Italians mourn for murderer turned martyr

A bizarre media campaign has elevated a US killer (right) to national hero, reports Andrew Gumbel

The city of Palermo will stage an extraordinary funeral Mass today for Joseph O'Dell, a man elevated to a state of virtual martyrdom in the Italian media but who, if the United States courts are to be believed, brutally raped and murdered a woman outside a disco in Virginia 12 years ago.

O'Dell was executed by lethal injection last week as the Governor of Virginia, Richard Allen, resisted an Italian media campaign of rare passion. Never mind the seriousness of the crimes for which he was convicted: O'Dell's name is now indelibly linked in Italian minds with the campaign to end the death penalty.

Yesterday, Pope John Paul offered words of comfort to the woman O'Dell married hours before his death, the legal assistant Lori Urs. Today's ceremony will be attended by the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, as well as Helen Prejean, the nun at the centre of the film Dead Man Walking, who stood by O'Dell in his final hours. Mr Orlando has already made O'Dell an honorary citizen of Palermo and plans to erect a monument to him.

As the body was flown to Sicily via Rome yesterday, two nagging questions still remained. Why Italy, when O'Dell was not Italian and had no obvious link with the place? And why, out of the hundreds of prisoners on death row, should O'Dell be singled out?

The explanations are many and complex. Even if the US Catholic church has remained silent on the issue, the Vatican has been campaigning energetically against the death penalty in recent months.

That, in turn, has had a profound effect on the Italian political establishment, which is still heavily influenced by the church despite the demise of the old Christian Democrat Party.

What's more, Italy - diplomatically irrelevant Italy - loves to have its voice heard in the world and remembers all too proudly how its influence brought about a stay of execution in 1989 for a teenage woman from Indiana, Paula Cooper, who had murdered her religious education teacher at the age of of 15 and was sentenced to death once she reached adulthood.

If the O'Dell case captured the public imagination, it was partly because of doubts about his guilt. He was originally convicted after choosing - unwisely - to act as his own defence counsel in court.

Subsequent DNA tests showed that blood found on his clothing did not belong to his victim, Helen Schartner. A legal battle ensued to have further DNA tests performed on O'Dell himself, but the request was ultimately turned down.

These facts did not reach Italy or the Vatican by magic, however. They became the object of a strange journalistic war between the country's various correspondents in the United States. Il Giornale first brought O'Dell to public attention. Then the Corriere della Sera blew it up into a huge scandal. Finally, the veteran correspondent for La Repubblica, Vittorio Zucconi, went into overdrive and refused to let a week go by without an interview with O'Dell's lawyers, or with O'Dell himself.

All of them wrote as though O'Dell was as innocent as a lamb, brutalised by a heartless judicial system that refused to hear his side of the story. I met one of the journalists involved a couple of weeks ago and asked him about the O'Dell case. "He's guilty, of course," he said, without blinking. So that's the answer: O'Dell was just a good story blown up to keep Italian readers on the edge of their seats for a few months. That's show business, folks.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Green Recruitment Company: Operations Manager - Anaerobic Digestion / Biogas

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Operation...

Recruitment Genius: Implementation Consultant

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global leading software co...

Recruitment Genius: Implementation Consultant

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global leading software co...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Coordinator

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global leading software co...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent