One hundred and fifty-six people on death row in the United States have been exonerated since 1973. One of them sits on a stone walkway, between the Capitol building and the Supreme Court, at the feet of a Catholic priest.
“Joe and I have big disagreements about God,” says the priest, Father Neil, who’s wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers T-shirt and sitting on a bench Thursday afternoon. Joe says that there’s a reason God put him in jail, on death row, for decades, but God doesn’t operate that way. “That’s injustice. That’s sin. That has nothing to do with God. And Joe disagrees. He — ”
“Because I think my testimony of 22 years is so much more powerful than a guy that was in there for a year,” Joe says from the ground, jabbing the air with his hand-rolled cigarette. “And that’s one of the reasons why I do our talks. Is because I think I was saved. Because I had no luck. I’m on death row! So it’s God’s providence — ”
“But 22 years?”
“ — to send me him.”
“Twenty-two years, Joe.”
“We do this every time. Argue back and forth.”
A speaker squeals with feedback across First Street NE. The sun is setting on the second day of a fast and vigil to abolish the death penalty. Joe, 54, and Father Neil, 57, will soon address the crowd, if there is a crowd, in front of a banner noting that Saturday marks 40 years since the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty. These days it’s not easy to muster an army of abolitionists, even though American opposition to capital punishment — 37 percent against — hasn’t been this high since the early 1970s, according to Gallup. The new draft of the Democratic Party platform released Friday envisions abolition, and says the death penalty “has no place in the United States of America.”
Still, “it’s the taboo issue,” Joe says. Even though there are dozens and dozens of exonerees in the United States, “people don’t wanna hear that, because that shows the giant flaw in our justice system. If they can’t get that right, and they’re willing to murder people.”
America is very animated right now on the other Big Issues. Last month’s mass shooting in Orlando brought people out into the streets to demand gun-control legislation. Hundreds mobbed the steps of the Supreme Court on Monday to await the decision on an abortion case. So far this year 14 men have been executed in the United States, all by lethal injection. In California alone, 743 prisoners await the same fate.
“People want to be right-to-life if it’s innocent right-to-life, but not if it might be guilty right-to-life,” Father Neil says. “It’s a very deep contradiction.”
They share a business card. Above their names it says “Speaking Truth to Power.” They have a two-man act: the former dead man walking and the man of God who helped set him free. In 1988 Joe D’Ambrosio was 26, just out of the Army, a new hire at a landscaping company in Cleveland. Within weeks he was arrested and charged with the murder of a 19-year-old who was found in a creek with his throat cut from ear to ear. By the following year, Joe, an innocent man with no priors, was a convicted murderer on death row, a prison within a prison. He spent the next 10 years teaching himself law, unaware that he was really waiting for God to send Father Neil.
Born into a Catholic family and raised with seven sibilings, Neil Kookoothe first became a nurse, then became a lawyer, then became a parish priest who also ministered to death-row inmates.
“He had to be all three things,” Joe says. “That’s God’s providence all day long.”
If Neil weren’t a lawyer, he wouldn’t have been troubled by the transcript of Joe’s sentencing hearing, which was unusually short and glib. Because he was a nurse, it was easy to deduce that the victim could not have screamed for help, as court testimony had claimed, with his trachea slashed to bits. And if Neil wasn’t a priest, he wouldn’t have been in a prison in the ’90s to hear of Joe’s case in the first place.
The case is far more complicated than providence; it involved years of studying, investigation, and negligence and misconduct on the part of authorities, who withheld evidence. All of this has been well-documented by Cleveland media. All of this led — after a torturous and prolonged appeals process — to Joe’s exoneration in 2012, after the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Now Joe and Father Neil are back outside that court for a couple days of vigiling. They drove down together from Ohio, where Joe is a handyman and factotum at Father Neil’s parish. Joe says his family abandoned him after the conviction, and so Father Neil became the brother he never had. They speak in tandem about how it’s better to let 1,000 guilty people walk free than take the life of one innocent man. They hold banners together by the steps of the court. They try to talk to passersby about how several states in the last decade abolished the death penalty, about how DNA testing and botched executions are proving how unreliable and cruel the criminal-justice system can be.
It’s hard to get anyone’s attention on First Street. Everyone’s hurrying home, or jogging, or their ears are plugged up with music.
Around 7 p.m., it’s their turn at the microphone, in front of a banner that reads “40 Years of Blood on Our Hands.” In the amber glow of the sunset, their voices echoing between the facades of the Capitol and the court, they tell their story. There’s little hope for an innocent man condemned to death, they say, if he doesn’t have a friend who’s advocating on the outside. They get close to tears, but end their speech with a rehearsed joke about sharing a hotel room when they travel, to save expenses.
“I do sleep with one eye open,” Father Neil says, “just to be on the safe side.”
“Uh, I sleep with one eye open,” Joe says. “He’s the Catholic priest.”
And the shocked laughter from the small crowd is what finally gets pedestrians to turn their heads.