Return to Transcripts main page


Death Row Stories: The Tony Klann Murder

Aired March 23, 2014 - 21:00   ET


LEMON: Please get the very latest on But first the CNN original series, "DEATH ROW STORIES," it begins just moments from now right here on CNN. I'll see you back at 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

SUSAN SARANDON, NARRATOR: On this episode of DEATH ROW STORIES, a terrifying crime.

LEO ALLEN, FORMER HOMICIDE DETECTIVE: The victim was so innocent.

SARANDON: A condemned man fights for his life.

JOE D'AMBROSIO, EXONERATED OF MURDER: No matter how much I begged no, one listens to a convicted murderer.

SARANDON: Until a compassionate priest helps dig for the truth.

REV. NEIL KOOKOOTHE, PRIEST, ST. CLARENCE PARISH: My heart just dropped into the pit of my stomach. And I'm thinking, what else is here?

ALLEN: It's the biggest smoke screen I've ever seen in my life.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a body in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was butchered and murdered.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many people proclaim their innocence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this case there are a number of things that stink.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This man is remorseless.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He needs to pay for it with his life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The electric chair flashed in front of my eyes.

DAVID MILLS, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Get a conviction at all costs. Let the truth fall where it may.


REGINA BRETT, COLUMNIST, THE PLAIN DEALER: Cleveland is like a big small town. We have like one of everything you need. Little Italy has the houses almost stacked on top of each other so close. And it seems like everybody knows somebody that knows somebody. So for this to happen in Little Italy -- it was a horrible crime in the sense that it is a tight knit communicate where things don't happen like that.

SARANDON: At 1:30 on Saturday, September 24th, 1988, a jogger noticed something floating in Doan Creek. A narrow waterway that twists through Rockefeller Park in Cleveland, Ohio.

ALLEN: The case began when a jogger found the body of this poor young victim. Two other detectives handled the scene. Took a bunch of photographs, made a short report.

SARANDON: Detectives noticed immediately that the victim's neck was sliced open from ear to ear. The victim, a young male who appeared to be in his early 20s, also had three stab wounds in his chest and small cuts to his wrist and elbow. He was wearing no shoes and the only thing on him was $7. Found in his pocket. No weapons or blood were found at the scene.

ALLEN: The young man remained unidentified because he had no identification on him.

SARANDON: With no leads police were baffled by the case until two days after the body was found when they received a mysterious phone call from a man who claimed to have knowledge of the crime. Police asked if the caller could come in to help I.D. the body. That morning, Homicide Detective Leo Allen was at the morgue working on another case.

ALLEN: I got notified by the morgue personnel that a man was there who thought he could identify the young man that was found on Saturday. And that's how we got started.

SARANDON: The man who came to the morgue was Paul Lewis, widely known by his nickname Stoney, apparently because of his affinity for being high. Stoney identified the victim as his upstairs neighbor, Tony Klann.

MARTIN KUZ, JOURNALIST: Tony Klann was 19. Only a year earlier he had left home. His father told me that he had written a note in which he said, I emancipate myself. So this was I think a young man searching for his own identity.

SARANDON: Stoney Lewis had last seen Tony on Friday night drinking at a bar called Coconut Joe's. Tony was with three co-workers, Mike Keenan, 39, owner of a local business called Sunshine Landscaping, Eddie Espinoza, 26, the company's foreman, and another part-time employee, 27-year-old Joe D'Ambrosio.

Stoney Lewis said that before he left the bar he saw a series of heated arguments between Tony and Eddie Espinoza with Espinoza pushing Tony around and threatening him. According to Stoney, that was just the beginning.

ALLEN: A couple witnesses were sleeping at 3:00 Friday night, early Saturday morning. And they were awakened by loud noises, yelling, and they saw Joe, Mike and Eddie banging on doors, looking for Paul Lewis. And they had Tony Klann in the truck.

