Neil Kookoothe and Joe D’ambrosio
This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at email@example.com. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
The following may upsetting for some readers.
In 1988, a jogger discovered a body floating in a creek in Cleveland, Ohio. The police were called, detectives arrived on the scene. They discovered that the victim had his throat cut, had been stabbed several times and showed other minor wounds. Nothing was found on the victim’s body, save for a few dollars. With no identification, the police had little to go on.
Two days later, a man who went by “Stoney” called the police claiming he may be able to identify the body found in the creek. He showed up at the morgue to do so the next day. Stoney positively ID’d the body as Tony Klann, his nineteen year old neighbour.
The police sat down with Stoney Lewis to get more information out of him. He informed them that he had last seen Tony at a bar in Little Italy called Coconut Joe’s, the night before the body was discovered. He identified three other men who were with Tony, Mike Keenan, Eddie Espinoza, and Joe D’Ambrosio. Stoney told police that before he left the bar that night, he’d witnessed several physical altercations between Tony and Eddie Espinoza. Further, he said that he had heard rumours from neighbours that had supposedly seen Mike, Eddie and Joe arguing with Tony in the early hours of Saturday morning, and that they had seen Joe hold a knife to Tony’s throat.
Police bought the story, hook, line and sinker. They arrested Eddie, Joe and Mike. During interrogation, and with the added incentive of his charges being dropped from murder to manslaughter, Eddie began to talk. He told police a story that ended with Mike Keenan slicing his throat from ear to ear, and Joe D’Ambrosio finishing the job by stabbing Tony and throwing him in the creek.
Police, again, found no reason to doubt this story. Eddie plead guilty to manslaughter, in exchange for his testimony against Joe and Mike, who were both charged with aggravated murder. The sentence for said charge being the death penalty.
Joe had no knowledge of the law or his rights. He was appointed a defense lawyer who told him his best bet would be to waive his right to a jury trial. Joe, who was adamant he was innocent, figured the same thing so many do: that the justice system is fair and balanced and the truth would come out. He did not fear being found guilty, because he was innocent.
In the shortest capital trial in Ohio state history, Joe D’Ambrosio was found guilty of aggravated murder before a panel of 3 judges. Stoney and Eddie were the only witnesses in a trial that depended entirely on eyewitness testimony.
He was sentenced to death.
Keenan was sentenced to die as well. Eddie, who struck a deal, got off with 15 years for manslaughter.
For ten years, Joe D’Ambrosio sat on death row maintaining his innocence. He wrote to anyone and everyone about his case, claiming that he did not do what he had been convicted of. No one wanted to hear it. Finally, in 1998, his mother died. Denied the ability to attend the funeral, he was given the right to a send Catholic priest in his place. A Catholic priest who happened to be an ex-lawyer and registered nurse. Neil Kookoothe sat with Joe and told him about his mother’s funeral.
During his meeting with the Father Kookoothe, Joe begged him to help him with his case. He swore up and down that he did not commit the crime he was on death row for. The priest was hesitant. He didn’t know if he could find the time to go through the case files, until Joe assured him that as the shortest capital trial in Ohio history, it is literally just a small stack of papers he would have to go through to review the case. The priest, an ex-attorney, was shocked. A life would be ended over what was contained in a small stack of papers? He felt compelled to review it. What could be so cut and dry about this case that it only took up space on a few pages?
Immediately, Father Kookoothe saw holes in the story. He couldn’t understand how Eddie Espinoza had heard Tony scream after his throat had been cut from ear to ear. As a registered nurse, he knew that this wasn’t possible. He also noted the conspicuous lack of physical evidence that would have had to be present for Eddie’s story to be true, such as tire tracks near the creek bed. No such tire tracks were found. He knew that Eddie had lied.
The priest looked into Eddie Espinoza’s past and found it filled with questionable behaviour. Drugs, booze and crime seemed to be his entire life. Father Kookoothe could not believe that the police would rest almost their entire case on this man’s testimony. At this point, he believed Joe was innocent, but could not prove it. So, he dug deeper.
