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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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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.

The law student had created a Web page to publicize O'Dell's defense: The recanted testimony of a key witness had thrown his conviction into doubt; his lawyers argued that newer, more sophisticated DNA tests could prove him innocent; a procedural error during the trial should have invalidated the death sentence. Ignored for three years by most American media, Urs placed calls last October to several European newspapers. Alessandra Farkas, the New York correspondent of Milan's influential Corriere della Sera, was the first to call back.

Farkas read the Web page and interviewed O'Dell by phone. Not convinced of his innocence, she wanted to dig deeper, but her editors demanded something quick and categorical, she recalls. Her article stated flatly that a convict was going to be executed "for a crime he didn't commit." Farkas had published sympathetic interviews with other Americans on death row without causing much stir. She was amazed by the uproar over this one.

Neri read her article and quickly located Urs. The two plotted a lobbying blitz that brought clemency appeals from the pope, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, the Italian Parliament, the European Parliament and 1,500 civic groups across Italy. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi raised the O'Dell case when he met with President Clinton in June.

In a declaration of war on Palermo's image as a Mafia-run "city of death," Mayor Leoluca Orlando made O'Dell an honorary citizen and traveled to Virginia to plead for his life.

Some city halls set up Internet sites so Italians could send their own appeals to Virginia Gov. George F. Allen. His aides counted 10,000 letters, calls and computer messages about O'Dell, 95% of them from Italy.

Italian journalists competed fiercely for exclusives. Those proclaiming his innocence were rewarded with calls from O'Dell. His strong, articulate voice was on the airwaves for weeks, unchallenged by any view from prosecutors or the murder victim's family.

Il Giornale's correspondent got a scoop by slipping onto death row as an O'Dell "family friend." Not to be outdone, La Repubblica printed a farewell from the convict--a letter, it turned out, that one of the newspaper's editors had drafted and sent to O'Dell for his signature.

"The press coverage fed on itself and made him a soap opera hero," said Sergio D'Elia of Hands Off Cain, an international group opposing the death penalty. Polls showed that an astounding 94% of all Italians knew who O'Dell was.

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While the campaign succeeded in creating some controversy in America, it did so in Italy as well. Some of its promoters resisted O'Dell's claim of innocence, saying that wasn't the point of the anti-death-penalty cause. Other critics said the outcry reflected less on American brutality than on Italian sensationalism, blind partisanship and anti-Americanism.

"The Cold War is over, but our leftist establishment still feels morally superior to the United States," commented Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador to Moscow. Filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who represents part of Sicily in Parliament, apologized to Virginia for what he called "the carnival" of O'Dell's Palermo funeral, dismissing it as the "macabre joke" of a mayor seeking attention for a reelection bid.

But Rosa Russo Iervolino, another leading lawmaker, insists that Italians were lecturing America out of affection. "Each of us has an uncle or a cousin there," she said. "We feel the right to demand that a kindred state that believes in democracy should free itself of an uncivilized practice."

Whatever the motive, Italy's fight for O'Dell has stimulated American foes of the death penalty to look abroad.

The Washington-based National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, for example, will ask the European Parliament this fall to urge European companies not to invest or build plants in U.S. states that practice capital punishment. While far from certain that a boycott would follow--or sway state lawmakers if it did--American death penalty foes say their struggle is entering a more global phase.

"There's a shift in opinion [toward abolition], not inside the U.S. yet, but all around it," said Prejean, whose book about a Louisiana execution inspired the Tim Robbins film that became a worldwide hit. "We're going to see more campaigns, more diplomatic overtures, more confronting the U.S. In time, that's got to have an impact."

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