On September 24, 1988, a jogger found the body of 19-year-old Estel Anthony Klann in Doan’s Creek in Cleveland, Ohio. Klann had been stabbed three times in the chest and his throat had been cut.
Three men were charged with the murder: Thomas Michael Keenan, Joe D’Ambrosio and Edward Espinoza.
Espinoza pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified against Keenan and D’Ambrosio, who were tried separately. In return, Espinoza was sentenced to 15 to 75 years in prison.
D’Ambrosio, 26, went on trial before a three-judge panel in Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court on February 6, 1989.
Paul “Stoney” Lewis testified for the prosecution that on the evening of Friday, September 23, 1988, he and Klann visited a tavern called The Saloon. There, he saw Keenan, a former employee of his, and he and Keenan left in Keenan’s truck to another bar called Coconut Joe’s. Not long after, Klann, Espinoza and D’Ambrosio arrived at Coconut Joe’s.
Lewis testified that Espinoza got into a heated argument with Klann. Lewis said he left the bar alone sometime between 10:45 p.m. and 11:45 p.m.
Espinoza testified that he and D'Ambrosio left the bar about 1:30 a.m. and went to D’Ambrosio’s apartment. As they arrived, Keenan drove up. He said Lewis had stolen some drugs from him and asked them to help him find Lewis to get the drugs back.
Espinoza said he armed himself with a baseball bat and that D’Ambrosio picked up a knife. They then began driving around looking for Lewis.
Carolyn Rosel testified that at 3 a.m., she and a friend, James Russell, were awakened by Keenan, Espinoza and D’Ambrosio. They were looking for Lewis and talking about killing Lewis because he had “ripped Keenan off.” They said they didn’t know where Lewis was.
Espinoza testified that they resumed their search and spotted Klann walking along the road. He said Keenan forced Klann into the back seat of the truck and they began interrogating him about Lewis. When Klann professed ignorance, Espinoza hit him in the head with the bat.
Klann then provided Lewis’s address and they drove to the apartment building. Residents said they were awakened around 3:30 a.m. by Keenan and Espinoza pounding on a door, shouting “I want my dope” or “my coke.”
One resident, Adam Flanik, testified that he opened his door and told them they were at the wrong door. After Flanik directed them to Lewis’s apartment, they kicked in the door, but Lewis was not there.
Flanik said he looked outside and saw D’Ambrosio pointing a knife at Klann’s face.
According to Espinoza, the men returned to Rosel’s home where they told Russell to “tell Stoney we got a contract out on him” and that they had Klann in the truck and that he was “dead meat.” Rosel testified that Espinoza said they were “going to do him in, and drop him off.”
Espinoza testified that Keenan drove to Doan’s Creek, where they began interrogating Klann again. When Klann again said he did not know anything, Keenan took D’Ambrosio’s knife, cut Klann’s throat and pushed him into the creek.
According to Espinoza, Klann got up and began to run. Keenan said, “Finish him off” and D’Ambrosio took off after Klann. Within a minute or two, Espinoza said, Klann screamed, “Please don’t kill me.” Then D’Ambrosio killed him, Espinoza said.
Although no weapon was recovered, prosecutors introduced a knife that they argued was similar to the one that D’Ambrosio used.
The trial court sealed its verdict on February 9, 1989, pending the culmination of Keenan’s trial which began immediately after. On February 21, 1989, after Keenan was convicted, D’Ambrosio’s verdict of guilty was announced. Both were sentenced to death.
Keenan’s conviction and death sentence were overturned in 1993 when the Ohio Supreme Court found that the trial prosecutor, Carmen Marino, who also tried the case against D’Ambrosio, had committed misconduct. The court found that Marino engaged in improper closing argument by unfairly disparaging the defense and Keenan’s friends, stabbing a large knife into counsel table and calling Keenan an “animal.” Keenan was later retried, convicted and again sentenced to death.
After D’Ambrosio lost his appeal and a post-conviction petition was denied, Neil Kookoothe, a Catholic priest who had counseled two men on Death Row who were executed, took a look at D'Ambrosio's case and discovered that Klann suspected that "Stoney" Lewis had sexually assaulted another man named Christopher Longenecker. Kookoothe read D'Ambrosio's file and discovered that Longenecker had told police that he suspected Lewis killed Klann. Kookoothe shared the information with D'Ambrosio's lawyers who subsequently filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2000.
