Joseph Roger O'Dell, III

Case Synopsis

Joseph Roger O'Dell, III, was executed on July 23, 1997 for a crime he most likely did not commit. Evidence in this case, reveals a gross miscarriage of justice that was perpetrated by the State of Virginia. The evidence was circumstantial at best, and was filled with enough reasonable doubt to cast a shadow under any tree. The court appointed an attorney, whose expertise was not Criminal Law, to begin the representation. Then allowed the defendant to represent himself without a lawyer, when the defendant recognized that his appointed counsel was lacking in criminal law experience.

On February 6, 1985 the body of a 44 year old secretary by the name of Helen Schartner was found by a passerby in a muddy field behind a nightclub in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She had been raped, sodomized, beaten in the head, and strangled. On February 8, 1985 the Defendant was arrested for the murder of Helen Schartner.

Testimony Presented at Trial in 1986

The victim met with friends at the County Line Lounge, a country and western nightclub in Virginia Beach, Virginia, at approximately 8:30 p.m. on February 5, 1985. Her boyfriend, Ike Wright, showed up at 11:15 p.m., and he and the victim immediately started dancing. After the dance she went to the ladies room. Upon returning from the ladies room, she left the nightclub at approximately 11:25 and no later than 11:30 p.m.

The defendant was at the same nightclub. He was seen by the victim's cousin on the other side of the nightclub. There was no contact between the defendant and the victim that night, or any other time, nor did they know each other.

Prosecutor's Theory

The prosecutor hypothesized that the defendant waited outside for the victim, and when she approached her car he put a gun to her side and forced her to leave with him. He then beat her head with the gun inside of his car, then raped, sodomized and strangled her. He dumped her body in a muddy field, and then went to another nightclub, and showed up in the parking lot covered with blood, allegedly the victim's. He then went to a 7-11 Convenience Store, covered with blood, and later went to his landlord/girlfriend's house.

Defendant's Story

The Defendant left the County Line Lounge after 12:00 a.m. and proceeded to a Hardees Restaurant for something to eat. He then went to two different bars, staying only a little while, and then went to a nightclub/restaurant named "The Brass Rail," which is located in the Ocean View section of Norfolk, Virginia. As the Defendant approached the entrance of "The Brass Rail", through the parking lot, there were two men engaged in a fistfight. The Defendant attempted to break up the fight, but instead became involved in the fight. He got blood on his clothing from the fight. The Police came, the fight broke up, and the Defendant went into "the Brass Rail" to clean up in the men's room, but there were no paper towels or soap. He left and went to a 7-11 Convenience Store to buy some towels and alcohol to clean up with. Leaving the 7-11, he went to a restaurant named "Pete's Place," and went into the men's room and cleaned up. Leaving "Pete's Place" he proceeded to the home of his landlord/lover's home.

Evidence Presented at Trial

Bloody clothing with the blood type being "consistent with" the victim's blood. This was the main evidence at the trial.

A Cigarette Butt found at the crime scene. Testimony revealed that it came from a softpack of Marlboros. A search of the Defendant's car revealed he smoked Winstons, and of the 14 cigarette butts found in the Defendant's car, not one was a softpack Marlboro- most were Winstons. CONCLUSION: Defendant smoked Winstons.

A footprint cast from a footprint found at the murder scene did NOT MATCH the Defendant's footprint.

A "partial" tire track found at the edge of the parking lot, about 50 feet from where the victim's body was found, was said to be similar to the Defendant's tires. The expert witness would not stake his reputation that the track came from the Defendant's car.

Sperm found in the victim's vagina and anus had a GENETIC MARKER OF PGM 2-1, the Defendant's GENETIC MARKER IS PGM-1, and is totally different. (This alone should have excluded and cleared the Defendant.)

No fingerprints of the Defendant or victim, found in either his/her car, nor any other materials that would link the defendant and the victim were found.

