Published on Sunday, August 20, 2000 on the Philadelphia Inquirer
Italians Fight U.S. Use of Death Penalty
by Jeffrey Fleishman
ROME - Like those of most American death-row inmates, the name of Derek Rocco Barnabei, convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend and dumping her nude body into a murky Virginia river, has faded from headlines to near-obscurity in the United States.
An Italian American known to his buddies as Serafino, Barnabei is scheduled to be taken from his cell on Sept. 14 and given a lethal injection.
The execution will most likely warrant only a few paragraphs, maybe accompanied by a mug shot, in American newspapers.
But, 6,000 miles away, in Italy, Barnabei is a cause celebre, portrayed as a martyr trapped in an American court system bent more on vengeance than compassion.
The European Union consistently sponsors resolutions at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights for a global moratorium on capital punishment. Each time a death sentence is commuted anywhere in the world, Rome celebrates by illuminating the Colosseum in gold and white.
Italians hold vigils for those facing the electric chair. Pope John Paul II pleads for mercy. Last year, Italy's Bennetton clothing chain sponsored billboards sympathetically picturing American killers in white prison uniforms.
And three years ago, in one of the more bizarre twists of anticapital-punishment fervor, the Sicilian city of Palermo chartered a plane and flew the body of an executed American murderer from Virginia for burial in a cemetery usually reserved for dukes and Mafia bosses.
The tombstone reads: "Joseph R. O'Dell 3rd, beloved husband of Lori Urs O'Dell, honorary citizen of Palermo, killed by Virginia, U.S.A., in a merciless and brutal justice system."
The Italian media, never at a loss for conjecture and hyperbole, spun a morality play around O'Dell, who was arrested in 1985 for raping, sodomizing and murdering Helen Schartner in Virginia Beach. Italian politicians and columnists argued that DNA evidence existed that would have proved O'Dell's innocence. The Virginia courts were unmoved.
The Italians are perplexed by what they consider the United States' dual personality on human rights. The United States often criticizes such countries as China, Iraq and Saudi Arabia for torture, persecution and other abuses yet finds itself on what to the Europeans is a dubious list, of those nations that practice the death penalty.
Last year, the United States executed 98 inmates, ranking behind China (at least 1,077), Iran (165), and Saudi Arabia (103) but ahead of Cuba, Thailand and Uganda.
"The United States is keeping embarrassing company," said Sergio D'Elia, secretary of Hands Off Cain, a Rome-based international antideath-penalty organization.
"I think the U.S. is still a young country practicing the pioneer justice of an eye for an eye. This is part of American culture. . . . Europeans have evolved toward a more complex and compassionate justice."
Emma Bonino, former European commissioner for humanitarian affairs, visited death-row inmates in Florida and Illinois last year. Those trips, she said, intrigued and troubled her over the United States' willingness to exact a harsh justice that she feels should be reserved for God alone.
"Americans used to say the death penalty was a deterrent to crime," Bonino said. "But everyone now knows that's not true. What remains is the feeling by many Americans for retaliation: You killed someone, so you must die.
"This is astonishing for me, especially as a European. The institution of the state must be better than the individual."
The Italian battle against the death penalty is motivated by more than smugness or moral superiority. Hands Off Cain, Amnesty International, and other organizations closely follow the judicial flaws in death-penalty cases. Rome lit the Colosseum this year when Gov. George Ryan ordered a moratorium on capital punishment in Illinois because he had found the system to be "fraught with error."
Many Italian crusaders can quote from a recent death-penalty study by Columbia University law professor James Leibman. The report, the most thorough to date on capital punishment in the United States, examined 4,578 death-penalty cases between 1973 and 1995. It concluded that the state courts had committed errors 68 percent of the time and that convicted suspects were later proved innocent in 7 percent of the cases.
One of the most painful episodes between Italy and the United States was the 1927 murder trial of Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomo Vanzetti. Despite a string of judicial errors, Sacco and Vanzetti, whom many believed to be innocent, got the electric chair.
A similar Italian uproar surrounded the O'Dell case in 1997. And Barnabei's pending execution has reenergized this nation's opposition to capital punishment.
Italy last executed an inmate in 1947 and officially abolished capital punishment in 1994. In recent years, right-wing voices have called for stiffer justice, but politicians of all persuasions have consistently shunned capital punishment, even during the Mafia wars and the Red Brigade terrorist bombings of the 1970s and '80s.
Next year, Italy and the European Union plan to introduce a resolution for a moratorium on the death penalty before the U.N. General Assembly. That is expected to prove a difficult move, D'Elia said, since such prominent U.N. members as China and the United States would surely summon allies to defeat it.
"It will be tough," D'Elia said. "The most powerful country in the world, the U.S., and the country with the largest potential economic market, China, will apply pressure to stop the resolution."
The Barnabei case reveals the ferocity that Italians deploy in trying to stop an execution. Web pages are dedicated to saving Barnabei, whose family roots are near Siena. More than $200,000 has been raised for his defense. His mother, Jane, was flown to Italy in July for a news conference and a meeting with Vatican officials. The Italian and European parliaments have petitioned for a pardon.
And one of Italy's most respected criminal judges, Ferdinando Imposimato, sent a four-page letter to Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, requesting a stay of execution. The letter noted that Imposimato's brother, Franco, was murdered by the Mafia in retaliation for the judge's investigations.
"I wanted with all my heart . . . that those responsible be put to justice," Imposimato wrote.
But, he added, the quest for justice is sometimes clouded by emotion and judicial mistakes. To execute Barnabei, 33, would be a "grave error" because the murder might have been committed by others sharing his house near Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
Imposimato urged Virginia to conduct DNA tests on blood found beneath Wisnosky's fingernails, but that is an unlikely prospect since the state prohibits the admission of new evidence 21 or more days after the date of conviction.
"I've reviewed the Barnabei case," said Imposimato, whose brother's killers were sentenced to life in prison. "The evidence is not there. The courts and prosecutors have betrayed and violated the due process of law."
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had a different opinion on June 5 when it rejected Barnabei's appeal in the murder of the 17-year-old Wisnosky.
Barnabei had argued that he had consensual sex with Wisnosky and was not guilty of rape, the aggravating factor that led to his death penalty. But, after reviewing DNA tests on blood, semen and hair and studying trial testimony, the court ruled that "the evidence points overwhelmingly to Barnabei's guilt on both rape and murder chargers."
A medical examiner's report determined that Wisnosky was struck at least 10 times in the head with a heavy object, sodomized, and strangled.
D'Elia and Imposimato hope that the Colosseum will soon be lit in white and gold, marking a stay of execution for Barnabei. But, they admitted, they aren't all that confident.
"America thinks it will kill the evils of society with the death penalty," Imposimato said. "This is absurd."
Copyright 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc