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Op-Ed by Death Row Exoneree Joe D'Ambrosio Calls on Ohio to Abolish Death Penalty My wrongful conviction shows why Ohio should abolish the death penalty: Joe D'Ambrosio

By: Joe D'Ambrosio

January 19, 2022

CLEVELAND -- It has been ten years since my official exoneration from Ohio’s death row. On Jan. 23, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s appeal against me. I was finally free.

I wish I could say that – in these ten years – the legal system has been fixed and that what happened to me will never happen again. But since my exoneration, five more people have been exonerated from Ohio’s death row, all from Cuyahoga County. Eleven people total have been wrongfully sentenced to death in our state.

To this day, I am still shocked at the time and resources wasted by Cuyahoga County to pursue a death sentence for an innocent man. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised – Cuyahoga County is tied for second in the nation for wrongful capital convictions since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

When you’re an innocent man on trial for your life, you think that the legal system will protect you. I was so naive.

I remember going through the trial and thinking, “Surely the judges will see they’ve got the wrong guy.” The whole ordeal was a nightmare I couldn’t wrap my head around. The truth is, the prosecutors knew I was an innocent man – they had all the facts in front of them the entire time. Yet they were relentless. I was sentenced to death after only a three-day trial.

Can you imagine?

Once you’re convicted, the doors to freedom start slamming shut one by one. The horrifying truth is, were it not for a truly extraordinary set of circumstances, I probably would have been executed. I was saved because a Catholic priest, who also happened to have legal and nursing degrees, reluctantly agreed to read my trial transcripts. After reading the impossible version of events offered by the prosecution, he decided to help me.

The system simply isn’t set up to catch mistakes, and my case is not the only example. Most exonerations come only because of the extraordinary efforts of people working outside the system – pro-bono lawyers, family members, even students.

Though I am legally a free man, the shadow of this ordeal will follow me for the rest of my life. It was hard to secure a job after my release. After all, how was I supposed to explain a 20-year gap on my resume?

Before my conviction, I had done everything right. I served my country faithfully in the Army and was honorably discharged. I was employed. I had never been in trouble with the law before. If this could happen to me, it could happen to you or someone you love. Unfortunately, our system is not always about the pursuit of justice, but the pursuit of convictions.

This year, the Ohio General Assembly is taking a serious look at two bills that would end the death penalty in our state. Getting rid of the death penalty would mean getting rid of the possibility that Ohio could ever execute an innocent person.

And let’s face it, Ohio has gotten it wrong too many times already. I’m hopeful that 2022 can be the year we get rid of the death penalty for good and protect innocent life in Ohio.


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