No hairs or fiber from the Defendant were found on the victim's body, nor anything linking the Defendant and the Victim.

Botanical debris from 9 foot tall Elephant Grass was all over the victim's body. There was no "trace-evidence" on the Defendant's clothing, car or shoes from the botanical debris.

Soil samples taken from the "crime-scene-field," but not produced at trial, could not be matched to soil on Defendant's shoes, clothing or car. (this would have clearly shown that the Defendant could not have been the killer, for no such evidence was found in his car, clothing or shoes.) O'Dell changed clothes at the landlord/girlfriend's residence and he put the clothing directly in a paper bag and it was never touched until submitted to the police by his landlord/girlfriend.

PROFESSIONAL JAILHOUSE INFORMANT'S STATEMENT OF THE DEFENDANT'S "ALLEGED CONFESSION": The Professional Jailhouse Informant stated that the Defendant bought drinks for the victim, danced with her, sat at her table, and then left with him to go "riding in Defendant's car."

(All of this testimony was totally inconsistent with the KNOWN FACTS OF THE CASE. The Informant had 4 felonies, and was in jail, along with his wife, for breaking and entering, and arson. He was facing LIFE IN PRISON. After his testimony of the Defendant's "ALLEGED CONFESSION," he received 3 years probation even though his pre-sentence report states he was ineligible for probation. His record reveals he has received probation after probation on several other charges.)

Facts Represented by Testimony at Trial

The victim left the nightclub between 11:15 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. at the latest.

The Defendant left the nightclub after 12:00 midnight, as testified to by the "DOORMAN," who remembered seeing the Defendant still inside the nightclub, as he, the "DOORMAN," was counting the "cover charge" receipts, which stop at midnight.

The Defendant did not talk, dance or leave at any time with the victim. They never met or knew each other.

The landlord/lover of the defendant, was said to have been riddled with jealousy and stated she "hated" the Defendant when she turned over the Defendant's bloody clothing to the police. She was purportedly jealous over his relationships with "younger women." (She was 20 years older than the Defendant).

The man who found the victim's body never testified at the trial. Allegedly he was hidden by the police and prosecution so he could not testify to seeing a man, who was not the Defendant, crouched in the weeds by the victim's body.

Statements of witnesses were allegedly hidden concerning the victim having an argument with someone in the parking lot as she was leaving, and she was heard to say, "I am not going anywhere with you." (She was not arguing with the Defendant.)

A "CONFESSION" to the murder of Helen Schartner was made by a SERIAL KILLER, by the name of David Mark Pruett, to several people. This statement allegedly has been hidden, but was the cause of public defender Peter Legler to withdraw from the defendant's case allegedly due to a conflict of interest, because Pruett was represented by the public defender's office. (Pruett has since been executed.) Court records will verify that the Pruett confession was the reason for the withdrawal of the public defender from the defendant's case.

Proof of Innocence

After he was convicted and sentenced to death, the Defendant insisted on DNA testing of the blood evidence to prove that the blood on his clothing did not belong to the victim, as the prosecutor convinced the jury that it did. The MOTION FOR DNA testing was granted in 1989 by the trial judge, who had adamantly stated throughout the trial that he had problems and concerns over the reliability of the blood evidence.

DNA TESTING, conducted by LIFECODES LABORATORY, revealed that the blood evidence on the Defendant's shirt, which was the main piece of evidence, DID NOT BELONG TO THE VICTIM. These results were confirmed by testimony from both the defense and prosecution, and by both state and federal courts, which concluded that the blood could not be linked to the victim.

(Federal District Court, Richmond, Virginia Division, Judge James R. Spencer Decision, September 1994.) The blood on the Defendant's jacket was found to be inconclusive due to degradation.

The blood was the ONLY link to the victim, other than the PROFESSIONAL INFORMANT'S testimony that the Defendant "CONFESSED" to the crime. The blood evidence has now been proven, through DNA TESTING, not to be the victim's. The Informant's testimony can now be proven non-credible, and was considered "questionable" by the federal court judge. All other "circumstantial" evidence in fact further proves O'Dell's innocence as previously depicted.


