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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Execution Stayed, Pope Had Interceded

RICHMOND, Virginia -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the execution of Joseph Roger O'Dell III, whose claim of innocence prompted Pope John Paul II to ask that his life be spared.

In a one-paragraph order, the court stayed O'Dell's execution pending a review of his formal appeal. The review is unlikely until January at the earliest.

O'Dell had been scheduled to die at Wednesday night for raping, sodomizing and strangling Helen Schartner outside a nightclub in 1985.

The Vatican announced Friday that the pope had interceded to save O'Dell's life. His plea for mercy was sent to President Bill Clinton and Governor George Allen, who said he would treat the O'Dell case like any other.

There was no immediate reaction from the governor's office or the Vatican. But Kathleen Kenney, associate director of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond's Office of Justice and Peace, welcomed the court's ruling.

"We hoped and prayed and did not have any idea of how this might turn out,'' she said. "We are, of course, against the death penalty under any circumstances, but it is especially heinous when the guilt of an individual is in question.''

The Italian government also registered a request with the U.S. Embassy in Rome that O'Dell's execution be suspended. The speaker of the Italian Senate, Nicola Mancino, sent a letter to Vice President Al Gore protesting the sentence.

O'Dell opted for the electric chair over lethal injection last week under a law that allows inmates to choose between the two methods. The 12 inmates executed since the law took effect Jan. 1, 1995, have died by injection.

O'Dell was convicted in 1986 at a lengthy trial where he represented himself after firing his court-appointed attorney.

His supporters contend that DNA tests arranged by the defense three years after the trial show blood found on his shirt did not match the victim's. They also say DNA tests of blood found on his jacket were inconclusive.

But Albert Alberi, the Virginia Beach deputy commonwealth's attorney who prosecuted the case, has said the DNA tests showed that the blood on the coat matched that of the victim.

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond unanimously agreed in September that O'Dell's claims of innocence had no merit.

But the court split 7-6 in denying O'Dell's request for re-sentencing. O'Dell argued that the jury should have been told that he would be ineligible for parole because he has a long criminal history. He had 14 felony convictions by the time Schartner was killed