YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Justices Uphold High-Profile Death Ruling

Law: Supreme Court affirms sentence for man acclaimed as wrongly accused in Virginia slaying. Internet publicity gained him worldwide support.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court upheld a death sentence Thursday in the strange case of a Virginia inmate who was convicted of a brutal murder but has won international acclaim as an innocent man wrongly facing the ultimate punishment.

Joseph Roger O'Dell faced death for the 1985 rape and murder of a woman outside a Virginia Beach, Va., nightclub. Previously, he had been convicted of a series of armed robberies and beatings, including a vicious attack on a Florida woman who was beaten and raped but lived to testify against him.

Paroled from a Florida prison, O'Dell went to the Virginia bar on the night of Feb. 5, 1985, where Helen Schartner was last seen alive. His girlfriend reported he returned home long after midnight with bloodied clothes.

But O'Dell steadfastly maintained he had nothing to with the crime.

A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Three panels of state judges affirmed his guilt, as did all 14 federal judges who heard his appeals, and all nine members of the Supreme Court.

Still, with the help of the World Wide Web, O'Dell proclaimed his innocence. Amnesty International came to his defense, enlisting Pope John Paul II to write letters to President Clinton and Virginia Gov. George F. Allen seeking clemency for O'Dell, now 54.

O'Dell's defenders cited new DNA evidence showing that some of the blood on his clothing did not come from Schartner. However, state lawyers pointed out that other blood spots did match Schartner's blood; tire tracks at the murder scene and semen samples also pointed to O'Dell.

But when the Supreme Court agreed to review the case of O'Dell vs. Virginia, 96-6867, it was to decide a quite unrelated issue.

Three years ago, the high court overturned a death sentence given a South Carolina man and ruled that his lawyers in a new sentencing hearing should be allowed to tell jurors that a "life term" in prison meant he would never leave prison alive.

Many jurors believe the term "life in prison" does not mean an inmate will be locked up for life. In the past, most state laws allowed for parole in nearly all instances.

But new laws, including those in California, mandate either a death sentence or "life without the possibility of parole" for the worst aggravated murders.

In Simmons vs. South Carolina, the court said defense lawyers should be permitted to explain to jurors that a defendant will not go free if he is given a life term rather than a death sentence.

O'Dell was sentenced to die in 1988, and his lawyers were barred from telling the jury that sparing his life would not mean he could be free some day.

The question before the court was whether to make the South Carolina rule retroactive to earlier cases.

On a 5-4 vote, the court rejected the idea of applying the ruling to past cases such as O'Dell's. In recent years, the court's conservative majority has said it would not apply "new decisions" favoring defendants to old cases.


"We conclude that [the South Carolina decision] was new, and that it cannot therefore be used to disturb [O'Dell's] death sentence . . . " said Justice Clarence Thomas. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said it violates fundamental fairness to bar defense lawyers from "responding to an inaccurate or misleading" argument by prosecutors that suggests the inmate might be freed if not executed.

A spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office said O'Dell could face execution within a month.

Los Angeles Times Articles