Former Death Row Inmate Files Wrongful Imprisonment Suit

Feb 21, 2012

By Kerrie Spencer, staff writer – February 21, 2012

The law can be a wonderful thing when it works the right way. This is an interesting case for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is still an unresolved question over a recorded jailhouse phone call and prosecutors were slapped for withholding evidence. But this is not the end of story – not by a long shot. Joe D’Ambrosio may have the final word if he is successful in his wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against the state of Ohio, filed in 2012, two years after he was released from death row in prison.

He is seeking compensation for being wrongfully jailed, lost wages for 21 years and attorney’s fees. The grand total could hit $1,004,285.50; a rate calculated by multiplying $47,823.12 times the 21 years D’Ambrosio spent in prison. Is he eligible to seek compensation? This remains to be seen, but if ruled so by the courts, then the lawsuit will proceed. [1] The prosecutor’s office says there is evidence that shows he is not innocent; evidence that no one may act on now, or ever again.

Joe D’Ambrosio, was a resident on death row in Texas for 21 years; 21 years that he asserts he was innocent. Truth be told, many on death row and in the general prison population insist they are innocent. In some cases, that turns out to be true provided someone takes up their cause to reverse their imprisonment. In other cases, no one believes them and they are left behind bars to serve their sentence or be put to death.

In D’Ambrosio’s case he was arrested and charged along with two other men for the murder of a 19-year-old man, Tony Klann. [2] The boy was found face down in a creek with his throat slashed. Police tracked down and arrested Ed Espinoza, Michael Keenan and Joe D’Ambrosio. Police noted on arrest that all three were drunk.

Espinoza cracked under questioning first and said the three of them were on the creek bank with the victim when Keenan wielded a Bowie knife, slashing Klann’s throat. In shock and frightened for his life, the young man supposedly ran into the creek to escape, screaming in fear. Espinoza said D’Ambrosio followed Klann into the creek to finish him off by burying the knife in his chest. [3][4]

Autopsy reports later showed the throat had been sliced above the voice box, meaning any sounds the boy made were coming from the gash in his throat. He could not have said anything, as Espinzoa alleged. At the end of a very long trial, D’Ambrosio was sentenced to death on February 23, 1989.

Two courts barred him being retried. In 2009, a federal judge ruled that prosecutors failed to provide ten pieces of evidence that could have exonerated him at trial. The feeling was that D’Ambrosio should never have been convicted. While that does not address the issue of his role, if any, in the death of 19-year-old Klann, it does address legal issues. [5]

The whole case revolved around legal issues: the question of open discovery (referring to the ten missing items of evidence); the perceived grandstanding by the prosecutors; withheld evidence that did not suit the prosecution’s case; and a taped jailhouse phone call between D’Ambrosio and his attorney that prosecutors interpreted as being an admission he was present during a burglary and kidnapping prior to Klann’s murder. Given the long laundry list of things that could be viewed as questionable in the process of seeking justice, one wonders about the integrity of those that were prosecuted. One also has to wonder how often something like this happens.

While some feel that getting individuals off the streets for crimes they commit is the whole point, the methods used to do so must be done in a legal and ethical manner. If they are not, cases disintegrate into what this one became – the case of a possibly innocent man being held for something he did not do. Or did he?

No one will ever really know, and no one can say whether or not justice has finally been served. Some think yes based on what the courts have said to date. Some think it is smoke and mirrors. Others applaud the conduct of the prosecutors as a means to an end. And some feel the man was railroaded because it suited what the law wanted.

Not surprisingly, this case is not the only one that resulted in the release of wrongly convicted individuals. In the state of Ohio, Clarence Elkins served seven years for a rape he was cleared of and received $1.1 million in compensation. Michael Green, also convicted of a rape he did not perpetrate, got $1.6 million for a suit against the city of Cleveland and another $524,000 from the state of Ohio. [6]

But back to the concept of open discovery, something that would benefit both sides in a criminal case, is for everything to be out in the open. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the D’Ambrosio case is the fact that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have set him free back in 1989. In other words, he would not have served 21 years for a crime he may not have committed.

The foundation of the call for open discovery is that it would serve to protect the integrity of the justice system, which is a highly salient point given the evidence problems in this case. Open discovery would also protect the defendant’s rights and the well-being of witnesses, society at large and victims. [7] This is no small matter as there is still the lingering question of who really did kill Klann. To this day, no one knows and his family still carries that burden in their hearts, which does affects closure of their loved one passing.

The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously adopted open discovery in December 2010. It was a move that many applauded and it brought the state in line with most other jurisdictions. There are still some that do not require open discovery; a fact that should disturb anyone who needs a criminal defense attorney. After all, what good is the right to counsel if counsel does not have access to all the relevant information and evidence? It could mean the difference between life and death as it almost did with Joe D’Ambrosio. [8][9][10]











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