Killer buried in adopted city that worked to save him from US execution


The body of the convicted rapist and murderer Joseph O'Dell was buried yesterday in Palermo, the city which led a vocal campaign to save him from execution in the United States. O'Dell, who was killed by lethal injection in Virginia last week, was entombed in Palermo's Santa Maria di Gesu cemetery.

Around 400 mourners crammed into the tiny stuccoed chapel to hear the service, which was broadcast to more than 100 people outside.

O'Dell's widow, Lori Urs, was there, along with his spiritual adviser, Sister Helen Prejean, and Palermo's mayor, Leoluca Orlando, who flew to the US last week in an 11th hour bid to save O'Dell.

Lori Urs, who married O'Dell just hours before his death, told reporters after the funeral that she thought her husband's execution was a shameful episode in US history.

"I discovered suppressed evidence, prosecution misconduct, unethical behaviour, witness tampering - and a sort of an effort to kill a man based upon such lies that I had to wonder why," she told a news conference. "Sadly, as I searched for answers . . . I was told, `This is the way it is'."

Many Italians took O'Dell's case to their heart, not necessarily because they thought he was innocent, but rather as an expression of their opposition to the death penalty.

Palermo, perhaps more than any other city in the world, championed the cause of O'Dell, who was executed for the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Schartner. The city made him an honorary citizen and O'Dell responded by asking for his body to be buried here.

Sister Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking and an ardent campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty, recalled the night of July 23rd when O'Dell died.

"Never have I seen a person face death so calm, so self-possessed, so loving," she told a news conference. "When the state of Virginia killed him, he was the freest man, the most loving man in the room."

But not everyone was happy with the decision to honour a man who had a long criminal record and no known ties with Italy. "It's a grotesque farce," Senator Valentino Martelli of the right-wing National Alliance party told parliament on Wednesday.