SARANDON: Apparently Mike Keenan, Eddie Espinoza and Joe D'Ambrosio were convinced that Stoney Lewis had stolen drugs from them and they were forcing Tony Klann to lead them to Stoney.

ALLEN: Tony had been crying. He looked like he had been beat a little bit. And they saw Joe D'Ambrosio with a knife to his throat. And this is all at 3:00 in the morning, Saturday morning.

SARANDON: Stoney Lewis' story was all detectives needed to hear.

ALLEN: We went up into Cleveland Heights and took five Cleveland Heights policemen with us. And we went to Joe D'Ambrosio's apartment, 1732 Coventry Road.

SARANDON: Eddie Espinoza answered the door and was placed under arrest. Next police searched for Joe.

D'AMBROSIO: First thing in the morning, the cops break in. I'm all the way in the back in the bathroom sitting on the toilet. All I see is the door fling open and I see two guys in plain clothes with guns pointing at me. And I'm like, what the heck is this?

SARANDON: Even without a warrant, police search Joe's apartment.

ALLEN: We did. We recovered three large knives and several other smaller items, some clothing and we confiscated all kinds of stuff that we found there.

SARANDON: A black pickup truck later determined to belong to Mike Keenan was parked in the driveway and impounded by police. Mike Keenan was arrested the following day. From there, things moved fast. At the station, Eddie Espinoza immediately began talking.

KUZ: Eddie Espinoza told a story about Mike Keenan and Joe D'Ambrosio forcing Tony Klann into Mike Keenan's pickup truck. They went around looking for Stoney Lewis. Stoney Lewis couldn't be found and evidently in frustration decided to kill Tony Klann.

ALLEN: Eddie's story is that they drove down by Doan Creek. Mike Keenan, the driver, got out of truck and were standing behind Anthony telling him, where is Stoney? Where is Stoney? And he kept saying, I don't know where he is. Keenan says put your head back. And that's when he come out with a 11-inch hunting knife and slit his throat. Pushed him into the creek and told Joe D'Ambrosio, finish the job.

SARANDON: At this point Espinoza said he heard Tony screaming for mercy crying out, please don't kill me.

ALLEN: Joe grabbed the knife. Jumped into the creek and put three big holes in that boy's chest. And killed him. That's Eddie Espinoza's story.

My partner and I both felt that this man was telling us the truth.

SARANDON: Based mainly on Espinoza's account police charged Mike Keenan and Joe D'Ambrosio with aggravated murder. Each would face the death penalty.

Joe's court appointed lawyer convinced him to waive his right to a jury trial.

D'AMBROSIO: I haven't a clue of the law. So whatever they said, I did.

SARANDON: The prosecution was handled by a tough veteran litigator named Carmen Marino.

CARMEN MARINO, FORMER ASSISTANT PROSECUTOR, CUYAHOGA COUNTY: Well, this case, from my standpoint, it was a job well done by the police officers. They investigate ad good case and brought in good witnesses. There was nothing in this case that I had to do that the police didn't already do. And that's rare.

SARANDON: At trial, the state's case hinged on Eddie Espinoza's eyewitness account of the murder and the testimony of Stoney Lewis. To defend himself, Joe took stand. But his only alibi was that he was home alone sleeping.

D'AMBROSIO: The prosecutor just tore me apart. You know. And my attorneys did absolutely nothing and that was it. The case was over. They found me guilty of this crime.

SARANDON: Joe was sentenced to death.

D'AMBROSIO: My trial was the shortest death penalty trial in Ohio's history. Two and three quarter days from let's start to you die. That's how fast it was.

SARANDON: Mike Keenan also received the death penalty. Eddie Espinoza got 15 years.

In March 1989, Joe D'Ambrosio arrived on death row at Lucasville Prison in southern Ohio. He maintained his innocence.

D'AMBROSIO: It's a nightmare. It's got to be a nightmare. And I have to wake up. I really, really do. And you don't wake up. And it just goes on. No matter who I wrote and how much I begged. No one listens to a convicted murderer. They all say they didn't do it.


SARANDON: In the fall of 1998, 10 years after Joe D'Ambrosio was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, his mother passed away. Joe was not allowed to leave death row. So a Catholic priest and former lawyer named Neil Kookoothe decided to attend her funeral on Joe's behalf.

KOOKOOTHE: I asked the corrections officer would you let me talk with Joe for just a few minutes, so I can walk him through his mother's funeral. And while Joe was very appreciative of it, it was obvious that my goal for that meeting and his goal were not the same.

D'AMBROSIO: A real human being I can talk to. I need help. Nobody will help me. I didn't do this.

KOOKOOTHE: And I was very resistant to doing that. I knew that these death row cases were immense cases. Five, 10, 15 volumes long.

D'AMBROSIO: So I'm, like, no, it's one volume big. It's all it is.

KOOKOOTHE: One volume?

D'AMBROSIO: That's where the attorney of him kicked in.

KOOKOOTHE: I was just stunned that a man could be brought to trial for his life and be convicted in the amount of space that it took to record that event was in one volume. And so I thought, whoa, something is not right.

SARANDON: In addition to being a priest and a lawyer, Neil was a registered nurse with 15 years experience in critical care.

BRETT: It's one of those, like, if you're a believer it's a God moment. A priest who was an RN and an attorney. Where did that come from? And he shows up right at Joe's cell.

KOOKOOTHE: The thing that struck me right away was the coroner's testimony. Anthony Klann had sustained a very significant and deep neck wound from ear to ear. That neck wound opened up two large holes in Anthony's trachea.

SARANDON: But at trial, state eyewitness Eddie Espinoza claimed he heard Tony Klann screamed for mercy after his throat had been split.

KOOKOOTHE: I work with trachea patients every day. So I knew, if you can find the hole in your trachea, you can plug it perhaps, you might be able to make a noise. It might sound something like this. And so there is no way that Anthony Klann could be running down a creek bed trying to plug two holes in his trachea so that he can scream for his life.

SARANDON: After visiting the crime scene, Father Neil had other suspicions about Espinoza's testimony.

KOOKOOTHE: Joe supposedly grabs the knife and goes after Anthony in the creek bed stabbing him. And yet there were no tire tracks or anything on the side of the creek. And so I thought, whoa, something is not right here.

SARANDON: Neil believed Espinoza had to be lying. But a witness who was lying did not necessarily mean Joe was telling the truth. Neil needed to know more about Joe's background.

KOOKOOTHE: Joe's father died when he was 17 years old. Joe is the only boy in the family. And so his father's death was very traumatic for him.

D'AMBROSIO: I had to become the bread winner. And as soon as I graduated I went right into the military. I was what they call a shade tree mechanic. I worked on everything from a jeep all the way to a 35,000 KW generator that used to launch missiles. I loved it.

SARANDON: Joe worked his way up to sergeant and was honorably discharged. But when he returned to the distressed economy of 1980s Rust Belt, Cleveland, Joe couldn't find work.

KOOKOOTHE: He thought he was a certified mechanic. I don't know what certification is in the military but people were telling him, you're not a certified mechanic.

SARANDON: In the spring of 1988, Joe moved into a basement apartment near Little Italy.

JOHN Q. LEWIS, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: He lived down in the Coventry area which at the time was, you know, something a lot of 20-somethings did. They were blue-collar workers and they partied a lot.

D'AMBROSIO: I wasn't an angel. I drank. I drank like a fish. Right across the street from where I was living was a bar called the Saloon. And I was in there throwing darts one day and Ed Espinoza, the foreman from (INAUDIBLE) came in and just threw out a general question, who needs a job. And he hired me as a landscaper plus home repair work. I started work the next day. September 1st. September 26th, I'm sitting in jail.

