Death-row experience interweaves lives of priest, man he helped free

IMAGE: CNS photo/William Rieter

By Jerri Donohue

Father Neil Kokoothe first met Joseph D’Ambrosio on Ohio’s death row in
December 1998, he intended to describe the funeral of the condemned man’s

D’Ambrosio would not listen,
however. Another inmate had told him the priest had been a lawyer before
ordination. Now, D’Ambrosio pleaded for help with his case.

“It’s God’s providence,”
D’Ambrosio, a lifelong Catholic, said recently of Father Kokoothe’s unexpected entrance into his

A three-judge panel had
convicted D’Ambrosio of murder in 1989 after a trial that lasted less than
three days. No forensic evidence linked him to the crime and D’Ambrosio
insisted he had not killed teenager Anthony Klann.

Father Kokoothe hesitated to

“My ministry on death row
was never about getting involved in their cases,” he said. “I simply
wanted to companion some men who had been sentenced to death.”

He told D’Ambrosio he did not
have time to read thousands of pages of transcripts and appellate work. Father
Kokoothe was stunned when the convict informed him that his capital case filled
a single volume.

The priest read it, spotting
problems in the only witness account that placed D’Ambrosio at the crime scene.
Father Kokoothe knew, for example, that it was impossible for the victim to
scream for mercy with gaping stab wounds in his trachea. Not only was the priest
a lawyer, but he also had worked as a registered nurse for 15 years.

Father Kokoothe visited D’Ambrosio
a few weeks later. He promised to investigate — but only if the prisoner swore
he had nothing to do with the murder. Then he added another condition.

“He looked me dead in the
eye and said, ‘One little deceit and I’m through with you!'” D’Ambrosio

Father Kokoothe said that some
people ignore his background as an attorney and a nurse. They assume he
believes anyone claiming to be innocent.

“I think just the opposite
is the case,” he said. “I want empirical proof that this is true.”

For his part, D’Ambrosio longed
to clear his name.

“He knew that a new trial
and new evidence would win his freedom,” Father Kokoothe said in an
interview for Catholic News Service.

In his ensuing research, the
priest learned that Klann, the only witness in a rape trial, had been slain
before he could testify. The accused rapist was the same man who fingered D’Ambrosio
for Klann’s murder.

Father Kokoothe also discovered
that the prosecution had withheld crucial evidence from D’Ambrosio’s public

The priest enlisted the aid of
journalists who eventually publicized D’Ambrosio’s story. Still, the years
rolled by. Then another death-row inmate exhausted his appeals and he asked his
spiritual adviser, a minister, to help D’Ambrosio instead. The pastor contacted
a prestigious law firm and it agreed to work pro bono on D’Ambrosio’s case.

Meanwhile, Father Kokoothe
continued to support D’Ambrosio. The men are close in age, with both in their
mid-50s, but the priest developed a paternal attitude toward the prisoner.
Prior to a retrial, a judge ordered that D’Ambrosio be released on house
arrest. Father Kokoothe worried it would be cruel to give D’Ambrosio a taste of
freedom, however limited. If the case went against the defendant, he might
return to death row within months. Father Kokoothe advised him to stay in the
county jail.

D’Ambrosio rejected the

“One minute of freedom is
worth it,” he said. “I was living in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for 22 years!”

D’Ambrosio moved into a friend’s
apartment, leaving it only for medical appointments and meetings with his

Then, during a pre-trial
hearing, the prosecution revealed that it still had not shared all physical
evidence with D’Ambrosio’s defense team. A federal judge soon ordered D’Ambrosio’s
release, and she ruled that his conviction and sentence be expunged. He was
exonerated Jan. 23, 2012.

Prosecutors appealed her
decision. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

David Mills, a court-appointed
attorney who ultimately ensured that D’Ambrosio was released and not retried,
acknowledged Father Kokoothe’s pivotal role years earlier.

“He essentially started
everything in terms of overturning Joe’s conviction,” Mills said of the
priest. “By meeting with Joe and really listening, he got the ball

As a free man, D’Ambrosio no
longer needed an advocate, but his life had been on hold for two decades.

By that time, Father Kokoothe
was pastor of St. Clarence Parish in North Olmsted. Many parishioners had
corresponded with D’Ambrosio when he was in prison; some attended his court
proceedings. Nobody objected when the parish hired the self-described
jack-of-all-trades as a maintenance man.

Congregations of various
religious denominations as well as groups opposed to capital punishment often
invited D’Ambrosio and Father Kokoothe to relate their experience. When the two
finally spoke at St. Clarence, parishioners packed the church. They presented D’Ambrosio
with a watch engraved with the date of the Supreme Court decision that allowed
him to get on with life.

“It’s one of my most
cherished things,” D’Ambrosio said. “I’ve never felt more
unconditional love than I have in this parish. This is my family.”

In recent years, D’Ambrosio and
Father Kokoothe addressed federal public defenders in Arizona and Idaho, the
National Defense Investigators Association convention in San Diego and an anti-death penalty organization in London.

In this Year of Mercy, they will
make several presentations.

he sometimes speaks alone, D’Ambrosio said they work best as a team.

“It’s a brother-type
relationship,” D’Ambrosio said.

An incident last year
illustrated this.

“Death row is not a good
experience,” Father Kokoothe said. “If it were me, there would come a
time when I wanted to put it behind me, totally, and just move on.”

He asked D’Ambrosio when he
wanted to stop speaking about his ordeal.

Almost executed for a crime he
did not commit, D’Ambrosio did not need to reflect before answering.

“Not until the death
penalty is done,” he said.

– – –

Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article