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To Italy, a U.S. Convict Symbolized the Crime of Capital Punishment

Europe: Executed murderer became unofficial martyr. Case stimulates American death-penalty foes to seek allies abroad.

August 17, 1997|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — Beside a medieval convent in Palermo where Sicilians have buried princes, Mafia bosses, crime victims and other loved ones for six centuries lies their newest and unlikeliest celebrity.

The inscription on his tombstone, covered each day with fresh flowers, reads: "Joseph R. O'Dell III, beloved husband of Lori Urs O'Dell, honorary citizen of Palermo, killed by Virginia, U.S.A., in a merciless and brutal justice system."

A convicted murderer and rapist with no ties to Italy, O'Dell reached from death row to the World Wide Web to rally much of this country in a plea for his life. His execution last month, which kept millions of television viewers here up all night, made him the unofficial martyr of Italy's campaign against capital punishment in the rest of the world.

How a drifter with 14 felony convictions in the United States ended up with a VIP funeral in a foreign land--which flew his body over by chartered jet--is a story of international politics and Italian idiosyncrasy, of crusaders and manipulators on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a tale of instant fame in Italy that gave O'Dell belated notoriety in the United States and encouraged American death penalty foes to look abroad for new ways to lobby against executions at home.

"Sometimes we need a satellite dish out there reflecting on us an image of who we are," said Sister Helen Prejean, the author of "Dead Man Walking," who took up O'Dell's cause. "The Italians gave us that."

Viewed from Europe, Mexico, Australia or South Africa, the 38 U.S. states that allow the death penalty are growing targets of curiosity and condemnation. Journalists from those places covering death row cases struggle to explain why America retains a punishment abandoned by their countries and nearly all Western democracies.

Two summers ago, the scheduled execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African American writer and onetime political activist convicted of killing a white Philadelphia policeman, ignited more clemency appeals and street protests in Europe than in the United States. Abu-Jamal won a reprieve to appeal his sentence.

Pope John Paul II's near-categorical opposition to the death penalty in a 1995 encyclical has intensified the spotlight. The pope has pleaded since for the lives of 13 Americans on death row, including O'Dell, speaking out in every case brought to his attention, says spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

O'Dell's celebrity in Italy may be a sign of pressures to come. His 11-year battle to get off death row was scarcely known of outside Virginia until Italians noticed it last fall. A more sympathetic jury would be hard to find. Revulsed by Benito Mussolini's liberal use of the death penalty, Italy abolished it shortly after the fascist dictator's own execution at the end of World War II. Politicians across the spectrum have backed that decision ever since, even during Italy's bloody bout with Red Brigade terrorists two decades ago.

Influenced by Roman Catholic teaching about redemption, ordinary Italians usually share the view that capital punishment is useless and cruel--although they are known to waver when pollsters come around after a sensational murder close to home.

Italians are given to bursts of outrage over death row cases abroad. After street demonstrations in Rome last year, the Constitutional Court blocked extradition of a fugitive Italian citizen to Florida, where he could have faced capital punishment in the death of a tax agent.

But not since Massachusetts electrocuted the Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927--for a murder they were later cleared of--have Italians mobilized so forcefully for a condemned foreigner as they did for Joe O'Dell.

Of all the 3,000 or so Americans on death row, why him?

For one thing, Italy's political climate was favorable. A center-left government had come to power in mid-1996 and launched a diplomatic crusade against capital punishment worldwide--one that was to win unprecedented support from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, over U.S. objections, in April.

"We saw that while the number of death penalty nations was diminishing, the number of executions was increasing, especially in the United States, China and Saudi Arabia," said Luciano Neri, coordinator of an abolitionist group in the Italian Parliament. "We were ready for a campaign. O'Dell gave us a name and a face."

*

Another reason was O'Dell's savvy and tenacious advocate, a Boston law student named Lori Urs.

Urs, who married O'Dell on his last day alive, had been working with lawyers trying to overturn his conviction for the 1985 murder of Helen Schartner, a secretary who was pistol-whipped, raped, sodomized and strangled after leaving a Virginia Beach tavern.

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