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Italians try to save U.S. prisoner

NCR Staff

He may have been little more than a blip on the radar screen in the U.S. press, but for weeks the most talked-about American in Italy was Derek Rocco Barnabei, executed in Virginia Sept. 14 for the alleged 1993 rape and murder of his girlfriend. Barnabei was the grandson of an Italian immigrant.

Attempts to save the life of Barnabei, 34, became a national crusade in Italy, drawing the intervention of Pope John Paul II and every party in parliament from the far right to the extreme left. Rallies and torchlight protest marches took place all over the country as the date of execution drew near. Italian television networks broadcast the countdown live, although it happened at 3 a.m. local time.

Observers say the contrast between the business-as-usual approach in America, where Barnabei was the fifth man put to death in Virginia alone this year, and in Italy, where the death penalty has been banned for more than a century, underscores the increasing gulf separating the United States and Europe on capital punishment.

All 15 member states of the European Union abandoned the death penalty decades ago, and European governments generally consider abolition a fundamental human rights principle. The United States, meanwhile, carried out 98 executions in 1999, placing it behind China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but ahead of Uganda, Cuba and Thailand.

“The U.S. is keeping embarrassing company,” said Sergio D’Elia, head of the Rome-based “Hands Off Cain” anti-death penalty campaign, at a rally staged days before Barnabei’s execution.

Two recent studies in the United States critical of the application of capital punishment helped to fuel discussion here. A Justice Department report released Sept. 12 appeared to bolster claims of racial bias, concluding that over the past five years 75 percent of defendants for whom a prosecutor has sought execution have been members of a minority group.

A second study, by Columbia University law professor James Leibman, found that of 4,578 death penalty cases between 1973 and 1995, state courts made errors 68 percent of the time, and 7 percent of convicted suspects were later proved innocent. That finding suggests that some 320 persons were once set to die -- or were executed -- who were not guilty.

Set against this backdrop of mounting doubt about the fairness of American justice, the fate of Barnabei, whose grandfather came from Tuscany and whose mother now lives in Italy, gripped the public imagination. Politicians from across the ideological spectrum, both from Italy and the European Union, flew in and out of Virginia attempting to win a reprieve.

The president of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, fired off a typical telegram: “As the third millennium dawns, so the failure of great civilized nations such as the United States, which exert considerable influence in the world, to understand that the time has come for them, too, to abolish this practice is now both out of step with the times and morally indefensible.”

Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato described the death penalty in the United States as “collective revenge.”

Outside Rome’s Colosseum, where emperors once had people killed and which has now become an international symbol of the crusade against the death penalty, computer terminals were set up for visitors to send e-mails to Virginia Gov. James Gilmore pleading for mercy.

On Sept. 14, John Paul II used his weekly audience to ask for a halt to the execution: “In the spirit of clemency of this Holy Year, I once more add my voice to all those who ask that Derek Rocco Barnabei’s life not be taken,” he said.

“I also hope that the use of capital punishment can be abandoned, given that the state today has other means of effectively suppressing crime without denying the perpetrator the possibility of redemption,” the pope said.

Papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls told reporters that John Paul had appealed twice before for Barnabei through diplomatic channels.

Italian anger over the execution became so intense that the U.S. State Department took the highly unusual step on Sept. 15 of warning Americans in Italy to take precautions against possible retaliation. To date no such incidents have emerged, though the caution is in place for a month.

In part, the reaction to the Barnabei case was based on doubts about his guilt. In the dramatic last few days before the execution, Gilmore authorized DNA tests on samples taken from under the victim’s fingernails for which Barnabei’s defense team had long clamored. Even when those tests pointed to his probable guilt, Barnabei’s supporters and sympathetic Italian journalists suggested the samples may have been contaminated during a period when they were reported missing by the police.

Beyond factors specific to this case, however, observers say there is a wide consensus here against the death penalty.

“It’s rooted in European history, where capital punishment was an expression of absolutism,” said James Walston, a professor at Rome’s American University and a commentator on Italian culture and politics for the International Herald-Tribune. “For many Europeans, the image is the king lopping your head off because you were against his powers.”

Walston said that it is often difficult for Europeans to appreciate that in the United States the death penalty is carried out by democratically elected governments and enjoys substantial popular support.

There is also something specifically Italian in the country’s anti-death penalty fervor, Walston said. He used one word to describe it: “Doubt.”

“Italians are profoundly and quite justifiably hesitant about their own legal system,” he said. “They are naturally opposed to any decision you can’t go back on. It’s alien to their culture.”

The European Union plans to introduce a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty in the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2001. Observers expect the United States and China to join forces in opposition.

John Allen’s e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000