Executed American lies in Italy as 'martyr' Killer became a symbol in the campaign against capital punishment


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 who had no ties to Italy, O'Dell reached from death row to the World Wide Web to rally much of the 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.

"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."

Revulsed by Benito Mussolini's liberal use of the death penalty, Italy abolished it shortly after the fascist dictator was executed at the end of World War II. 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 question them after a sensational murder close to home.

Italy's political climate was especially favorable for the O'Dell case. Italy's 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. Human Rights Commission, 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, Boston law student Lori Urs.

Urs, who married O'Dell on his last day alive, helped plot a lobbying blitz that brought clemency appeals from Pope John Paul II, 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.

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

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 America's brutality than on Italy's sensationalism, blind partisanship and anti-Americanism.

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

The Washington-based National Association 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 -- death penalty foes in the United States say their struggle is entering a more global phase.

Pub Date: 8/18/97

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