On September 6th, Michael Keenan was released from prison after spending 20 years on Ohio’s death row. Keenan and his co-defendant, Joseph D’Ambrosio were convicted of the 1988 murder of Tony Klann. Keenan’s first conviction was overturned in 1994, but he was retried and re-convicted and sentenced to death. His second conviction was overturned in 2012 because of prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors withheld evidence that could have exonerated Keenan and D’Ambrosio, including police statements that discredit the testimony of the only eyewitness to the crime and evidence that the man who tipped the police off to Keenan being the killer had a motive for killing the victim.
The police statements showed that Klann was not killed at Doan Park, where the prosecutor’s eyewitness said he was. Eddie Espinoza pled guilty to manslaughter in 1988 in order to receive a reduced sentence. Espinoza claimed that Keenan slit Klann’s throat and D’Ambrosio stabbed him in the chest in Doan Park. A man named Paul Lewis had told the police to investigate Keenan. It turns out that Tony Klann was a witness in a case against Lewis, which was dropped after his death.
A Cuyahoga County judge dismissed all charges against Keenan and barred retrial. The state can appeal the decision, but if the decision is upheld, Keenan will be released an exonerated man.
“[I]t is without question, based on the egregious history of the prosecutorial misconduct and the Brady violations outlined in detail by both the Ohio Supreme Court and the Northern District Court of Ohio in this case that the State willfully withheld exculpatory evidence from Keenan and his attorneys,” said Judge John Russo in his decision.
“In the interest of justice and fairness, the harm done to defendant Keenan has been so egregious that this is the extraordinary case where the court has no other option but to grant the motion to dismiss…The degradation of this case began 25 years ago, when the desire to obtain a conviction overwhelmed the state’s responsibility to seek the fullest truth.”
Some news reports incorrectly state that Keenan was going to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter before being released, to avoid retrial.
Earlier this year, D’Ambrosio was exonerated. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the state of Ohio challenging the writ of habeas corpus and the barring of re-prosecution of Joe D’Ambrosio. He is now free from death row and all charges have been dismissed. D’Ambrosio’s conviction was first overturned in 2006 because the state withheld evidence from the defense. The federal court originally allowed the state to re-prosecute him, but just before trial the state revealed the existence of even more evidence that it had hidden. The state did not divulge in a timely manner that the key witness against D’Ambrosio was now deceased. In 2010, the District Court barred retrial because of prosecutorial misconduct. The court concluded that based on the biased developments that D’Ambrosio had a low chance of a fair trial.
District Court Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote:
“For 20 years, the State held D’Ambrosio on death row, despite wrongfully withholding evidence that ‘would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.’ Despite being ordered to do so by this Court…the State still failed to turn over all relevant and material evidence relating to the crime of which D’Ambrosio was convicted. Then, once it was ordered to provide D’Ambrosio a constitutional trial or release him within 180 days, the State did neither. During those 180 days, the State engaged in substantial inequitable conduct, wrongfully retaining and delaying the production of yet more potentially exculpatory evidence… To fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice.”
In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the decision and even the dissenting justice said that the prosecution lacked ability to competently prosecute D’Ambrosio. The state appealed the decision on jurisdiction, but was denied. This makes D’Ambrosio the 6th death row exoneree from Ohio and if Keenan’s decision is upheld, he will be the 7th.
D’Ambrosio had been given death in a three-day trial, likely Ohio’s shortest capital case ever.