The priest and the exonerated death row inmate

Fr Neil Kookoothe and Joe D

American priest Fr Neil Kookoothe helped to exonerate Joe D'Ambrosio, who spent 22 years on death row in Ohio, writes Dan Zak at The Washington Post.

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 Fr Neil, who's wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers T-shirt and sitting on a bench. "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."

Joe says: "Because I think my testimony of 22 years is so much more powerful than a guy that was in there for a year. And that's one of the reasons why I do our talks. It is because I think I was saved. Because I had no luck. I'm on death row! So it's God's providence. "

Fr Neil: "But 22 years?"

Joe: " — to send me him."

Fr Neil: "Twenty-two years, Joe."

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 Fr 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 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 this week 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," Fr Neil says. "It's a very deep contradiction."

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The priest, the exonerated death-row inmate and their continued battle against the death penalty (The Washington Post)

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