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Convict Executed, Evidence Burned: Questions Remain in Virginia Slaying (58697)

A convict was executed. Evidence was burned.

But something about the case of the dead man, career criminal Joseph O’Dell III, won’t go away — even after three years.

O’Dell advocates still want to know why Virginia officials put him to death without granting his last wish — a second DNA test the supporters claim would have proved him innocent.

They also want to know why the state burned the crucial evidence even after O’Dell was dead and buried.

“The state is just covering its tracks. They know they put an innocent man to death,” said Sheila Knox, O’Dell’s sister. “It’s just one big stinking cover-up.”

Terms like cover-up, travesty and miscarriage of justice also fall from the lips of O’Dell’s attorney, Paul Enzinna.

“When you have the state burning evidence to prevent people from getting proof of innocence or guilt, I think something has gone seriously wrong,” he said.

This much is certain: O’Dell was executed in Virginia on July 23, 1997, for the 1985 rape and slaying of Helen Schartner in Virginia Beach.

“How many times do we have to test before we say it’s enough≠” – Judge Albert D. Alberi

Key to the prosecution case was early forensic testing of O’Dell’s bloody clothing taken the night of the attack. The state’s expert said Schartner’s blood matched that found on O’Dell’s shirt.

O’Dell’s representatives immediately raised questions about the accuracy of the forensic testing.

Enzinna argued that a new, more accurate test on the rape kit taken from Schartner would have proved O’Dell’s guilt or innocence. The Washington, D.C., lawyer pressed for testing even after his client’s execution.

“What did they have to fear≠ The man was already executed,” Enzinna said.

But after winning a legal battle against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond, which sought the test on O’Dell’s behalf, Virginia Beach court officials tossed the rape kit into a city incinerator last year.

The door is shut on the issue, as far as Virginia Beach General District Court Judge Albert D. Alberi is concerned.

“Mr. O’Dell had one test and he didn’t like the result. The real question is whether we establish some reasonable standards for DNA testing or if we continue testing and testing forever,” said Alberi, who prosecuted O’Dell before his elevation to the bench two years ago.

“Doesn’t the original evidence count for anything in this case≠ How many times do we have to test before we say it’s enough≠”

At least one more time, according to Knox, who recalls Joe O’Dell so differently. In a poem titled “Me and Joe, Childhood Memories,” she recalled how she and her brother flew kites, skinned their knees learning to skate and got matching bikes one glorious Christmas morning.

Knox said the poem used to rekindle sweet memories. Today, however, it adds to frustrations that she will never be able to vindicate her brother because the evidence was destroyed.

“I know he was innocent but he can’t be cleared officially. They were just going through the formality of letting us think they would give him another DNA test,” Knox said. “They had their minds made up to burn the evidence. They were tired of hearing about Joe O’Dell.”