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The Wrongfully Convicted: What happens after they are freed?

Exonorees cite lack of support from system that wrongfully locked them up
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Posted at 5:19 PM, Nov 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-22 19:10:37-05

CLEVELAND — It’s that morning cup of coffee.

It’s slipping on your shoes.. or giving your mom a hug.

It’s getting your hands dirty doing something you love.

No one telling you what to do every second of every day.

It is freedom.

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's history.

“Two and three-quarter days, from ‘let’s start’ to ‘you die.’” D’Ambrosio said.

Then, thirteen years ago, after two decades of proclaiming his innocence, fighting his case and begging for someone to listen, came these words in a packed courtroom:

“The judge said, ‘Mr. D’Ambrosio, you are free,’ and my whole body tingled and then it went numb, cause it's like, it’s over. And then I’m like, it’s not.”

No. it’s not. Because what comes next is real life — where to live, where to work. Figuring out how to survive in a world you haven’t been a part of for decades.

“Cell phones used to be the size of car batteries, had to sling them over your shoulders. Computers used to be the size of rooms on punchcards, the world wide web didn’t exist, the Berlin Wall was still up,” D’Ambrosio said.

Twenty-six years old when he went in, and sixty years old now, D’Ambrosio is one of the lucky ones.

One of the reasons he was released is because Father Neil Kookoothe listened.


“It was a combination of hope and despair and wondering how it would all play out,” Father Neil recalls.

Father Neil has been the priest at St. Clarence Church in North Olmsted for twenty years. Before that, he was a lawyer, and before that, he was a critical care nurse. All three professions came together, to help him help D’Ambrosio.

He spent a decade investigating D’Ambrosio's case, helping him clear his name and get his life back.

But Neil wants to emphasize: he didn’t free D’Ambrosio. That credit goes to attorneys who worked pro bono for years.

“And what really freed Joe was the evidence,” Neil said.

There were five maintenance workers at the church when Father Neil met D’Ambrosio on death row.

As each one left, through attrition, Neil never filled the positions.

He was waiting for D’Ambrosio, to give him a job when he got out.


“You’re setting people up for failure the minute they walk out that door and then you rejoice when they fail because you say, ‘see we got it right.’” Neil said.

“I had a place to live, I had work, I had people to support me — most of the guys that come 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 the people in the United States prison population are falsely convicted.

That’s 20,000 innocent people sitting in cells.

The National Registry of Exonerations cites 3,299 exonerations since 1989 - more than 28,000 years lost.

“I’m coming to a world of unknown because I haven’t lived it,” said Michael Sutton.

Sutton was 18 years old when he went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit — locked up for 15 years.

In 2021, Sutton was finally released — and in September 2022, in a case followed by so many, a jury acquitted him in a retrial.

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“When the cameras and the lights go away, I’m still just.. you know? Struggling. And it ain’t fair,” Sutton said.

“That’s a nightmare, it’s living a nightmare,” said Justin Herdman, former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Herdman, along with the Ohio Innocence Project, worked on Sutton's case.

Herdman spent the bulk of his career on the other side as a prosecutor — saying this experience was like none other he’s ever had.

“I feel like it really did change my perspective on what is possible, and not in a positive way, on what is possible in the criminal justice system,” he said.

What’s possible, he says, and what he’s convinced of, is that there are others sitting in state prisons right now for crimes they did not 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 did not see it when i was a prosecutor,” Herdman said. “Most prosecutors and most police officers serve very honorably and they do the right thing, but there are obviously occasions where that doesn’t happen and decisions get made for the wrong reasons and there is outright misconduct in some cases.”

Sutton said he deals with night terrors every night — the trauma of prison, of the case, of the trials and appeals, of a life lost.

He now works six days a week making cabinets and countertops. His first ever job, at 35 years old, starting life as an adult from scratch.

“You don’t want to think about the stuff that you could have that you don’t got right now,” Sutton said. “I had a full ride to college. I could have been anything in this world. I could have went to college to be the president.”

But holding on to the "what ifs" and the "maybes" — that’s not the way 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 are helping him with each step.

And next year, a new chapter of his life begins. He is going to be a father.


“I 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 say treated them like animals.

And yet, neither one finds solace in anger.

“I’m excited about the future, I’m excited about all the unknowns that are coming, the blessings, anything,” Sutton said.

“You kinda got to put it behind you you can’t be bitter because then they’re winning again and they’ve won enough from me,” D’Ambrosio said. “It’s time for me to have me. So I just enjoy every day and live life to the fullest.”


Note from reporter Homa Bash:

I have interviewed many exonorees over the course of my career. 

Some are freed and live their life in the shadows. They deal with the trauma in silence or end up back in prison because that is all they know.

And some, like Michael and Joe, take their experience and hope it helps others.

Joe and Father Neil travel the country, talking about why it is so important to abolish the death penalty.

Joe was three days away from being put to death for a crime he did not commit.

Michael wants to share his story specifically with high schoolers - the age he was when he got locked up.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association dives deeper into the trauma and mental health of those who have been wrongly convicted - the uphill battle they face when it comes to housing or employment discrimination, and more.