CNN logo

Infoseek/Big Yellow

Pathfinder/Warner Bros

Barnes and Noble

Main banner

Virginia inmate executed despite international campaign

Appeals from pope, Mother Teresa fail to save him

July 23, 1997
Web posted at: 9:53 p.m. EDT (0153 GMT)

RICHMOND, Virginia (CNN) -- Despite an international campaign to save his life that included appeals from Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, Joseph O'Dell was executed by lethal injection in Virginia Wednesday night for a 1985 rape and murder.

Hours before he was scheduled to die, O'Dell, 54, married Lori Urs, a Boston University law student who had been a volunteer paralegal on his case.

She helped wage a public relations campaign in the Italian media that made O'Dell a cause celebre in that country, where opposition to the death penalty is strong.

Pope and Mother Teresa

The quest to save O'Dell from the execution table has been front page news in Italy; the mayor of Palermo even offered him a burial plot. In the days leading up to the execution, Virginia officials said they had received nearly 10,000 calls and faxes about the O'Dell case, about 90 percent of which were from Italy.

But Wednesday, both Gov. George Allen and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected last-minute pleas to spare his life. O'Dell was pronounced dead at 9:15 p.m. EDT.

After being strapped to the gurney, O'Dell said it "was the happiest day of my life, because I got married to my wife." He pledged to love his bride "throughout eternity."

He also reiterated his innocence and made a direct appeal to the son of the woman he was convicted of killing, who was believed to be witnessing the execution.

"Eddie, I did not kill your mother," O'Dell said.

About a dozen opponents of capital punishment showed up outside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt to conduct a candlelight vigil as the execution hour approached.

Earlier in the day, O'Dell and Urs exchanged wedding vows through the bars of his cell, as a death row chaplain officiated. Sister Helen Pejean, a death penalty opponent and the author of "Dead Man Walking," was one of the witnesses.

For security reasons, the bride and groom were not permitted to touch.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Urs receives $144,000 a year in alimony from her ex-husband, a New Jersey physician -- alimony that, under the terms of their 1995 divorce agreement, she loses upon remarriage.

O'Dell's attorneys asked for DNA tests

O'Dell was sentenced to death for raping and murdering Helen Schartner outside a Virginia Beach nightclub. He had maintained his innocence, and his attorneys had pressed unsuccessfully for new, more sophisticated DNA tests of semen taken from the victim, saying the tests might clear O'Dell.


O'Dell's attorneys also argued that jurors should have been told at his sentencing in 1986 that he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, if they spared him the death penalty.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that juries in capital cases sometimes must be told defendants have no chance of parole. But last month, the court said the ruling is not retroactive and therefore would not cover O'Dell's case.

O'Dell's lawyers also had an affidavit claiming that another inmate executed in 1993, David Mark Pruett, had confessed to the crime.

But in rejecting clemency for O'Dell, Allen said his guilt had been firmly established.

At trial, prosecutors showed that the wounds on Schartner's head matched the shape of a pellet gun owned by O'Dell. Tire tracks from the crime scene matched his car, and the semen matched O'Dell's blood and enzyme types. Hairs found in his car matched those of the victim.

Arguing before the Supreme Court Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen said Pruett could not have committed the crime, because his blood type did not match the blood type of the perpetrator, as determined by tests on the semen.

International support angers victim's family

The international support for O'Dell, which included an appeal from the European Parliament, the Italian parliament, and a visit to Allen by a delegation of Italian officials, left the Schartner family frustrated.

"It's just like the Italians hate us," said Gail Lee, the victim's sister. "They, in essence, have said to my family, 'You are worthless. Helen's life didn't matter.'"

"His case has been appealed and reviewed so many times by so many courts that we've lost track. It's been many long years, and we're hoping for closure," said Emily Capps, Schartner's mother.

Correspondent Carl Rochelle contributed to this report.  

Related sites:

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window

External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

Search for related CNN stories:
Tip: You can restrict your search to the title of a document. Infoseek grfk

Example: title:New Year's Resolutions

Message Boards

Sound off on our message boards

Tell us what you think!

You said it...
To the top

© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.

Terms under which this service is provided to you.