Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



On February 5, 1985, Helen Schartner was raped and murdered on her way home from a bar in Virginia Beach. Joseph O'Dell was at the same bar that night, and fellow patrons claim he left the bar shortly after Schartner departed. Several hours later, O'Dell was seen entering a convenience store with blood on his hands, face, and clothes. O'Dell's estranged girlfriend--who had previously falsely accused O'Dell of other murders--read about Schartner's murder and called the police to report that O'Dell had left some bloody clothes in her garage. The police arrested O'Dell and charged him with the rape and murder of Schartner. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. O'Dell's 1986 conviction rested primarily on the testimony of a state forensic expert who claimed that the blood on O'Dell's shirt and jacket was "consistent" with that of Schartner's. Because DNA testing was not widely available in the mid-eighties when O'Dell was tried, the expert relied solely upon a rudimentary blood analysis, which compared proteins and enzymes. O'Dell consistently maintained his innocence, claiming that on the night of the murder he had gotten into a fistfight after leaving the bar, and the blood on his clothing came from this fight, rather than from any assault upon Schartner." DNA tests per- formed on O'Dell's shirt in 1990-four years after his conviction- proved that the blood on his shirt did not come from Schartner. The tests were inconclusive with respect to the blood on O'Dell's jacket. While his case was on appeal, O'Dell gathered additional evidence of his innocence. At trial, the state had presented the testimony of Steven Watson, a jailhouse informant who claimed that O'Dell confessed to Schartner's rape and murder while the two shared a jail cell. In 1996, Watson gave a statement under oath in which he admitted that his trial testimony was false and that O'Dell had, in fact, never confessed to him. In 1997, O'Dell requested that additional DNA tests be performed on semen samples recovered from the victim. Earlier attempts to test this evidence had been unsuccessful; however, recent advances in DNA technology now made it possible to perform DNA testing on the small amount of genetic material in the sample.