SARANDON: In contrast to Joe's story, Neil discovered that the man who put Joe on death row, Eddie Espinoza, had a very checkered past.

KUZ: Eddie Espinoza was someone who in court admitted that he was an alcoholic. Also a drug abuser, a welfare cheat, he was someone who was known to drink a 12 pack of beer, would follow that up with snorting cocaine and then follow that one tequila shots. But Eddie Espinoza had agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors. So his story became the prevailing narrative.

KOOKOOTHE: There is absolutely no motive here that would impel Joe D'Ambrosio to inflict harm upon Anthony Klann.

SARANDON: Given what he had learned so far, Neil was feeling that something had gone terribly wrong in the police investigation of Tony Klann's murder.

KOOKOOTHE: Stoney Lewis points his fingers and they stop focusing on any other person or any other circumstances that might literally take them away from their case solved.

LEWIS: Remember they had this crime solved according to them within a day. And so the investigation was only to gather evidence to support a theory that they already had.

SARANDON: But if Joe was indeed an innocent man on death row, Neil would have to figure out how to prove it.


D'AMBROSIO: I was so angry when I got locked up. I couldn't understand how this could happen. I must have been angry for months. And then one day, I was like, you know what, I'm sick and tired of this. I have to start learning the law. Because I knew if I went back for a retrial, I can prove that I didn't do this.

SARANDON: As Father Neil Kookoothe looked into Joe D'Ambrosio's case, he became suspicious that prosecutors had not told Joe's defense team everything they knew about the murder of Tony Klann.

KOOKOOTHE: I felt, you know, from the neck wound to the scene at the crime it seemed like at every other turn there was more that was being discovered.

SARANDON: Neil was also shocked to learn that in 1988, Ohio law did not require the state authorities to share all their evidence with defendants.

KOOKOOTHE: What would happen back in those days is that the prosecutor would look at their files and they would determine what to hand over or to reveal to the defense attorneys and that's what they would get.

BRETT: The Sixth Amendment, protects your right to an attorney, the right is no good if your attorney doesn't have the information.

SARANDON: In addition to Ohio's draconian discovery laws, Neil would also learn that the prosecutor in Joe's case, Carmen Marino, had his own controversial reputation.

MILLS: What Carmen Marino, there's 10 cases where he had been reprimanded by the courts. I summarized it as cheating to win. Get a conviction at all costs seemed to be the approach. And let the truth fall where it may.

SARANDON: In fact in the Tony Klann murder case, Marino was cited by the Ohio Supreme Court for prosecutorial misconduct in the trial of Joe's co-defendant, Mike Keenan.

MARINO: I gave a good closing argument. And I ended by taking this big bully knife. Stabbing it at the evidence desk. That's the prosecutorial misconduct that was alleged. And my argument was you're criticizing me for stabbing this knife in the desk when that was the knife that slashed this kid's throat when they murdered him? I said, you think that's the balance that should overturn the case? Well, it was.

SARANDON: Because of Marino's antics, Mike Keenan received a new trial. But once again he was convicted and received a death sentence.

By 2001 Joe D'Ambrosio had been on death row for over 12 years. His state appeals had all been rejected. His execution could come at any time.

LEWIS: Our legal system is just designed to make it very, very difficult to prove that someone did not commit a crime after they've already been convicted. You're talking, the most uphill of uphill battles. SARANDON: Father Neil was desperate to help prove Joe's innocence. But in order to get a new trial they had to find new evidence. So Neil took a new approach.

KOOKOOTHE: I thought, well, one of the things I need to do to get help is media attention. And one of the first media outlets that I got was the "Cleveland Scene" magazine.

KUZ: Neil Kookoothe came into the office just a couple of weeks after I joined the staff. Neil didn't oversell what he believed to be Joe's case of actual innocence. He came to me with pieces of the case that he felt were questionable.

SARANDON: Kuz interviewed dozens of witnesses and discovered information that Joe's defense didn't have at trial.

