th person to be released from death row since 1973.

"The funny thing is that 80 percent of the evidence that freed me was in three places, the prosecutor's file, the police file, and the coroner's file. It was there all along," Joe says looking back.

"And once they execute you, they get to destroy that evidence. And it would never would have came out that I was innocent. I would have just been another one of those butcher murderers who they put down like a dog, and they would have been happy with that.

"Nobody would have ever known that I was innocent."

Joe, now 58, says prosecutors continue to call him a murderer despite his release. Credit: Death Penalty Information Centre
Joe, now 58, says prosecutors continue to call him a murderer despite his release. Credit: Death Penalty Information Centre

But while he escaped execution, death row left its mark on Joe.

He says: "They say you freeze at the age you were when you're locked up, so when I was released I was thinking I'm 26 and acting like I'm 26 - but I was 48.

"All you do is interact with other death row inmates, and they're all stuck.

"So you don't get that growth of experience and everything else."

Adding: "It's still hard, especially when you're doing something physical. I'm 58 now, about to be 59, but I still think my body can do things that I could do when I was 26."

And despite now seeking money for having been 'wrongfully imprisoned', Joe knows that nothing will give him back what was taken from him.

He tells LADbible: "No amount of money can ever make up for the time I lost. I lost 80 percent of my adult life - I grew up in prison.

"But I'm alive and free. And that's why I'm happy. I don't have a death sentence over my head. I'm out, I can do whatever I want, I can go wherever I want. And that's just overwhelming.

"So I have forgiven everybody but the prosecutors for what they did to me, I'm still having a hard time forgiving them because they're still doing it. They still call me 'the murderer', 'the butcher', you know.

"They still sit there to this day and say I did this. And it's hard to forgive somebody who's calling you a murderer."

Michael Keenan was also released from prison in 2012 after a judge dismissed his murder charge.

Anthony Klann's killer has never been brought to justice.

Featured Image Credit: CNS/William Rieter/PA

Topics: Death Row, True Crime, News, US News

Dominic Smithers
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