The facts of the case clearly show the innocence of a man who was prosecuted in Virginia Beach, Virginia. According to a statement which appeared in the Virginian Pilot, "The Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney's office has a history of convicting innocent men." On September 27th, 1995, Dennis Stockton was executed despite doubt cast over his guilt.

The State of Virginia executed Roger Keith Coleman, May 20th, 1992, even in the face of controversy throughout America. O'Dell's case is an even more obvious one of neglect by the Criminal Justice System. One of the most atrocious and reprehensible aspects of this case, on top of everything else, is that the State of Virginia KNOWS that DNA now eliminates the ONLY bit of evidence that they had to take O'Dell to trial, yet they refuse to set him free. He sits on Death Row, suffering unbearably, death staring him in the face, and not one iota of evidence against him. What has happened to the TRUTH? Is our system just a "GAME OF WIN OR LOSE?" How many people must die before the people of Virginia and other states, will stand up and shout for the public and the government to hear the truth? Clearly, Joseph O'Dell should not have to pay the price of a "FAILED SYSTEM," for surely he is an INNOCENT MAN. There is a MOUNTAIN OF EVIDENCE that proves O'Dell's INNOCENCE, and NOT ONE SCINTILLA of evidence that proves him guilty.

Joseph R. O'Dell, III, Executed in Virginia 7/23/97 - Death Row letters, stories and photos with Sondra London.

Death Row Interview

Dead Man Talking To Sondra London

I remember Joe O'Dell very well. The man I called Big Joe wrote to me for over five years. I visited him in prison and we enjoyed many telephone conversations.

Executed in Virginia on July 23, 1997, he was arguably innocent.

Statements about the Helen Schartner murder issued by the State and the Governor of Virginia are not necessarily accurate. I have inspected O'Dell's DNA reports myself, and what was reported as a "match" on the blood on O'Dell's jacket was actually inconclusive in the opinion of not only Lifecodes Laboratories, but of the doctor in England who actually invented the DNA test itself. The blood on O'Dell's shirt was an exclusion.

Reports that he left the club "minutes" after the victim fail to mention that O'Dell actually left more than THIRTY MINUTES after the victim, and that nobody ever saw O'Dell speak to the victim or interact with her in an any way while they were both in the club socializing with their own friends. I could go further into the evidence, but it's clear, nobody wants to know that this man who has now been irrevocably exterminated might have been innocent, as he insisted up until the end.

Joseph O'Dell was featured in my book Knockin' on Joe: Voices from Death Row, which was published in 1992 in England, and is now out of print.

Sondra London's Death Row Interview With Joseph O'Dell

(Excerpts from interview published in Crime Beat Magazine 11/29/91)

Are you preparing yourself to be executed?

Yes, I am. In fact, I'm asking for public execution if I am executed.

And why is that?

Because I want society to see an innocent man executed. If my innocence is not proven before I am executed, then it's going to materialize later. And that's happened in a number of cases. Edward Earl Johnson was executed in Mississippi in July of 1987, and his innocence was irrefutably proven two weeks later. But had that been a public execution and people had seen him die, then I think the citizens of Mississippi would have a different viewpoint on execution.

Do you think public execution would have a deterrent effect on crime?

People view capital punishment - and that includes the perpetrators of a capital crime before they are actually caught - they view execution in the abstract. In other words, you read about something happening, but you don't see it. But when you actually see something, it becomes indelible in your mind. Even when a man is sentenced to the electric chair, it doesn't have an impact on him because he's seeing it in the abstract too.

What about those people who would get a thrill out of seeing an execution?

You're going to have that in any society. They used to come from hundreds of miles and camp out to watch it.

Why do you suppose that is?

