Death-Row Inmate Ordered Retried or Freed

Friday, June 6, 2008
Damian G. Guevara
Plain Dealer Reporter

A Cleveland man who has spent nearly two decades on death row must be given a new trial or be let out of prison, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The three-judge panel agreed with a ruling made in 2006 by U.S. District Court Judge Kate O'Malley that Joe D'Ambrosio is entitled to a new trial because prosecutors withheld several pieces of crucial evidence that could have exonerated him.

Turning over the evidence would probably have resulted in a different verdict for D'Ambrosio, who was found guilty and sentenced to death after a trial in 1989, the court said in its opinion.

Supporters of D'Ambrosio, 47 hailed Thursday's decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and called on prosecutors to release him from a state prison near Youngstown.

"We're hoping the state does the right thing," said John Lewis, part of a team of lawyers from the firm of Jones Day that is representing D'Ambrosio for free. "In our view, the evidence that was withheld shows D'Ambrosio did not commit this crime."

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, through a representative, said he is still considering whether to appeal the decision or retry the case. "We're disappointed in the ruling," Mason said in the prepared statement.

D'Ambrosio says he was wrongly convicted for the 1988 murder of Tony Klann, 19. Klann was found dead in Doan Brook, stabbed in his chest and with his throat slashed.

Following a weeklong hearing in 2004, O'Malley ruled that prosecutors withheld 10 pieces of evidence that could have helped exonerate D'Ambrosio and should have been turned over to the defense under court rules.

In one instance, prosecutors did not tell D'Ambrosio's lawyer that the man who accused D'Ambrosio of the murder had his own motive for killing Klann. The man, Paul Lewis, was charged in a rape case in which Klann was the only witness.

Also, defense attorneys were not told that the two homicide detectives investigating the case believed Klann was killed elsewhere and then dumped in Doan Brook. That directly contradicted the testimony of Eddie Espinoza, the state's only eyewitness. Espinoza pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served a reduced sentence – 12 years – for his testimony.

"The most telling piece of evidence was from the police officers," John Lewis said. "These are police officers who came willingly to a hearing and testified that they did not believe the crime was committed where [Espinoza] said the crime occurred."

Shortly after Klann's body was found on Sept. 24, 1988, Paul Lewis pointed investigators to D'Ambrosio, Thomas "Michael" Keenan and Espinoza, who worked together landscaping.

The three were looking for Lewis because Keenan believed Lewis had stolen drugs from him. Espinoza later testified that they found Klann in Little Italy and forced him into their truck because they thought Klann could lead them to Lewis.

Espinoza testified during the 1989 trial that the men drove to Doan Brook, where Keenan slit Klann's throat and pushed him into the creek. Klann begged for his life and tried to escape, but D'Ambrosio caught him and killed him, Espinoza testified.

However, detectives said they found no blood on the creek bed, signs of struggle or tire marks leading to the creek.

At the time of the murder, Lewis faced charges for raping Klann's roommate. Klann was the only witness subpoenaed to testify against Lewis.

Ralph DeFranco, D'Ambrosio's lawyer in the murder trial, testified that prosecutors never told him about the rape case. Former Assistant County Prosecutor Carmen Marino knew about Lewis' rape case but did not inform DeFranco, as he was obligated to do, O'Malley said in her order two years ago for a new trial.

O'Malley said in that ruling that defense lawyers could have crafted a different strategy had they known about the case.

The appeals court Thursday upheld O'Malley's ruling and concurred that D'Ambrosio would probably not have been found guilty if the evidence had been turned over.

The state can ask that the ruling be reconsidered by the whole appellate court. The state can also petition the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither body is obligated to hear the case, John Lewis said.

D'Ambrosio is likely to remain jailed during the appeals process. He has remained in prison since O'Malley initially ruled in March 2006 that he deserved a new trial.