TOLEDO, Ohio (RNS) Three men who were sentenced to death only to be exonerated years later have a message for Ohio and the rest of America: Abolish the death penalty because the judicial system doesn’t work.

(Left to right) The Rev. Neil Kookoothe, Damon Thibodeaux, Will Francome, Delbert Tibbs and Joe D’Ambrosio field audience questions at First Unitarian Church in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by David Yonke/Toledo Faith & Values

(Left to right) The Rev. Neil Kookoothe, Damon Thibodeaux, Will Francome, Delbert Tibbs and Joe D’Ambrosio field audience questions at First Unitarian Church of Toledo, Ohio. Photo by David Yonke/Toledo Faith & Values


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Delbert Tibbs, Joe D’Ambrosio and Damon Thibodeaux, who collectively spent almost 40 years on death row before being set free, are giving 10 talks in five days in Ohio this week in hopes of persuading people to oppose the death penalty.

“I do what I do,” Thibodeaux said, “because I don’t want to see this happen to somebody else. And I don’t want to see the next execution of an innocent man.”

A state task force is reviewing the administration of the death penalty in Ohio, and Thibodeaux said legislators “should not be looking at fixing the death penalty; they should be looking to get rid of it.”

Traveling with the trio are the Rev. Neil Kookoothe, a Cleveland Catholic priest whose efforts led to D’Ambrosio’s freedom, and two British filmmakers, Will Francome and Mark Pizzey, who have documented cases of exonerated death row inmates.

Francome and Pizzey said 142 people have been freed from death row, representing 10 percent of the number of prisoners executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. They named their documentary series “One For Ten.”

Common reasons for death sentences being overturned include false accounts by witnesses, prosecutorial misconduct and forced confessions, the filmmakers said.

In Tibbs’ case, he was traveling in Florida in 1974, “trying to find myself” after dropping out of seminary, when he was accused of raping two women.

One of the victims was shown a Polaroid photo of Tibbs by police and pegged him as the rapist, even though Tibbs did not match the initial description of the suspect.

Former death row inmate Delbert Tibbs speaks at First Unitarian Church in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by David Yonke/Toledo Faith & Values

Former death row inmate Delbert Tibbs speaks at First Unitarian Church of Toledo, Ohio. Photo by David Yonke/Toledo Faith & Values


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Eyewitness testimony can be false and often is because we don’t always see what we think we see, and sometimes what we think what we see is not what is actually happening,” said Tibbs, who spent two years on death row.

The victims were white, the judge was white and the jury was white, he said, “and as you can see, I ain’t. … That shouldn’t make a difference, but of course it does.”

“I really do love this country, it’s the only one that I have,” Tibbs said. “I want to see it get better, and the only way we can do that is when we participate in making it better and when we inform ourselves of our history.”

Thibodeaux, 39, spent 15 years on death row in Louisiana after being convicted of murdering his cousin.

He gave police a phony confession, he said, because he had been up 36 hours searching for his missing cousin before being interrogated for nine hours. He was exhausted, scared and intimidated and told the detectives what they wanted to hear just to get it over with, he said.

“It’s not like you see on TV on shows like ‘Law and Order’ and ‘CSI,’” Thibodeaux said. “They put you in the wringer. The detectives want one thing and one thing only — a confession. How much of an interrogation can you take?”

“I love our system with its own flaws,” he said. “I love our country … but killing people that kill people, that doesn’t bring justice.”

D’Ambrosio, 51, was sentenced to death in 1988 for murder and spent 22 years on death row until the Cleveland priest took up his cause, believing an injustice had been done.

The death row inmate was set free in 2010 after a federal judge said prosecutors had withheld key evidence.

“People say, ‘The system worked. You’re out.’ No, the system didn’t work. I made it work. Father Neil made it work,” D’Ambrosio said. “If it wasn’t for Father Neil they would have executed me 10 years ago.”

(David Yonke is the editor of Toledo Faith & Values.)

KRE/AMB END YONKE

10 Comments

  1. A fundamental question for critics of the death penalty: Where is to be found one instance in the U.S. where an innocent person has been executed? To my knowledge no case has ever been brought forward.
    There are no instances where the death penalty isn’t merited? This flies in the face of tradition as well as moral theology.
    Just curious: Where do these anti-death-penalty people stand on the question of the definition of marriage. I’ll make a small wager that they favor both changes.

    • As a practical matter, it is impossible to pursue a criminal appeal on behalf of a dead person. Only a criminal defendant has grounds to pursue appeal, and that right ceases to exist once he is dead. As an additional factor, the execution of a convicted criminal is usual a signal to investigators that it is now okay to throw out all the evidence they’ve been storing for decades, which means that DNA testing is not available even if appeals were possible.

      But none of that matters in the end. What matters is that the debate is ruled by people like you. Reason is irrelevant in the face of religious fervor, and there is no argument that can persuade people like you who lust for the death of others to abandon your dreams of killing people for the glory of the bloody gods you worship.

      • Citizen, I’ll grant you that the disposal of evidence hampers the reopening of an investigation. However, I am still unaware of any case being brought forward that provides solid evidence that the condemned was not guilty.
        The rest of what you write, a mess to be polite about it, makes charges and assumptions you cannot justify. Your second paragraph is evidence that you’ve thrown reason out the window and have decided to rant.
        You dislike the fact that there is a death penalty and you will listen to no arguments in support of it. Whatever.

    • Just curious: Where do these anti-death-penalty people stand on the question of the definition of marriage. I’ll make a small wager that they favor both changes.

      Obviously, you’d lose where the Catholic Church is concerned. By your bizarre desire to conflate abolition of the death penalty with the gay marriage debate, I imagine you consider yourself a Christian. You’d be wrong about that, as Jesus will explain to you in some detail before he sends you to Hell.

      • Wow! A personal statement of pique that’s supposed to represent reasoned opinion. The Catholic Church has made no definitive statement regarding capital punishment. That Pope John Paul II spoke strongly against it, he did so from a personal perspective and did not declare it to be an article of faith or morals, the bases for a pope making an infallible statement.
        My “conflation,” as you call it, was another way of saying that I consider your anti-death penalty position, a liberal one, not altogether unlike the liberals’ position on marriage–or, more correctly, the abolition of the concept itself.
        I’m “not Christian” for failing to regard homosexual relationships as marriages? You, sir, are dissatisfied with the traditional idea regarding marriage and want to change the definition. That’s what liberals do. They avoid speaking about “abortion as a choice”: and speak of “women’s health” as the issue. Sorry, sir, but conservatives can see right through this.
        I have not said that gays are sick or evil. nor have I said that there’s never a reason for abortion. Perhaps you can modify your ranting henceforth.

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