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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death Row Sells High Fashion

ROME -- Fashion giant Benetton is joining Italy's offensive against the death penalty with its latest advertising campaign: piercing portraits of American death-row inmates.

The posters, which will hit billboards worldwide at the end of January, feature death-row inmates in prison uniforms staring into the camera over the words, "Sentenced to Death." The prisoner's name, date of birth, crime and expected method of execution follows.

"How can they do that? How can they do that?" said Freida Froemsdorf, whose 35-year-old son, a Missouri state highway patrolman, was gunned down in 1985 by one of the inmates to be featured by Benetton.

"They shouldn't be doing anything like that - there should be a law against it," Froemsdorf said Saturday when told of the ad campaign in a telephone interview from her Missouri home.

Photographer Oliviero Toscani, known for socially provocative Benetton ads that seemingly have little to do with fashion, visited prisons across the United States over two years to create the series, called "Looking Death in the Face."

Toscani is now promoting his campaign in the United States, where the number of executions last year was the highest it has been since 1954.

One of the men featured in the ad campaign is Jerome Mallett, who is on death row in Missouri for James Froemsdorf's slaying.

The trooper had apparently handcuffed Mallett after a driver's license check revealed he was wanted by authorities in Dallas for armed robbery and a parole violation. Authorities believe Mallet grabbed Froemsdorf's revolver and then shot and killed him.

Another is Leroy Orange, who along with his half-brother was convicted in 1985 of murdering four people, including a 10-year-old boy, after an argument over drugs. The victims were stabbed and their apartment set on fire in an effort to conceal the crime.

Both brothers confessed to Chicago police shortly after their arrests. Later, however, Orange contended police tortured him into confessing, and the half-brother said he alone committed the crimes.

Toscani said he wanted to foster debate on capital punishment, even at the cost of losing American customers.

"Of course, that may happen," Saturday's English-language "Italy Daily" quoted him as saying. "But as a result of the campaign, we may gain new customers. If advertising made everyone happy, it would be an act of hypocrisy."

Italians, longtime opponents of the death penalty, increasingly are crusading against its use abroad. Over the coming year, Rome's Colosseum is to be lit up for 48 hours every time a death sentence is commuted anywhere in the world or a country abolishes the death penalty.

Since the late 1980s, when Toscani took over the fashion giant's advertising, Benetton has made headlines with ads addressing such topics as AIDS and racism - sometimes at the cost of accusations that it provokes or sympathizes simply to promote sales.

In 1993, AIDS groups in France sued over Benetton ads that showed the words "HIV positive" on buttocks and other body parts, calling them "commercial exploitation of suffering."

Also in the 1990s, the Roman Catholic Church protested a campaign that featured models dressed as a priest and a nun kissing.

Benetton concedes the ads are meant to increase consumer awareness of the label - but says they also are intended to raise awareness on social issues.

In announcing its death-row campaign, Benetton credited itself with "tearing down the wall of international indifference."

No one was available when comment was sought from Benetton headquarters Saturday, and it was unclear whether any of the inmates were compensated for participating in the ad campaign.

The Italian-based vendor of trendy sweaters, scarves and other clothing for men, women and children has retail stores worldwide.

Forbes magazine listed the Luciano Benetton family at No. 111 on its list of billionaires last year, with $4 billion in wealth.