Because society has some real sick people. It's like the prison guard who was telling me the reason he worked in prison, because if he didn't see how we suffered every day, that he'd probably end up in prison himself. So I think people watch executions for several reasons. Some love the thrill of seeing someone die. It gives them something to talk about, some substance to their otherwise rather boring lives. Some people are just curious about things. There's a plethora of reasons why people do that. But we're going to have that. I know people who are against public execution use that argument, but on the other hand, right now executions are held in private chambers, while everything else is public record. You have a right to a public trial, in fact you can't even waive that right. In some states, they allow cameras in the courtroom so people can view these events at home. So why is everything else in the process publicized, yet when the punishment is meted out, all of a sudden it becomes a private affair that happens at 11:00 at night and nobody knows what happened.

What is it like on the Row when there is an execution?

Very quiet, especially if it is a close friend. Since I've been on Death Row, I've seen eight men take that walk. But I've never actually seen an execution.

Have you ever talked to a condemned man right before execution?

No, because they take them out of here 15 days prior to execution and put them in the Death House. They're isolated, and they have them under 24-hour watch. Even when they use the bathroom, the guard writes it down. When the guard lights a cigarette for him, he writes that down. If he engages the guard in conversation, he writes down what it was about.

Is there ever any disorder in the prison when there is an execution?

Well, since I've been here, there's been no disorder. When I was in Florida, when John Spinkelink was executed, guys were throwing fire bombs out the windows and everything, but since I've been on this Death Row here, no, there's been no disturbance. They usually lock us up. But I think the inmates in Florida were just showing that they were against killing one of their own kind.

So you don't see any role whatsoever for capital punishment under any circumstances?

Well, like I said, before I came to Death Row, I was for capital punishment, but that was because I was ignorant to everything that capital punishment entailed. And that's why I think that people should be educated to it, so society can get the true perspective on what the death penalty is all about. Right now, society has only got one perspective. And we keep hearing all the same old worn-our arguments. They need something fresh to look at and they need to see the thing in toto.

Can you describe what a man goes through when he is executed in the electric chair in Virginia?

Well, the guy is taken out of here by what is called the Death Squad. They're dressed in black suits with black boots, and they look sort of like the Nazi Gestapo. Then he's taken to Greenville Prison. That's where the Death House is with the electric chair. He's placed in an isolated cell 15 days prior to his execution. He's under observation for 24 hours a day, and he has access to a phone 24 hours a day.
Before the day of the execution, he's asked what meal he wants, the traditional last meal thing. The Governor has a phone set up in there in case he wants to grant clemency or in case a stay of execution comes through. On the day of execution, he's allowed a visit with his family and friends. His minister is there for most of the day, and so are his lawyers.
The execution is set for 11:00 p.m. always. His head is shaved, and his left ankle is shaved. He's given a shower about 5:00 in the afternoon, and then he's given his execution clothes to put on. They take the pants and slice the left leg so they can put the electrode around his left leg, and then he's placed back in his cell to await whatever's going to happen to him. At about ten minutes to 11:00 if he hasn't got a stay of execution, the Death Squad comes and they handcuff him and then they escort him towards the Death Chamber.
As he walks into the room, there's a glass window that separates the Death Chamber from an outside anteroom, and he sees the twelve people who have been chosen to witness the execution. He's placed in the electric chair, and he's strapped in place with a strap across his chest, straps around his arms, and straps around his legs.
And then the electrode is placed on his leg and a conductive type fluid is rubbed on his scalp that will conduct electricity so they can kill him faster. Then a steel skullcap is placed on his head. Then they ask him if he has any last words, and if he does he says them. Then they put a mask across his face.
And at exactly 11:00 p.m. if the phone doesn't ring, when that second hand strikes eleven o'clock, the Warden gives a sign to the executioner, who is out of sight, to press the button. And then 2500 volts of electricity goes through his body for one minute, and then it's cut off for fifteen seconds, and then it's turned on again for another minute. And then the doctor examines him and says, "He's expired."
After that, the curtains are closed, the witnesses leave, and he sits in the chair for five or ten minutes to cool off, because it's hot. And then the body is removed to what is known as the cooling room, and it lays there until the coroner comes, which is about fifteen minutes later.
And then the body is removed from the cooling room and taken to the Medical College of Virginia, where a state law dictates that the body shall be autopsied. After that, it is either released to the family or turned over to the college for experiments or to private people.
And that's the end of the story of the executed convict.

