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Attorney still filing motions against murder conviction

MANATEE — More than a dozen years after Joe Ciambrone was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in the beating death of his adopted son, Lucas, his attorney maintains her client was unfairly convicted.

Attorney Susan Hartmann Swartz continues to file motions on Ciambrone’s behalf, contending the conviction was flawed because of conflicting evidence in the case.

Joe Ciambrone and his wife, Heather, were convicted of murder in separate trials after Lucas died at their Rubonia home in 1995.

Lucas was 7 at the time of his death. His autopsy revealed 203 scratches, bruises and cuts, and 113 scars. He had five broken ribs and weighed 32 pounds.

Lucas was often locked for extended periods in an empty bathroom and endured chronic malnutrition over a long period of time, testimony indicated.

His ears had been jerked away from his head with such force that the skin behind the ears had split open, exposing the cartilage, according to trial testimony.

Appellate courts have ruled numerous times on various aspects of the case, including on the issue Swartz contends resulted in an unfair conviction.

Swartz said that either what the prosecutor said in Joe Ciambrone’s trial was true, or what he said in Heather’s trial was true, but both could not be true because they’re inconsistent.

In Joe Ciambrone’s trial, prosecutors said Lucas’ death was caused by a blow to the head, maybe from Joe on the day he died, between 6:10 a.m. and 2:10 p.m., but more likely toward 6:10 a.m., along with severe hypothermia, or low body temperature, severe malnutrition, and multiple rib fractures as contributing causes, Swartz wrote.

During Heather Ciambrone’s trial, prosecutors argued that Lucas’ death was caused only by blows to the head, by Heather, sometime after lunch, while Joe was away at work, Swartz said.

“I am looking for a court to review the two sets of facts in an open forum with a hearing,” said Swartz.

“Had the state in Joe’s case presented the same case it presented in Heather’s, Joe would have been acquitted, rather than convicted of first-degree murder,” she wrote in a 2008 motion submitted to the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

Assistant State Attorney Jeff Quisenberry disagrees with her argument.

The prosecution argued that whether Joe or Heather Ciambrone inflicted the death blow was irrelevant because Joe was a principal to the aggravated child abuse that led to Lucas’ death, Quisenberry said.

In 2008, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, meaning Ciambrone’s conviction would stand, he said.

There is an important distinction between the state presenting conflicting theories that each of two codefendants committed the act resulting in the child’s death, and its argument that a codefendant is guilty of murder as a principal, regardless of whether he rendered the final blow, the court wrote.

“While the former scenario impermissibly proceeds on wholly disparate theories of guilt against codefendants, the latter is entirely permissible, even warranted,” its order said.

Quisenberry said Swartz is trying to win another review of the case.

“So far, (her efforts) have been rebuffed by the appellate and the state court, but she’s filed another motion for rehearing, so it may yet be decided again,” he said.

Quisenberry said he will never forget the trial.

“It’s a monumental case, in my opinion,” Quisenberry said.

The case led to sweeping reforms in the state’s foster care system.

Advocates of better state care for foster children used testimony from the trials to highlight problems in the system.

In 1997, after a jury found Joe Ciambrone guilty, a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Heather Ciambrone was originally found incompetent to stand trial, but later was found guilty of first-degree murder and was also sentenced to life in prison.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031 or at