IN PRISON FOR: 21 YEARS
TIME ON DEATH ROW: 20 YEARS
FILM FOCUSES ON: LIFE AFTER DEATH ROW
CONVICTED IN: CLEVELAND, OHIO
LEGAL REVIEW: Read a legal review of Joe’s case
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On the 24th of September 1988 a jogger found the body of 19-year-old Tony Klann floating in Doan Creek near Cleveland, Ohio. His throat had been slit and he had 3 large stab wounds in his chest. Three landscapers who knew the victim were arrested for the crime and during interrogation one of the suspects accepted a plea bargain. He testified that the other two men, including Joe D’ambrosio had kidnapped the victim and driven to the creek before cutting his throat and then stabbing him in the water. Joe was sentenced to death for the crime even though the testimony against him was riddled with inconsistencies. The date and location of the murder were disputed and no physical evidence could be found at the supposed crime scene.
A federal District Court had first overturned D’Ambrosio’s conviction in 2006 because the state had withheld key evidence from the defense. The federal court originally allowed the state to re-prosecute him, but just before trial the state revealed the existence of even more important evidence and requested further delay. Also the state did not divulge in a timely manner that the key witness against D’Ambrosio had died. In 2010, the District Court barred D’Ambrosio’s re-prosecution because of the prosecutors’ misconduct. The court concluded that these developments biased D’Ambrosio’s chances for a fair trial, and hence the state was barred from retrying him. District Court Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote: “For 20 years, the State held D’Ambrosio on death row, despite wrongfully withholding evidence that ‘would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.’ Despite being ordered to do so by this Court … the State still failed to turn over all relevant and material evidence relating to the crime of which D’Ambrosio was convicted. Then, once it was ordered to provide D’Ambrosio a constitutional trial or release him within 180 days, the State did neither. During those 180 days, the State engaged in substantial inequitable conduct, wrongfully retaining and delaying the production of yet more potentially exculpatory evidence… To fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice.”
In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the bar to re-prosecution. (D’Ambrosio v. Bagley, No. 10-3247, Aug. 29, 2011). Even the dissent referred to the state’s “remarkable inability to competently prosecute D’Ambrosio.” The state appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court mainly on jurisdictional grounds, but was denied certiorari on Jan. 23. (Bagley v. D’Ambrosio, No. 11-672, denying cert.).
D’Ambrosio is 140th former death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973 and the 6th from Ohio. He was first indicted for the offense in 1988.