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Judge bars ex-inmate’s quest to sue prosecutor

– A man who was freed from prison after spending 21 years on Ohio’s death row because of a botched prosecution can’t pursue his federal lawsuit against the county prosecutor’s office, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Joe D’Ambrosio’s lawsuit amounts to a failed attempt to hold Cuyahoga County accountable for actions by individuals.

“There is no question that the individual prosecutors involved in D’Ambrosio’s case violated rights secured to him by the Constitution,” the panel ruled, but the suit failed to establish that their actions were part of a larger pattern of corruption at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.

D’Ambrosio, 52, was imprisoned after his muder conviction in the 1988 death of 19-year-old Tony Klann, whose body was found in a creek at a Cleveland park.

He was released in 2010 when a federal judge ruled that prosecutors failed to provide evidence that could have exonerated him, including that the more likely suspect in the killing was a man who had been accused of raping Klann’s roommate and against whom Klann had agreed to testify.

D’Ambrosio’s attorney, David Mills, said Thursday his client is disappointed but has come to take setbacks in stride.

“This guy was nearly executed. He’s seen much darker places than this,” Mills said. “And every time we have a setback like this, even though it’s as big as it is today, we look at it and we say, ‘What can we do next?’ ”

Mills said he would likely pursue a hearing of the case by the full court and, if that fails, would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He acknowledged that the lawsuit by itself didn’t prove widespread violations by the prosecutor’s office but said those details would have come out at trial.

“When there’s smoke, there can be fire. And there’s a lot of smoke here, and we just need to crack the door and see,” Mills said. “It seems to me the court is saying, ‘We’re not going to let you peek behind the door and let you see what was going on in that office because you don’t have enough proof of the extent of what was happening.’ It’s a Catch-22.”

Edmund Searby, the Cleveland attorney who represents the county, said the 6th Circuit’s decision shows the allegations were without merit.

“(D’Ambrosio) never alleged any facts that would support a pattern or custom of withholding exculpatory evidence,” Searby said. “The pattern doesn’t exist, and he couldn’t prove it.”

D’Ambrosio’s lawsuit seeks damages of at least $1 million. But D’Ambrosio said in a statement through his attorney that “it was never about the money ... It’s about holding them responsible for the injustice they did to me.”

The lead prosecutor in D’Ambrosio’s case, Carmen Marino, retired from the prosecutor’s office in 2002 in good standing.

In a January 2013 ruling dismissing D’Ambrosio’s claims against Marino and the county, federal Judge Dan Polster said Marino “trampled upon D’Ambrosio’s constitutional rights,” but that he couldn’t be sued because the justice system is dependent on prosecutorial immunity.

Marino could not be reached for comment Thursday but told The Associated Press in 2006 – shortly after a federal judge first found that he had withheld evidence in D’Ambrosio’s case – that he was proud of his record and he has never lied in court or concealed evidence from anyone.

D’Ambrosio also has a case pending in the Ohio Court of Claims in Columbus, seeking reimbursement for wrongful imprisonment.

If it’s successful, he stands to win more than $1 million.