As he explored the case further, he found additional pieces of information that had not been shared with D’Ambrosio’s defense lawyer. Information that could possibly have shed some doubt on Joe’s guilt. It came to the priest’s attention that Ohio’s laws actually made it legal for the prosecution to keep that information from D’Ambrosio’s lawyer. He also found that the lawyer for the prosecution had a history of accusations of prosecutorial misconduct. In fact, his misconduct resulted in Mike Keenan’s conviction being overturned and given a new trial. He was convicted once again, however, and sentenced to die.
Doan Creek Crime Scene Cleveland, Ohio
Father Kookoothe brought the case to the attention of the media. The reporter he contacted, Martin Kuz, uncovered more discrepancies. Based on the amount of blood that Tony had lost, and the fact that there had been no blood found at the scene, detectives had concluded that the body must have been dumped there and killed elsewhere. This conflicted with Eddie’s story, however. The story that convicted both Mike and Joe was simply impossible.
Martin Kuz also noted the suspicious lack of blood, tissue or hair on the knife, in the truck or anywhere on the creek bank. He pushed further and discovered that the management and employees of Coconut Joe’s said they recalled Joe, Eddie, Mike and Tony in their bar on Thursday night, not Friday. The case rested on eyewitnesses seeing them there together on Friday night.
Kuz realized he had a real story on his hands and began to look everywhere for anything at all. He called the father of the victim, who had not been thoroughly interviewed during the investigation by police. The conversation that ensued absolutely destroyed the case against Joe and Mike. He found out that Tony had been set to testify in a rape trial.
Martin Kuz told Father Kookoothe what he had learned. The priest looked it up and found that yes, Tony was supposed to have testified in the trial for the rape of another man.
The suspect? Stoney Lewis.
The murder victim had been set to testify against Stoney, the man who had identified the body and fed police the story about Mike, Eddie and Joe.
Further reading led Father Neil to discover that the prosecutor in Tony’s murder case was the same as the prosecutor in the rape case against Stoney Lewis. There was no doubt that the prosecutor was aware of the fact that Tony had been scheduled to testify against Stoney. Information he clearly withheld from the Joe, Mike and Eddie’s defense lawyers.
With the case against Joe making headlines as it crumbled, a successful law firm decided to defend him pro bono.
After thirteen years on death row, Joe was beginning to see a glimmer of hope. A judge granted Joe, his attorneys and Father Neil access to all the prosecutor’s files on his case. Father Kookoothe managed to locate the other rape victim, and convinced him to tell his story. He told Joe’s attorney’s the horrific details of the night he was raped by Stoney Lewis and that Tony, the murder victim, had walked in on them. He explained that Tony was ready and willing to testify against Stoney about what he had seen.
A hearing was held to illuminate the withholding of exculpatory evidence in Joe D’Ambrosio’s trial. The first man who had been raped testified about what had happened to him. A solid case was made and Joe and his attorney’s felt good. They had to wait two years, however, before the Judge finally ruled. When she did, she overturned Joe’s conviction and granted him a new trial.
The trial, pending new evidence as claimed by the prosecution, was delayed for a significant amount of time, and so the judge, in a completely unprecedented move, allowed Joe out of death row on bond. It was 2009. He had been on death row for 22 years. He walked out of the courthouse visibly trying to hold back tears.
With his retrial approaching, Joe sat under house arrest and waited. Eventually, news came down that Eddie Espinoza had died. Losing their star witness, the prosecution was crippled. The trial went ahead for months… but the prosecution had nothing.
In 2010 the judge exonerated Joe D’Ambrosio. The 6th death row exoneree in Ohio. The 140th in the USA.
The World Day Against The Death Penalty is on October 10th. From the 8th to the 11th at the Church of Saint Clarence in Ohio, Witness to Innocence is holding an event to bring together death row exonerees from all over the country. Several organizations are to be present, and Joe D’Ambrosio will be speaking.
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If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org