Italy pleads for death row inmate who captured the nation's soul

Joseph O'Dell is just another death row inmate in his native America, the 44th to be killed this year if his scheduled execution goes ahead in the small hours of this morning. But in Italy the convicted murderer is a national martyr, a patron saint of unjust causes.

Yesterday, reports of his impending death led Italian news bulletins, but neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post dedicated one word to the story. Outside, the correctional centre in Greensville, Virginia, there were more Italian journalists than American ones.

The Pope has appealed for clemency, as has Luigi Scalfaro, the Italian president and Romano Prodi, the prime minister. The Italian parliament has passed a resolution demanding a stay of execution and on Monday, the mayor of Palermo led a delegation to the office of the governor of Virgina, George Allen, to plead for O'Dell's life on behalf of the people of his town, the whole of Italy and, he said, the European parliament.

O'Dell has been made an honorary citizen of Palermo and has expressed a wish to be buried there should the execution go ahead. The Virginian- Pilot newspaper reported on Tuesday that the Italian authorities were making contingency plans to fly his body to the Sicilian capital aboard an Italian air force plane.

But O'Dell, as his name would suggest, has no family connections with Palermo, Sicily or anywhere else in Italy. He does not speak Italian and has never set foot on Italian soil.

Why O'Dell? He insists that he is innocent and there are reasons to doubt his guilt. A prison informer who testified that O'Dell had confessed to the murder recanted his testimony last year. His lawyers argue that he should be submitted to DNA testing not available in 1985 when he was convicted of beating, raping, sodomising and strangling a 44-year-old woman.

Doubts like these emerge time and again on the eve of executions. In American terms, there is nothing unique in O'Dell's predicament nor the nature of the barbarity which, in Italian eyes, the authorities are planning to perpetrate.

So why the melodrama in Italy? Correspondents in the US for Ansa, the Italian news agency, and La Repubblica said yesterday that the story had merely been picked up by one newspaper, whereupon radio and TV had joined in, the snowball effect accelerated by the interventions of the Pope and president.

The decisive moment in swinging the public mood came 11 days ago, when La Repubblica published an open letter he wrote to the people of Italy. "If this act of injustice will be carried out," the letter said, "I will be sustained to my last breath by the thought that the people of your great nation will be with me, praying for me on my deathbed." However, O'Dell did not write the letter. The brainchild of a reporter from La Repubblica, O'Dell and his lawyers gave it their unmitigated approval.

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