Lori St. John married Joseph O’Dell in his jail cell just hours before his execution.
“When you’re on a mission and you are true to yourself, and you have the truth in your pocket, it doesn’t matter what people think,” said St. John. “That social cause was so much greater than myself.”
O’Dell was convicted in a 1997 Virginia Beach murder and rape case. St. John, now an attorney and chief compliance officer for Coral Gables, spent fours years trying to prove his innocence.
The result: “The Corruption of Innocence: A True Story of a Journey for Justice,” (Creative Production Services) her non-fiction book that chronicles the case, including the reason for the strategic marriage. She will read from the book at 8 p.m. Monday at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave.
O’Dell was arrested in 1985 and charged with raping and murdering Helen Schartner, a Virginia woman, outside a Virginia Beach nightclub. From day one, he said he was innocent. For the next 10 years, he appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, the federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the courts to use DNA testing to verify that the bodily fluid found on the victim’s body was not his.
It was to no avail; he died by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia on July 23, 1997. He was 55.
In her book, St. John expands on the courts’ refusal to test for DNA and the investigation into the case.
One of the prosecutors in the case, Stephen Test, said Friday he stood by the results.
“The evidence that she requested did not scientifically prove that he was innocent,’’ Test said.
St. John , 57 , learned of the case when she began volunteering with Centurion Ministries, a non-profit based in Princeton, N.J., that works to free inmates from prison whom it deems are innocent.
At the time, St. John, a CPA who graduated from the University of Connecticut, had her own accounting firm and was working in New Jersey. She started researching the case, eventually shutting down her firm and working on this full time. When the case ended, she enrolled in Rutgers University’s School of Law, where she founded an Innocence Project, working with other law students.
“My father set by example how to lead with accountability, truth and integrity, and that’s what I expected from the system,” said St. John. “I was very disillusioned by what I saw.”
St. John said she read 15,000 pages of documents, spoke with attorneys and gathered a team of experts to investigate.
When she realized the U.S. media was not interested in her findings, she contacted a reporter overseas, who printed O’Dell’s story in an Italian magazine.
The story caught the eye of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, who honored St. John for her efforts, according to published reports on the case. The Italian Parliament also honored O’Dell by flying and burying his body in Palermo, Italy, in a white glove ceremony.
After graduating from Rutgers Law, St. John practiced criminal law in New Jersey. When her daughter began attending the University of Miami, she visited her and fell in love with South Florida.
In 2008, she came across an ad for chief compliance officer for the city of Coral Gables. She applied and got the job. There, she runs the city’s internal audit department.
“The tools and skills utilized are the same tools, values and skills I used as a criminal defense attorney.”
St. John wrote most of the book over the past two years.
“This is an insider telescopic tool to see behind the scenes,” said St. John. “It’s so easy for people with power to utilize authority because people usually defer to them simply because of their position. I say we don’t.”