Exonerated inmate, priest discuss death penalty

Exonerated death row inmate Joe D’Ambrosio and Father Neil Kookoothe spoke to a crowded Taylor Little Theatre about D’Ambrosio’s experience on death row on March 19.

Maria Garase, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, organized this event and said that it was inspired by the Ethics and Criminal Justice class she teaches.

Garase said that D’Ambrosio’s case has multiple elements of wrongful convictions the class examines.

“We do a section on wrongful convictions and talk about things like prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective council and faulty eye witness testimony,” Garase said.

According to Garase, there have been 150 people released from death row who have been exonerated and D’Ambrosio is the sixth person in Ohio since 1973.
The event was a way to bring visibility and a human face to the issue, according to Garase.

“Criminal justice is a people-oriented field and our day to day operations impacts people’s lives, freedom and liberty,” said Garase. “It’s something for them to think critically about regardless of their opinion. It is something that has a significant impact.”

Before the event began, D’Ambrosio spoke about his time on death row. “No one wants to listen to the dead man walking,” D’Ambrosio said.

D’Ambrosio was in prison from 1988 to 1998, attempting to convince people to listen his case.

“I was arrested in 1988,” he said. “This is now 1998 and up to this point I was asking for everybody to help me. Innocence projects, journalism schools, law schools, the media. Anybody and everybody—I even wrote Oprah [Winfrey] begging for help,” D’Ambrosio said.

Father Neil Kookoothe, who had been visiting a neighboring inmate for years as a companion, decided to visit D’Ambrosio as well. He was the first to investigate D’Ambrosio’s claims of innocence.

“I was a newly ordained priest at the time and I did not have the time to dedicate to be working on anybody’s criminal appeals or to investigate their case,” Kookoothe said.

Kookoothe agreed to help D’Ambrosio and utilized his skills as a priest, lawyer and registered nurse to examine the case.

“He needed to be all three of those things that he was to do exactly what he did for me,” D’Ambrosio said.

Father Jim Piszker, explained that the Catholic Church holds a strict stance against the death penalty, comparing it to a person doing penance for what they have done wrong.

“It is an injustice when people do wrong, but the purpose of the justice system is to assist people in becoming better,” Piszker said. “The injustice is in society itself.”
Mercyhurst University has a commitment to combating injustice, said Piszker. He encouraged are students who are interested in joining the fight, to get involved in pro-life groups, anti-death penalty groups, organizations that serve the poor and even politics.

“If we do our little part, those pieces eventually add up,” Piszker said.