Former death row inmate Joe D’Ambrosio and Father Neil Kookoothe visited Alaska in July as one of many speaking engagements in the decade since D’Ambrosio was released from prison after being falsely convicted of murder.
Invited to Alaska by the group Alaskans Against the Death Penalty, the duo shared their story at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage on July 31.
Tens of thousands have now heard the chronology of an innocent man’s 20-year nightmare on death row. Yet, they also are beneficiaries of another remarkable story: how a priest stood by the prisoner and helped lead him through his struggles.
Their friendship continues today, as the former prisoner works as the priest’s employee on parish grounds, trimming hedges, mowing the lawn and fixing broken plumbing.
SENTENCED TO DIE
On Sept. 24, 1988, a jogger found the body of Estel “Anthony” Klann, 19, in an Ohio creek bed. He was stabbed and his throat slit. D’Ambrosio was among the three men charged with the murder after one of the guilty men identified D’Ambrosio in exchange for a plea deal. Despite claims of innocence — D’Ambrosio hadn’t known the victim — a three-judge panel found him guilty on Feb. 21, 1989. At age 26 he was sentenced to die.
Enduring prison more than two decades, D’Ambrosio studied law books to learn how to make appeals and slept on a thin mattress atop a concrete slab. Isolated from fellow inmates, he felt hopeless until meeting a new friend. Father Kookoothe was planted there to save his life, D’Ambrosio would say many times later.
“I was counseling men on Ohio’s death row, and in December 1998, I had co-celebrated Joe’s mother’s funeral,” Father Kookoothe told attendees at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. “Two weeks later, I asked to visit Joe. I was there to tell him about his mother’s funeral, to be the eyes and ears for him — to tell him how many people were there, what she wore…”
Father Kookoothe, a diocesan priest at St. Clarence in North Olmsted, Ohio, oversees a parish of more than 2,300 families. He also continues to counsel men on death row. Until then, he resisted involving himself in individual legal cases as they were beyond the scope of his religious mission.
Since this was his first visitor in months, D’Ambrosio had to get the priest’s attention within moments.
“I said, ‘Thank you, but you have to help me,’” he recalled. “I asked him to just take my court file — just take my file,” D’Ambrosio added. “It’s only 500 pages.’ I told him I had the shortest death row trial in Ohio.’”
To Father Kookoothe, the 500 pages was a tip that something wasn’t right. Death row case files typically measure in feet, not inches.
Previous to entering the priesthood in 1995, Father Kookoothe attended seminary and was a practicing nurse as he put himself through law school. When he graduated, he practiced law briefly before becoming a priest.
“I was uniquely situated to help Joe out because of my medical background and law background,” he explained.
As Father Kookoothe poured through the court file, he spotted medical and legal discrepancies. But he had to be sure D’Ambrosio was telling him the truth. He went to visit him a second time.
‘I DIDN’T BELONG THERE’
“I looked him in the eye and asked, ‘Did you kill him? Because if I find out you are lying to me…’” Father Kookoothe recounted.
D’Ambrosio assured him he was telling the truth.
“I didn’t belong there,” he said. “I had never been in trouble before. Everyone, even other inmates, could tell I didn’t belong there.”
It would take nine years, world-class defense attorneys, spells of good luck, and bad in the efforts of an unyielding prosecutor between 1998 and 2007, when Joe finally walked free. Ultimately the case rested on information the prosecution withheld from the defense during the discovery phase of the trial.
“Everything we needed to prove my innocence was in the prosecution’s file, the police report and coroner’s files,” D’Ambrosio said. “But we weren’t allowed to see it.”
A new legal precedent was set due to this case. In Ohio, prosecutors now must disclose the kind of evidence that was withheld in D’Ambrosio’s case.
In 2010, a 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.
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.’”
Father Kookoothe spoke to his parish about his death row work through the years. He has personally helped about a dozen men come to terms with their death by state execution.
“Some are ready to die,” he said.
He also kept parishioners up on D’Ambrosio’s progress toward freedom. They’d heard so much about him that when D’Ambrosio finally was able to attend Mass, in 2007, people lined up around the building to shake his hand. The parish also presented him with a gift.
D’Ambrosio, now 55, holds up his wrist and shows the watch.
“The watch equals freedom,” he said. “And now it symbolizes how time is moving on.”
D’Ambrosio admits it’s difficult to retell every gruesome detail about the case over and over again. To do it, he has to put his mind back in the concrete block cell on death row. The priest lets him know that when it grows too much, he can quit the talk circuits. There’s also visiting old friends on death row. An execution is coming up, and D’Ambrosio’s friend wants him there to observe it.
“I’ll do it,” D’Ambrosio said. “I will keep talking too. I have to do it. This stuff is still happening in courts across the country. As long as there’s a death row, people need to keep hearing this story. And it is shocking to them.”
D’Ambrosio doesn’t sugarcoat the years or the bad luck.
“I lost 20 years of my life. I lost people I loved. The world changed, and I can’t get those years back,” he said. “I don’t have a family. I probably will never get married and have a family. It’s too late.”
What he has is his faith in God, his friendship with Father Kookoothe and the many parishioners at St. Clarence who befriended him. On the wages provided for his parish maintenance position, he supports himself in a small apartment 20 miles away and owns a pickup truck and a motorcycle.
Both D’Ambrosio and Father Kookoothe also continue to pray for the victim, the 19-year-old Estel Klann.
“He will never see justice,” Father Kookoothe said.
Looking back on the many turbulent years behind bars, D’Ambrosio said he is convinced that no other priest could have done for him what Father Kookoothe did.
“He had the right skill set. It was God’s providence that gave him to me,” D’Ambrosio said. “That’s how I see it.”
“People are ordained for a reason,” the priest added. “I can see my purpose, that God put me in that place (death row) to help these men.”