CLEVELAND – It’s that morning cup of coffee.
It slips on your shoes… or hugging your mother.
It means getting your hands dirty doing something you love.
Nobody tells you what to do every second of every day.
In 1989, Joe D’Ambrosio was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit.
He spent 22 years of his life on death row.
“80% of my adult life was in there, 80%,” he said.
It was the shortest death penalty trial in Ohio history.
“Two and three quarter days, from ‘Let’s begin’ to ‘You die,'” D’Ambrosio said.
Then, thirteen years ago, after two decades of protesting his innocence, fighting his case and begging for someone to listen, these words came out in a crowded courtroom:
“The judge said, ‘Mr. D’Ambrosio you are free’ and my whole body tingled and then it went numb because it was like it was over. And then I’m like no…no, it’s not.”
No it is not. Because what comes next is real life – where you live, where you work. Figuring out how to survive in a world you haven’t belonged to in decades.
“Mobile phones used to be the size of car batteries and had to be slung over the shoulder. Computers used to be the size of rooms on punch cards, the World Wide Web didn’t exist, the Berlin Wall was still there,” said D’Ambrosio.
Twenty-six when he walked in and now sixty, D’Ambrosio is one of the lucky ones.
One of the reasons for his release is that Father Neil Kookoothe was listening.
“It was a mixture of hope and despair and wondering how this would all turn out,” recalls Father Neil.
Father Neil has been a priest at St Clarence Church in North Olmsted for twenty years. Before that he was a lawyer and before that a nurse in the intensive care unit. All three professions came together to help him help D’Ambrosio.
He spent a decade investigating D’Ambrosio’s case and helping him clear his name and get his life back.
But Neil wants to point out: He didn’t free D’Ambrosio. This credit goes to attorneys who have volunteered for years.
“And what really freed Joe was the evidence,” Neil said.
There were five janitors at the church when Father Neil met D’Ambrosio on death row.
With everyone leaving due to attrition, Neil never filled the positions.
He was waiting for D’Ambrosio to give him a job when he got out.
“You set people up for failure as soon as they walk through that door, and then when they fail, you rejoice because you’re like, ‘Look, we got it right.'” Neil said.
“I had an apartment, I had a job, I had people to support me — most guys coming off death row don’t have that,” D’Ambrosio said.
And that support made all the difference.
According to The Innocence Project, a conservative estimate is that 1% of people in prisons in the United States are wrongfully convicted.
That’s 20,000 innocent people sitting in cells.
The National Registry of Exonerations lists 3,299 exonerations since 1989 – more than 28,000 years lost.
“I come into an unknown world because I haven’t lived it,” said Michael Sutton.
Sutton was 18 when he went to prison – jailed for 15 years – for a crime he did not commit.
In 2021, Sutton was finally released — and in September 2022, in a case followed by so many, a jury acquitted him at a retrial.
“When the cameras go out and the lights go out, I’m still just… you know? Battle. And it’s not fair,” Sutton said.
“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare to live,” said Justin Herdman, former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Herdman worked on Sutton’s case with the Ohio Innocence Project.
Herdman has spent most of his career on the other side as a prosecutor – and said the experience was like no other he’s had.
“I feel like it’s really changed my perspective on what’s possible in the criminal justice system, and not in a positive way,” he said.
It’s possible, he says, and what he’s convinced of is that others are in state prisons for crimes they didn’t commit.
“And maybe it’s naive for people to hear that from me because I just didn’t experience it when I was a prosecutor. I didn’t see it when I was a prosecutor,” Herdman said. “Most prosecutors and most police officers serve very honestly and do the right thing, but there are obviously instances where that doesn’t happen and decisions are made for the wrong reasons and in some cases outright misconduct.”
Sutton said he deals with night terrors every night — the trauma of prison, the case, the trials and appeals, a life lost.
He now works six days a week making cabinets and countertops. His very first job, at the age of 35, started adult life from scratch.
“You don’t want to think about the things you could have that you don’t have now,” Sutton said. “I had a full drive to college. I could have been anything in this world. I could have gone to college to be president.”
But sticking to the “what ifs” and the “maybes” — that’s not how Sutton said he was raised by his mother, the woman who was his voice outside prison walls every second he was behind bars.
For Sutton, it’s his family — mom, dad, sisters, nieces, nephews — who help him every step of the way.
And next year a new chapter of his life begins. He will be a father.
“I’ve always wanted to be one,” he said, smiling ear to ear.
Sutton has been a free man for months.
D’Ambrosio, a free man for years.
Lives lost to a system they treated like animals.
And yet no one finds comfort in anger.
“I look forward to the future, I look forward to all the unknowns that are coming, the blessings, everything,” Sutton said.
“You have to put it behind you somehow, you can’t be bitter because then they win again and they’ve won enough of me,” D’Ambrosio said. “It’s time for me to have myself. So I just enjoy every day and live life to the fullest.”
Note from Reporter Homa Bash:
I’ve interviewed many Exonorees throughout my career.
Some are freed and live their lives in the shadows. They work through the trauma in silence or end up back in jail because that’s all they know.
And some, like Michael and Joe, take their experience and hope it helps others.
Joe and Father Neil travel across the country and talk about why abolishing the death penalty is so important.
Joe was three days away from being executed for a crime he did not commit.
Michael wants to share his story specifically with high schoolers – at the age he was incarcerated.
A recent study by the American Psychological Association digs deeper into the trauma and mental health of those wrongfully convicted — the uphill struggle they face when it comes to discrimination at home or in the workplace, and more.