CLEVELAND - A former Ohio death row inmate is a free man after a judge dismissed a murder charge against him in the 1988 stabbing death of a man found dead in a brook in a Cleveland park.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg ordered Joe D'Ambrosio released without conditions Friday, two days after a federal judge ruled he cannot be retried because a key witness has died. The state is appealing that decision.
Several judges have ruled that D'Ambrosio likely would not have been convicted if prosecutors had not improperly withheld from defense attorneys evidence that could have exonerated him.
"Mr. D'Ambrosio, you are free," Synenberg said, after noting that prosecutors had several time tried to turn her courtroom into a "circus."
"Although perhaps not swift, justice did prevail," she said.
D'Ambrosio, 48, spent more than 21 years incarcerated for the death of Tony Klann, whose body was found in Rockefeller Park's Doan Brook on Sept. 24, 1988, by a jogger. He was released on house arrest a year ago pending retrial and has denied the crime.
Following Friday's court hearing, D'Ambrosio hugged supporter in court, then had an electronic monitoring bracelet removed from his ankle at a probation office, shaking the hand of a guard as he left.
A second defendant, Michael Keenan, also was convicted and remains on death row pending appeal.
A third man, Edward Espinoza, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and testified against the other men. He served 12 years in prison, was released in 2001 and died last year.
In her Wednesday ruling O'Malley writes that "to fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice."Indeed, it would pervert those interests."
O'Malley ruled that D'Ambrosio could not be given a fair trial because he would be unable to cross examine and otherwise challenge Espinoza's story with the evidence that had been withheld.
O'Malley had overturned D'Ambrosio's conviction in 2006 and, in 2008, ordered he be released unless prosecutors retried.
She had expunged his record in April and, before learning of Espinoza's death said he could still be retried.
The Rev. Neil Kookoothe, a Catholic priest who looked into D'Ambrosio's case in 1998, attended the court hearing, and hugged attorney Joe Bodine, who once represented D'Ambrosio, when the charge was dismissed.
"I would be dumbfounded if Judge O'Malley's opinion were reversed," Bodine said. "That was a work of art."
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