KUZ: I got in touch with the two detectives who first responded to this case. And confirmed my instinct that there was more to the story than had previously been told.

The human body holds eight to 10 pints of blood. When Tony's body was found, he had two pints of blood left. Yet there was no blood or forensic evidence of any kind along the river bank. Based in part on that, the two detectives were adamant that Tony Klann had been murdered elsewhere. Not at the river bank as Eddie Espinoza had claimed.

If the location of the murder is different from what the key prosecution witness is claiming, that's a pretty big discrepancy. But the lead detective on the case, Leo Allen, didn't visit the riverbank until four or five days after the murder.

ALLEN: We're involved in other cases. It's not the only case we have. My goodness. We had -- all kinds of work to do. So there was no reason for my partner and I actually to go back there to see what we could see. But we did go back there just to see where the heck it happened.

SARANDON: The two original detectives were never called to testify at Joe's trial.

LEWIS: The prosecutor suggested a defense trial counsel that they didn't need to talk to anybody else except Detective Allen which is pretty suspicious conduct, trying to keep the views of the officers first on the scene away from defense counsel.

SARANDON: Kuz also reported about the lack of physical evidence in the case.

KUZ: You had no forensic evidence, blood, tissue, hair on the knife that was supposedly used that killed Tony Klann. You had no blood that was found in the pickup truck. You had no blood on Mike Keenan's clothes or Joe D'Ambrosio's clothes. That's a lot of question marks.

SARANDON: Kuz's article also highlighted a discrepancy in Eddie Espinoza's story about which night the murder took place. KUZ: There were question marks about when the murder occurred. Whether it was Thursday night or Friday night. Tony Klann had been with Mike Keenan and Joe D'Ambrosio for a short time. A manager from Coconut Joe's had told me, he remembered those guys being there Thursday night when the bar held its tequila shot night. But not on Friday night.

SARANDON: But late Friday night was when the state had argued the murder took place.

KOOKOOTHE: There's evidence of testimony that they're all drinking Thursday night. And the state tried to take two days and put them into one.

KUZ: How can you, based on that information, convict two men and sentence them to die?

SARANDON: Kuz's article was a turning point in Joe's case.

KOOKOOTHE: It was the seminal story that began to unravel things and to cause people to look deeper.

SARANDON: But the most explosive bombshell would come from Kuz's conversation with Tony Klann's father Richard. Someone the police had neglected to thoroughly interview.

KUZ: He shared something with me that I had heard no one else mentioned.


SARANDON: As journalist Martin Kuz was researching his article about inmate Joe D'Ambrosio, he was finally able to make contact with murder victim's father, Richard.

KUZ: Richard and I spoke on the phone. And it was a long conversation. By time we actually finished, I was the last person in the office.

SARANDON: Richard Klann gave Kuz a fuller portrait of his son Tony who along with his sister had been adopted.

RICHARD KLANN, VICTIM'S FATHER: They had been into foster homes a couple of times. And so we did everything we could to help the kids be comfortable and safe where we lived.

SARANDON: Growing up, a learning disability had made things difficult for Tony.

KLANN: Because of all the teasing and the other things that went on in his early life, he didn't fit in real well.

SARANDON: Tony barely finished high school. But in late August, 1988, he told his dad he wanted to start a lawn mowing business.

KLANN: I was going to help him with that. I was going to help him get a truck. Well, he never called me that weekend. And I found out on Monday that he had been killed on Friday. It was the coldest day in my life.

KUZ: As we covered all of this ground he shared something with me that I had heard no one else mentioned. He said that Tony Klann had told him, Richard, that he had witnessed a rape in the apartment building where he lived.

KLANN: I understood that there was going to be a trial and Tony was going to be a witness for that.

KUZ: After we hung up, I felt like I needed to share that information with Neil.

