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Italy Mourns O'Dell as Hero

Execution Seen as Rallying Point Against Death Penalty

By Vera Haller
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 25, 1997; Page A26
The Washington Post

ROME, July 24óJoseph O'Dell, the Virginia inmate who was put to death by lethal injection Wednesday, was mourned today in Italy, where his efforts to avoid execution had won widespread support among politicians, death-penalty opponents and ordinary citizens.

In the Sicilian city of Palermo, which awarded O'Dell honorary citizenship several months ago, Mayor Leoluca Orlando ordered flags flown at half-staff at all city buildings. The city council of Milan, Italy's northern financial capital, adopted a resolution condemning his execution.

Orlando, who traveled to Virginia last week to try to persuade Gov. George Allen to delay O'Dell's execution, said he would do everything possible to carry out O'Dell's wish that his remains be buried in Palermo. "O'Dell, a Palermo citizen, was killed an innocent man," the mayor said, adding that he believed O'Dell's "sacrifice" would galvanize the campaign to abolish the death penalty in the United States.

O'Dell, who was convicted of the 1985 murder of Helen Schartner despite his protestations of innocence, had attained celebrity status in Italy, where his cause had been taken up by death-penalty opponents and where the media closely covered each twist and turn in his legal battles.

Top Italian politicians, including President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Prime Minister Romano Prodi, had spoken on his behalf. Pope John Paul II also had appealed to President Clinton and to Allen for clemency for O'Dell late last year, although the Vatican made no comment today.

Anti-death penalty sentiment in Italy stems largely from the country's Roman Catholic tradition, whose teachings for the most part oppose capital punishment. The O'Dell case, while not the only death-penalty case to draw attention in Italy, was the focus of particular interest for a variety of reasons, including DNA evidence that O'Dell claimed would prove his innocence, the pope's intervention and an Internet site launched by his supporters in the United States and followed by Italians.

"The sacrifice of Joseph O'Dell, the extraordinary mobilization of Italians and Italian and European parliamentarians, and the interventions by the highest moral authorities in the world strengthen the fight to abolish [the death penalty]," said a statement by an Italian-based, international group of death-penalty opponents called Hands Off Cain. Its members had been instrumental in mobilizing public support for O'Dell in Italy through a sophisticated public relations campaign and demonstrations they organized on his behalf across the country.

Several vigils were held overnight to coincide with O'Dell's execution, which took place at 3 a.m. Italian time. At one of the biggest such gatherings in Rome's Campo de Fiori square, a huge screen was erected so people could watch live coverage by Italian television from outside Virginia's Greensville Correctional Center, where O'Dell was executed. Another vigil was held outside the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

News of his execution was the top story in the country's main newspapers and in radio and television reports. "Three O'Clock, O'Dell Executed," read the headline in the Corriere della Sera. La Repubblica carried a front-page drawing depicting O'Dell as Christ, carrying the cross to his execution.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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