US Justice And Italian Consciences


At 3:16 yesterday morning, a young, dark-haired woman stood weeping in central Rome.

Word had just come that Joseph O'Dell, a death-row inmate who to the end protested his innocence, had been executed in Virginia. Appeals for a pardon had come from Pope John Paul II, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, Prime Minister Romano Prodi, and a galaxy of other Italian notables.

Just before he died following a lethal injection, he married anti-death-penalty activist Lori Urs. He will be buried in Palermo, Italy, a city that adopted the American as an honorary citizen before his execution.

Why his case struck such a strong chord in Italy remains something of a mystery. Ms. Urs, a Boston University law student, had gone to Italy to campaign on his behalf. And Sister Helen Prejean, author of the anti-death penalty book "Dead Man Walking," had taken a personal interest, raising its visbility here. Mr. O'Dell's advocates were also able to raise doubts about his guilt, insisting that further DNA testing, which was denied, would prove him innocent.

In the end, it may have been a chance for Italians, in love with much about America, to show it can be a fickle kind of love.

A love-hate relationship

"It's a rallying point for everyone who has a grudge against the United States," Vittorio Zucconi, the Washington bureau chief for the Italian newspaper La Republica, told the Associated Press. "Europeans have an inferiority complex. We have a love-hate relationship with the United States. ... We love to hate Americans from time to time."

The O'Dell case "is an emblematic case of a negation of fundamental rights," said Leonardo Bencini at the vigil in Rome, espousing the view of anti-capital -punishment forces everywhere.

Mr. Bencini, who wore a light-colored polo shirt and sipped a drink from a clear plastic cup to ward off the heat and humidity of a late-July night, is an Italian diplomat who has been working to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

O'Dell was arrested following the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Schartner, on the grounds that they had both been in a Virginia Beach night spot and other strong circumstantial evidence. O'Dell, an admitted criminal, was on probation at the time.

The following year he was condemned to death, in a trial in which he defended himself without a lawyer.

'Proofs were nonexistent'

DNA evidence that could have exonerated him, critics say, was never taken into consideration. The Virginia Appeals Court - with one decisive vote, 7 to 6 - confirmed the capital-punishment sentence.

"This case would never have brought anyone to prison in Italy," says Luciano Neri, a parliamentary deputy for the small Palermo-based Rete party and the national coordinator of the Italian campaign to save O'Dell. "From a juridical point of view, the proofs were nonexistent."

He, too, had come to Campo de Fiori, which at midnight is normally packed with teenagers out to enjoy the night life with friends.

But this night an older, more somber group of people gathered for the solidarity demonstration, covered by a live state television broadcast from the square with satellite connections with the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia, where the execution took place.

The demonstrators watched two giant television monitors on either side of the Bruno statue. About 200 people stayed until the execution at 3:16 a.m. Thursday (9:16 p.m. Wednesday in Virginia), watching helplessly as a digital clock on one of the screens counted down to the hour of execution.

Another couple of hundred Italians stood vigil in front of the United States Embassy on Via Veneto.

Italy champions the cause

At the Antico Cafe della Pace, a trendy night spot just off Piazza Navona, activists set up a computer that allowed passersby to send appeals for pardon to the governor of Virginia.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Italy has been leading the world community in the fight to abolish the death penalty. Across the political spectrum, Italian politicians are nearly unanimously united against the death penalty, as is the Italian media, which is heavily influenced by political parties.

Italians at large, according to opinion polls, are divided about 50-50 on the merits of capital punishment.

"Certainly the number of people against the death penalty is increasing," says Natty Patan, vice president of the Amnesty International human rights group in Italy.

Italy brought an anti-capital- punishment resolution to a favorable vote in May in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which consists of 53 states. Among the countries that voted against the motion were the US, China, Egypt, and Algeria. All European countries voted in favor of abolishing capital punishment, except Great Britain, which abstained.

"I want to remind you that it's Europe that thinks this way," and not just Italy, said Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, in a telephone interview just before O'Dell's execution.

Mr. Orlando, the head of the Rete party and a member of the European Parliament, put forward a similar measure in that body this year.

Orlando actively took up the O'Dell case, even flying to Virginia to make a last-minute personal appeal for clemency to Gov. George Allen. He says the city of Palermo has taken up the cases of 37 people around the world who have been condemned to capital punishment.

Orlando spoke by telephone almost daily with O'Dell and secluded himself in prayer before the execution, as he had promised O'Dell he would do.

Tradition of tolerance

Many cultural reasons are behind why the Italian political class is so vociferous on this issue, Italians say.

There is, for example, the difference in cultures between America and the Continent, Mr. Neri says. He sees the tradition of tolerance, a founding principle of the French Revolution, as a fundamental influence here.

Even la dolce vita may have a role. Neri says this Italian love for life and for living it to its fullest developed after World War II, in a country which was trying to reconstruct its public and private life.

"Here in Rome we say 'Life is never enough,' " notes Alfredo Biondi, a former Italian justice minister.

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