On death row for 20 years, Joseph D’Ambrosio could be out of jail later this week.
The decision Tuesday by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg to set D’Ambrosio’s bond at $50,000 outraged prosecutors but was a relief to D’Ambrosio’s supporters, who believe their friend has been denied a fair trial and wrongly imprisoned.
D’Ambrosio must post $5,000—10 percent of his bond, which is standard—to get out of jail. Supporters are raising money and working out details of where he will live.
Then he will remain under house arrest, with an electronic bracelet strapped to his ankle, until the conclusion of the new trial he has been demanding for years. D’Ambrosio will once again face charges that he killed 19-year-old Tony Klann in 1988 and dumped his body in Doan Brook.
The trial is scheduled to begin Monday but might get postponed, lawyers said.
“This is unbelievable,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason said. “A week before trial and the judge lets him out. The facts of the case have been tried three times and each time the defendants were sentenced to the death penalty. This is appalling.”
Ronald Frey, a board member for the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the ruling - and new trial - are appropriate.
“While the allegations are obviously of the most severe sort, the man has been afforded a new trial. As such, he is presumed innocent,” Frey said.
D’Ambrosio, 48, and a friend were convicted in 1989 of killing Klann in Cleveland Heights by slashing his throat and stabbing him in the chest. Both D’Ambrosio and Thomas Keenan were sentenced to death.
A federal judge ruled in 2006 that prosecutors withheld 10 key pieces of evidence from D’Ambrosio and his lawyers that might have exonerated him in the original case. U.S. District Judge Kate O’Malley ordered a new trial.
Mason appealed, but an appeals court upheld the federal court ruling.
In the process, D’Ambrosio’s case became a rallying point for those who call for “open discovery,” where prosecutors must turn over all their statements, interviews and other evidence to defendants.
But Mason remains confident that prosecutors have enough evidence to once again convict D’Ambrosio.
Prosecutors argued Monday that D’Ambrosio should remain in jail because he had been convicted and is a flight risk. They also argued, according to Synenberg, that giving bail to a person on death row is unheard of.
Synenberg was not convinced.
“Mr. D’Ambrosio is not on death row,” she snapped at prosecutors Tuesday, citing the recent court rulings that questioned the conviction.
The state constitution mandates bail unless proof of guilt is evident and there is a presumption of guilt, Synenberg said. Because O’Malley ruled D’Ambrosio would not likely have been convicted if evidence had not been withheld, she said neither of those conditions apply and he is constitutionally entitled to bail.
Assistant County Prosecutor Mark Mahoney noted that D’Ambrosio’s new bond was significantly lower than the $200,000 bond set for the first trial in 1989.
D’Ambrosio was led out of court back to the Cuyahoga County Jail without any comment. His lawyer Jeffry Kelleher praised Synenberg for a “very appropriate decision.”
“There’s going to be no misadventures after he’s released,” Kelleher said.
Before D’Ambrosio is let out of jail, his lawyer and supporters must resolve where he will live until his new trial is concluded.
He applied for bail with plans to live with the Rev. Neil Kookoothe, pastor at St. Clarence Catholic Church in North Olmsted. Kookoothe ministers to death row inmates.
Synenberg ruled D’Ambrosio must remain under Kookoothe’s supervision but Kelleher asked the judge to adjust her ruling. The Diocese of Cleveland could object to D’Ambrosio living on church property, Kelleher said.
Kookoothe attended the hearing but declined to talk afterward. A spokesman for the diocese declined to say if the church would object to D’Ambrosio living in the St. Clarence rectory.
Kelleher proposed instead having D’Ambrosio stay with Rosalie Lee, a Parma widow whose daughter contacted D’Ambrosio by mail when he was in prison. She traveled with her daughter to visit him in prison every week and remains D’Ambrosio’s friend.
“I call him son and he calls me mom,” said Lee. “He’s a very good person.”
D’Ambrosio’s parents are both dead.
Synenberg declined to grant that change. Kelleher will have to apply again, then the county bond commissioner has a chance to visit Lee’s apartment and determine if it is suitable.
Kelleher said they would probably wait to post bond until the judge approves Lee’s apartment.
“We’re not going to post bond just to have him walk into a problem,” he said.