KOOKOOTHE: Martin told me that. And I went down to the Justice Center. I pulled Anthony Klann's file. And I discovered that he indeed had witnessed a rape and that the rape victim was a young man by the name of Christopher Longenecker.

You don't really hear about male-on-male rape all that often. And to me that suggests a whole other degree of violence. But then it went a step further because it was that the man who had been arrested and raped was Stoney Lewis.

SARANDON: The same Stoney Lewis who had first tipped off police that Joe, Keenan and Espinoza might be the ones responsible for Tony's murder.

KOOKOOTHE: My heart just dropped into the pit of my stomach. And I'm thinking, oh, my God, the deceased in this case has witnessed a rape. And the rapist is the man who is pointing his finger at other men.

SARANDON: But if Neil was able to connect these two cases in an afternoon, why hadn't police and prosecutors done the same?

KOOKOOTHE: The prosecutor of Joe's case was Carmen Marino. And it turned out that the prosecutor of the rape case was Carmen Marino. At the same time. So it doesn't take too much to ask that you put two and two together.

MARINO: Yes, I didn't -- I didn't see any connection. Who would murder him for what reason? Contrary to what you may hear, it is truly extraordinary that someone would murder another witness to keep them from testifying.

SARANDON: But to Joe D'Ambrosio's defense team, it seemed very connected.

LEWIS: Tony Klann was the only eyewitness that was called by either side for that trial. The only eyewitness suddenly ends up killed and the case goes away. To us, that was a far better motive and opportunity than the prosecution had theorized.

SARANDON: In order to prove their theory, Joe's team would need to interview the alleged rape victim. But Chris Longenecker had vanished without a trace. The new discoveries in Joe's case caught the attention of one of the most prominent law firms in town, Jones Day, which agreed to fight for Joe on a pro bono basis.

D'AMBROSIO: It was like night and day. It went from I have two appeals left and then they're going to murder me to now I have Neil and all these resources from the world's third largest law firm backing me up.

SARANDON: Armed with the fact that prosecutor Carmen Marino had withheld information, Joe's team submitted a sweeping discovery request to the federal district court.

KOOKOOTHE: To me just seemed like a logical question. What else is in there?

SARANDON: Meanwhile, the alleged rape victim, the only person who could corroborate what Tony Klann had witnessed was finally located living in Florida. And it would be up to Neil to convince him to testify.


SARANDON: Thirteen years after Joe D'Ambrosio had been sentenced to death, Federal Judge Kathleen O'Malley finally granted Joe's defense team access to all police and prosecutor files related to his case.

D'AMBROSIO: They turned over a stack of paper like a foot and a half thick.

SARANDON: It was the first major judgment to go Joe's way since he'd been convicted.

LEWIS: The way to get a new trial was to show that a constitutional violation had occurred. In other words, the failure to turn over exculpatory evidence. Evidence that tended to prove that he was innocent. Would have mattered to a jury.

D'AMBROSIO: I took every page and I went through line by line.

SARANDON: Some of the most compelling evidence concerns Stoney Lewis, including police reports about suspicious activity at Stoney's apartment the morning Tony Klann was killed.

D'AMBROSIO: The lady that lived next door to Stoney heard a loud violent argument on, get this, Saturday morning. She called the police. They hid that from us.

MILLS: There's witness statements again in police and prosecutor files that I think it was an older couple said they heard someone say, let's dump the body in the basement.

SARANDON: Joe and his lawyers believed that at the very least the withheld evidence provided reasonable doubt that the crime could have happened differently than the state presented at trial. In July 2004, Joe's team went before Judge O'Malley to obtain a new trial. D'AMBROSIO: We put up all our witnesses. The newly discovered people, the newly discovered evidence.

SARANDON: By far the most powerful witness at the hearing was Chris Longenecker, Stoney Lewis's alleged rape victim, who had been found living in Florida. Neil convinced Chris that his testimony could save Joe's life.