I understand that what you see when he is actually executed is very graphically appalling. Is this the way you want people to remember you as you are executed on TV?

On October 17, 1990, a friend of mine, Wilbert Evans, was executed. Blood burst from his eyes, from his ears, and from his mouth, and he died a grotesque death in the electric chair. People were appalled, they got sick, but they kind of kept that hid. This doesn't happen every time. Some guys have more resistance to electricity than others. See, Wilbert was a gigantic man, he was 6'4", 280 pounds. And he was very physically fit, so to speak.
But you ask me if that's the way I want to be remembered. I made a statement on the Donahue show in April of 1990 describing how a person dies in the electric chair. I told him about the eyes exploding, which they do. That's the reason they put a mask over your face, because your eyes explode. They turn into jelly. What happens is the electricity takes the course of least resistance in your body, and it's like a microwave. Your internal organs are actually cooked within.
Now, I want people to remember me as a person who was executed, that was innocent. I don't want to offend anybody and I don't want anybody to have heart attacks or nightmares behind what they saw. I just want them to be aware that when you execute somebody you'd better be damn sure he is guilty. If you're going to stand for capital punishment, I want you to be absolutely sure that the person you execute is the one that committed the crime. Because if you execute a person, you can't go dig their body up when you find out they're innocent, and say, excuse me, we made a mistake. I think we're always going to have capital punishment, but if people are going to be for it, I want them to know what they're for.
First of all, I want them to be aware of what it is and not view it in the abstract. Secondly, I want them to know that they've got the right person in the electric chair. We've got 410 cases of capital punishment already, of innocent people who have been convicted of murder, and who were vindicated and who are out on the streets, who would have been dead if it hadn't come to light that they didn't do it. I'm referring to the Bedeau/Radelet Study. I'm a big buff on miscarriage of justice, and I am a consultant to universities and so forth on miscarriage of justice.
For instance, Joseph Green Brown in Florida, known as Shabaku, was convicted of rape and murder, and spent 14-1/2 years on Death Row. His head was shaved, he was placed in the electric chair and he was ready to die. But his innocence was proven and he was taken out of the electric chair and placed on the streets in Tampa, Florida. He's on the streets today, he's been on 60 Minutes, and he went to England to visit some friends of mine.
And my friend Guy Gordon Marsh in Maryland spent 14 years in prison for a murder and robbery he didn't commit. If he'd had the death penalty, he would have died.
James Richardson spent 21 years on Death Row in Florida, and after 21 years, they found out he didn't murder his seven children, somebody else did. From 1987 until right now, I've got 28 cases of Death Row inmates who were found innocent. In just four years, 28 men who were sentenced to die, and their innocence was proven.
Most recently, my friend Clarence Lee Brandley in Texas was released from Death Row for the rape and murder of a cheerleader by the name of Cheryl Ferguson. He's a black man, a janitor, and he was accused by a group of white janitors, and when the truth came to light, it was the two white janitors that had raped her and killed the girl. My friends at the Centurian Ministries are the ones that brought that case to light, Kate German and James McCluskey.
I could go on all day long about that, but I just want you to get the impact of how atrocious the death penalty is when you start executing innocent people. If people believe in killing murderers, then that's their belief and that's the law. And even though I don't believe in it, it's there, it happens.
All I want to say is, if you're going to believe in the death penalty, and you're going to kill a man, make damn sure you've got the right man before you put him in the electric chair. Because we know that innocent people have been executed.

(Source: )

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