The judge running the trial of a man charged with killing 11 women is familiar with the spotlight, but has toned down the tough-guy image that earned him the nickname ”Bam-Bam” as a Browns linebacker.
Dick Ambrose, who was part of the last-minute ”Kardiac Kids” heroics playing for the Browns from 1975-83, landed the case against Anthony Sowell, 51, last year, the third judge assigned to the high-profile case.
The trial, with more than 50 witnesses, began June 6 with three weeks of jury selection and could last through much of the summer.
If convicted, Sowell could get the death penalty, a decision that would be up to Ambrose if the jury recommends execution.
His hair now silver gray, the 58-year-old Ambrose still has the square-jaw look that fans remember from his playing days.
He has worried out loud about prejudicial publicity due to ”the extreme notoriety” of the case. He issued a gag order limiting attorney comment outside court and putting his office off-limits to reporters.
In an early misstep, he sneaked prospective jurors to another floor to be introduced to Sowell away from reporters. And private questioning of prospective jurors prompted a rare warning from prosecutors that any conviction might be at risk on appeal because of the secrecy.
In court, the soft-spoken Ambrose rarely interrupts prosecutors or the defense attorneys who are trying to get Sowell acquitted or, if convicted, spare his life.
Ambrose avoided saying it in front of jurors, but when the jury left his wood-paneled courtroom he asked prosecutors to avoid displaying any longer than necessary the graphic autopsy photos he called ”grotesque.” Most bodies were decomposed and unrecognizable and only the skull was left from one victim.
The emotionally charged trial has an occasional light moment, like the time the father of a victim finished testifying and asked if he could call the judge ”Bam-Bam.” Ambrose smiled as people chuckled.
Ambrose, with a reservoir of fan goodwill from his playing days, is active in community and charity events. Although his court doesn’t handle juvenile crimes, he spoke to troubled youngsters with the message: ”It’s never too late to get your life back on track.”
Ambrose also has spoken on a regular basis at fundraising events for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland, according to Ron Soeder, president.
”He’s really a personable man and I think he’s a guy that, when he’s with kids, they really see the humanness of him,” Soeder said.
Ian Friedman, a Cleveland attorney who has handled cases before Ambrose, said the judge went out of his way to assure a fair trial for a man charged with sexual assaults against nine women, splitting the case into nine trials to avoid prejudicing the jury.
”What it tells you about him is his focus is really on doing the right thing without concern for what certain parties may think,” Friedman said.
Friedman described Ambrose as a patient judge – within limits.
”He allowed us to argue … but only to a certain point,” Friedman said. ”He just had a presence where you knew you were kind of reaching that point where it had to stop.”
Sam Rutigliano, who coached Ambrose with the Browns, said Ambrose was always planning for the future, even his life after football.
”He realized that he wasn’t going to be able to do it for the rest of his life,” Rutigliano said.
Ambrose started law school while still with the Browns and began practicing when he graduated from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1987 at the age of 34.
Ambrose had a rough start in judicial politics: he was appointed to fill an unexpired term in 2004 but quickly lost a close race for a full term to John J. Russo, who recalls the Browns team colors on Ambrose’s campaign materials.
When the two appeared for an editorial endorsement interview at The Plain Dealer, Russo said he received a polite reception. Ambrose, Russo recalled, got a smile, a slap on the back and the greeting, ”Hi, Bam-Bam.”
Reappointed to the bench a second time, Ambrose won the next two times he faced voters, with 59 percent and then 65 percent of the vote.
”I love to say the bench is better because we’re both here,” said Russo, playing off the gridiron-judicial images.
Gary Adams, a fellow Cleveland-Marshall alumnus, said being an ex-Brown didn’t hurt when Ambrose, a Republican, ran for re-election last year in mostly Democratic Cleveland.
”Did his football help him? I’m sure his name recognition probably did,” Adams said.
When Rutigliano had recent knee surgery, Ambrose and his wife were the first to visit, showing up at Rutigliano’s house with a meal. Before the trial started, Rutigliano spoke to Ambrose on the phone.