On December 2, 2002, U.S. District Judge Kathleen McDonald O’Malley ordered the Cuyahoga County District Attorney’s Office and the coroner, as well as Cleveland police to produce all documents in their possession relating to the case.
In the documents, D’Ambrosio’s lawyers found evidence never seen by the defense. In July 2004, at an evidentiary hearing, they presented the following items of evidence—none of which had been provided to the defense before D’Ambrosio’s trial:
• Two former Cleveland police detectives testified that because no grass or weeds were disturbed in the area where Klann’s body was found, they believed he had been killed elsewhere and dumped in the creek.
• Longenecker testified he and Klann were roommates. He said that “Stoney” Lewis raped him shortly before Klann was killed. He said that almost immediately after the rape occurred, Klann came to the apartment. Although he did not tell Klann was happened, he said he was clearly distraught and that he told Klann that “something had just happened.” Lewis was charged with the rape, but because Longenecker was legally blind, he misread the court date and did not appear, resulting in the dismissal of the charge. After hearing of Klann’s murder, Longenecker called police to say that he believed Klann had been killed because he was likely aware of the rape.
• Records showing that at one time police had an audio recording of a statement from a man named Angelo Crimini, who implicated others in the murder.
• Steven Gaines, the manager of Coconut Joe’s, testified that he recalled Espinoza and Klann fighting in the bar and recalled it was “Tequila Night,” which always was on a Thursday—not Friday as Espinoza had testified. Gaines said he called police after Espinoza threw a beer bottle.
In other testimony at the hearing, D’Ambrosio’s lawyer at trial said that during a pre-trial conference with Marino, he was not allowed to see police reports. He was allowed to take notes as Marino read selected portions.
Several witnesses testified that at the time of the murder, Klann was selling cocaine for Keenan and they had quarreled because Keenan wanted to pay a debt to Klann with cocaine while Klann demanded cash.
Other witnesses testified that on the night of September 23, 1988, D’Ambrosio was not at Coconut Joe’s, but instead was hosting a party at his apartment because he was being evicted. One witness, who was pregnant and not drinking, recalled D’Ambrosio passed out on his bed.
On March 24, 2006, Judge O’Malley granted the writ because of the failure to turn over exculpatory evidence. His conviction was vacated and a new trial was ordered.
On June 5, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the ruling, saying that the withheld evidence “would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.”
The court said the evidence not only “contradicted or weakened” the testimony of Espinoza, the prosecution’s only eyewitness, but also demonstrated a motive for Lewis to kill Klann.
In February, 2009, the prosecution disclosed that it physically possessed evidence slides containing biological evidence from the victim that could be used for DNA testing, blood evidence from D’Ambrosio’s apartment, soil samples from the bank of Doan’s Creek that had tested negative for blood and soil samples taken from the back of Keenan’s truck. The prosecution then filed a motion seeking to extend the deadline to bring D’Ambrosio to trial. The defense responded by requesting that the prosecution be barred from retrying the case.
On April 27, 2009, O’Malley refused to extend the deadline and ordered that D’Ambrosio be released from custody. The judge also ordered that D’Ambrosio’s conviction and sentence be expunged because of the prosecution’s repeated failure to turn over evidence. However, she did not bar the prosecution from retrying D’Ambrosio.
Meanwhile, Espinoza, who had been released after serving 12 years, died in a Chicago suburb on April 26—one day before the judge said she would not bar a re-trial. Prosecutors waited until late July 2009 to inform D’Ambrosio’s lawyers, who then renewed their motion to bar a retrial. They argued a trial would be unfair because they would be unable to cross-examine Espinoza with the newly discovered evidence.
On March 3, 2010, O’Malley granted the defense motion to bar a retrial. The Sixth Circuit Appeals Court affirmed the ruling in 2011 and on January 23, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for a writ of certiorari.
In January 2013, a judge ruled that D'Ambrosio could seek up to $1 million in state compensation. D'Ambrosio also filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages, but the lawsuit was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley