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.

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