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Death row exoneree shares 21-year odyssey

Friday, February 27, 2015

Joe D'Ambrosio, Fr. Neil Kookoothe

After spending 21 years on death row in Ohio for a murder he maintains he never committed, U.S. Army veteran Joe D’Ambrosio is traveling the country to share his life-changing story.

D’Ambrosio will be at Mercyhurst University on Thursday, March 19, at 7 p.m. in Taylor Little Theatre. He will be joined by Father Neil Kookoothe, an attorney who handled D’Ambrosio’s final appeal. Together they will  discuss D’Ambrosio’s trial and conviction, alleged misconduct of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, the effects on inmates who are wrongly convicted, and the power of faith in God. The event, in keeping with the university’s 2015 academic theme, “Confronting Injustice,” is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the criminal justice department, administration of justice graduate program, and the nonprofit Witness to Innocence organization. It is funded by a Mercyhurst Academic Enrichment Grant.

D’Ambrosio was arrested on Sept. 26, 1988, at the age of 26 for the murder of 19-year-old Tony Klann. He had no criminal record and had been honorably discharged from the Army four years earlier. Through his trial, conviction and subsequent appeals, D’Ambrosio was relentless in asserting his innocence.

While in prison at Mansfield Correctional Institution, D’Ambrosio met Father Neil, who read his court transcripts in one night, and decided to take on his appeal. His release from prison was the culmination of a long struggle through which several judges ruled he was denied justice by prosecutors.

D’Ambrosio is the 140th death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973, and the 6th from Ohio.

Maria Garase, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, said D’Ambrosio’s case will appeal to many of her students and will help teach both criminal justice and pre-law majors proper legal procedure and ethics.

“This story puts a face on individuals who are wrongly convicted, especially those who are on death row for more than 20 years,” said Garase. “This story will force future criminal justice and law practitioners to think twice about the decisions they make when interpreting the law and how legal decisions can impact the lives of others.”

The event will also highlight several elements of Mercyhurst’s mission, teaching students how to be “socially merciful” and “compassionately hospitable,” she said. 

For more information, e-mail mgarase@mercyhurst.edu or call 814-824-3675.