10 Innocent People Who Were Executed, Part Nine: Joseph O’Dell

Joseph O’Dell

Executed 1997

In 1985, Helen Schartner was raped and murdered. they found her strangled body outside a nightclub in Virginia Beach. [1] The murder of a young woman outside a nightclub in the heavily populated, predominantly military community of Virginia Beach would set the population on edge, desiring justice. Violence against a woman at a local nightclub would require quick and decisive action by police; a pressurized situation that has led to rushed prosecutions in other death penalty cases.

Screen Shot 2010-01-12 At 5.37.14 PmAt the time of the murder, O’Dell was already on parole for kidnapping and robbery convictions in Florida. His presence in the community would have been easy to establish, as all convicted parolees are required to register with local law enforcement when they relocate to a new town. Therefore it was likely that the police had little time lost searching their database for someone who they could investigate for the murder.


This is the ninth installment in the Innocent People Executed series from Historydojo. Please find the eighth installment here. Please find the first installment here.


O’Dell chose to represent himself during the trial and he was convicted of the murder in based solely on blood evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse “snitch.” Prosecutors showed that the wounds on Mrs. Schartner’s head matched the shape of a pellet gun owned by Mr. O’Dell. Semen on her body matched Mr. O’Dell’s blood and enzyme types, and hairs found in his car matched hers.[2]

The use of a pellet gun and blood evidence that would later be challenged by DNA testing is a low standard of evidence to base a capital murder conviction. The acceptance of this argument by a jury adds more evidence to the manipulation of common understanding by prosecutors who use assumption of guilt and presumptions of infallible authority to find accused people guilty on flimsy evidence.

It did not help that O’Dell represented himself at trial. Attorneys often joke that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client.

Mr. O’Dell also argued that he should have been allowed to tell the jurors at the sentencing part of his trial in 1986 that if they did not give him the death penalty, he would have to spend the rest of his life in prison. Without this information, the jury would not have any choice but to find for the death penalty if they believed O’Dell to be guilty. The limitation on the knowledge of this alternative was later determined by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, but was also determined after O’Dell’s conviction. Because the Supreme Court’s decision at a later date, it was not retroactive to include O’Dell’s case. [3]

Beyond upon the faulty blood test and a jailhouse snitch, there was nothing else linking O’Dell to the crime.

For much of the decade that followed, O’Dell’s unsuccessful appeals went to the Virginia Supreme Court, Federal District Court, and the Supreme Court, where Justice Harry Blackmun found “serious questions as to whether O’Dell committed the crime” and warned of “the gross injustice that would result if an innocent man were sentenced to death.”[1] The obvious reasonable doubt in the case was visible to anyone not influenced by the prosecutor or local police, but by the time clarity of perspective was possible, it was too late for Joseph O’Dell.

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

O’Dell asked the state to conduct DNA tests on other pieces of evidence to demonstrate his innocence but was refused. Following his death, efforts to conduct further tests on the evidence in O’Dell’s case continued unabated. Late in 1997, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, petitioned the Circuit Court of Virginia Beach to release evidence for testing. The use of DNA testing has been problematic for the court system, as it’s use might undermine tens of thousands of cases that have innocent men sitting in prison, a devastating revelation for criminal justice. The Supreme Court has ruled that expediency is more important than truth in cases where DNA testing might lead to exoneration, and has ruled that convicted prisoners do not have a due process right to demand testing after conviction.

The Court denied the request and suggested that the evidence be disposed of as required by law.[4]

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Mrs. Joseph O’Dell married him the same day he was executed.

An International campaign to save his life had supporters like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Both the governor of Virginia and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected last-minute pleas to spare his life.

O’Dell was executed by lethal injection on July 23, 1997.

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.[5]

In 2000, the last of the DNA evidence in the O’Dell case stored in the circuit court of Virginia Beach was burned without any further testing.


[1]http://murderpedia.org/male.O/o1/odell-joseph.htm

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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