CHRISTOPHER LONGENECKER, VICTIM'S ROOMMATE: I wasn't able to do anything for Tony because -- and so I figured, if I could help someone else, then I'll do that.

SARANDON: Chris who is legally blind and was born with a physical disability on the left side of his body was 22 years old and Tony Klann's roommate back in 1988. He told the court what happened one evening when he was hanging around with his downstairs neighbor, Stoney Lewis.

LONGENECKER: We went back to his place to hang out. And decided to make something to eat, I guess. And he started pressing up against me and crap. And I was like, dude, what the hell are you doing? I told him I wasn't into that. And he was a little bit more threatening. He started pulling my hair. And some hands on stuff. And -- and so that happened and then there was some fair issues there from the fact he had a firearm in his apartment. And the whole time that I was being assaulted, I told him, this is not consensual. This is rape.

SARANDON: Chris says that just after the rape, Tony Klann showed up at Stoney's apartment.

LONGENECKER: There was a knock at his door. It was Tony Klann. And then I left when Tony left. Because I figured that was my way out. I told him that Paul Lewis raped me. And sort of freaked out a little bit. And then I went to the police department and filed a report.

SARANDON: Soon after, Stoney was arrest and indicted for reportedly raping Chris. He spent a few weeks in jail before being released on bond. But when it was time for Stoney's pretrial hearing, Chris missed the court date.

LONGENECKER: And I misread the court date or memorized the wrong date. And -- so I called them. And that's when they told me that I was a day late. And that Paul Lewis went free.

SARANDON: After Tony's murder, Chris called the police and mentioned the connection to the earlier rape case.

LONGENECKER: I never accused Paul Lewis of murdering Tony Klann. I just told someone of authority that all the people in both cases know one another. But I guess they paid no attention to that.

LEWIS: When you hear Chris Longenecker tell the story about what happened to him and who Paul Lewis really is based on that event, then you start to imagine that this is a guy who could have orchestrated this type of crime.

SARANDON: Following the hearing, Joe felt good about his chances of getting a new trial. But the decision would not come quickly.

D'AMBROSIO: Two years. Judge O'Malley took two years to rule.

SARANDON: Finally in March 2006, the judge released her decision.

D'AMBROSIO: She overturned my case. She granted me my retrial, what I've wanted all along. I wanted my day in court.

LEWIS: She said, look, no reasonable jury would have convicted him if it had heard this evidence.

KOOKOOTHE: When that ruling finally comes out, I mean, such elation. You know, the combination of 15 years of pleading and searching for the truth because Joe always said, the evidence will prove that I didn't kill Anthony Klann.

SARANDON: Carmen Marino who retired in 2002 strongly disagreed with the decision.

MARINO: I'm disappointed. You got to understand, it's disappointment from the standpoint that those cases were well tried. In my considered opinion, there is a very limited trialability on many judges. They don't understand the full dynamic either of investigating a criminal case or trying a criminal trial.

SARANDON: Marino also disputed that he withheld evidence.

MARINO: We strictly followed the Ohio law. If it was in my file, they saw it or heard in addition to what the law required us to give them. I gave them copies of everything that they're entitled to.

SARANDON: Like Marino, the state of Ohio stood firm.

D'AMBROSIO: And of course, after she gave it to me, they appealed it. So I had my retrial. But I couldn't go nowhere.

SARANDON: The prosecutor's office began preparing for another trial. Convinced they could reconvicted Joe and put him to death once and for all.


SARANDON: By 2009, Joe D'Ambrosio's murder conviction had been overturned by a federal judge. But since the state chose to retry him, Joe still sat on death row, waiting.

BRETT: The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office wanted to preserve a conviction, which is typical of many prosecutor's offices. No matter what evidence you give them to the contrary, they will do everything to protect that conviction.

SARANDON: In February 2009, pretrial hearings began presided over by Judge Joan Synenberg.

HON. JUDGE JOAN SYNENBERG, CUYAHOGA COUNTY COMMON PLEAS COURT: By the time the case landed in my courtroom, someone had been sitting on death row for over two decades. This is very serious. Because of mistakes that were made, a process was flawed. All I wanted to do was make sure that the process was fair.

SARANDON: But just days before the trial was to begin, prosecutors disclosed they had found additional evidence in their files.

LEWIS: Despite having a federal court order, in fact there was physical evidence that had not been turned over to Joe's trial council, not only in 1988, but in this particular proceeding itself.

KOOKOOTHE: It was a circus. And I'm sitting out there watching it in total disbelief, total disbelief.

SARANDON: The sudden release of new evidence would delay Joe's retrial even more. So Joe's attorneys petitioned the court for bail.

SYNENBERG: The state of Ohio said, it would be unheard of for a judge to let a man off of death row on bond, and I said, I agree. He's not on death row. He stands convicted of nothing and based on what seemed to be extensive community support, I set a bail.



ALLEN: Judge Synenberg lets him out of jail on a $50,000 bond with a leg brace. That, to me, is the most appalling thing anyone could ever do.

SARANDON: Joe was released on house arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any thoughts about what it feels like to be out? None at all?

D'AMBROSIO: No comment.


SARANDON: For the first time in 20 years, Joe would go to sleep some place other than an eight-by-ten jail cell.

D'AMBROSIO: Prison is always noise, 24/7. Never silence. Never dark. For half my life. So to sit in utter silence is amazing because that's what I used to do when I was at the house. I would turn off the lights and sit in utter silence for hours.

SARANDON: But there was still one more battle to go. As Joe's retrial was finally about to start, news broke that Eddie Espinoza had died of liver failure. Espinoza had served only 12 years in prison before being set free. Despite losing their star witness, the state asked the court to admit into evidence Espinoza's testimony from 1988.

SYNENBERG: I said, no, because Mr. D'Ambrosio would have not had his constitutional right to confront someone who's not there. I didn't see any reason to permit testimony from years ago in a process that was already tainted. SARANDON: The state pursued the case for seven more months, but without Espinoza's testimony, they had little against Joe.

Finally, in March 2010, Judge Synenberg dismissed all charges and ordered that Joe be released from house arrest.

BRETT: Joe D'Ambrosio is free. And should exonerate him. Look at his record, it's gone.

D'AMBROSIO: And with that, case is over. They can never put me back in jail for this.

SARANDON: The original prosecution team was outraged with the court's decision.

MARINO: You know, some things just don't go the way they ought to in terms of equity and justice. The case hasn't changed in 25 years. It is not going to change. They're the ones that murdered this innocent guy.

ALLEN: It's the biggest smoke screen I've ever seen in my life. The judge is bought.

SARANDON: After his exoneration, Joe went to work as a maintenance man at Neil's parish, the Church of St. Clarence in North Olmstead, Ohio.

D'AMBROSIO: The state did absolutely positively nothing for me because I'm an exonoree. I'm the sixth in Ohio history and 148th in the United States to be exonerated. They do nothing for us. Nothing at all. They open the door, they kick you out, get out.

Everything that I fought for, for this country was taken from me. Every last single right, for day near 80 percent of my adult life.

SARANDON: Joe knows that he owes his freedom and his life to one man.

D'AMBROSIO: If it wasn't for Neil, I would have been murdered 10 years ago, easily, and the state wouldn't have batted an eye.

KOOKOOTHE: It was just a matter of, I think, common human decency and a matter of justice. I was astonished at how far wrong the system can go. And how slow it works. And how much is at stake.

SARANDON: Joe and Neil travel around Ohio speaking out against the death penalty.

KOOKOOTHE: I started finding out the things that he was telling me could be independently verified.

D'AMBROSIO: That I'm here is a blessing from God. I prayed for him to end this nightmare. I wanted it right then and there, but he answered my prayers. It just took 22 years. That's all.