RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Virginia’s governor spared the life of a convicted killer yesterday who would have been the 1,000th person executed in the United States since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976.
Robin Lovitt’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole a little more than 24 hours before he was to be executed by injection tonight for stabbing a man to death with a pair of scissors during a 1998 pool-hall robbery.
In granting clemency, Gov. Mark R. Warner noted that evidence from the trial had been improperly destroyed, depriving the defense of the opportunity to subject the material to the latest in DNA testing.
“The commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly,” Warner said in a statement.
Warner, a Democrat, had never before granted clemency to a death row inmate during his four years in office. During that time, 11 men have been executed. Virginia is one of the most active death-penalty states, having executed 94 people since 1976.
The 1,000th execution is now scheduled for Friday in North Carolina, where Kenneth Lee Boyd is slated to die for killing his estranged wife and her father.
The 999th execution since capital punishment resumed a generation ago took place Tuesday morning, when Ohio put to death John Hicks, who strangled his mother-in-law and suffocated his 5-year-old stepdaughter to cover up the crime.
Lovitt’s lawyers, who include former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and anti-death penalty advocates had argued that his life should be spared because a court clerk illegally destroyed the bloody scissors and other evidence, preventing DNA testing that they said could exonerate him.
Ashley Parrish, another of Lovitt’s attorneys, called Warner’s decision “entirely proper, given the extraordinary circumstances of Mr. Lovitt’s case.”
Lovitt was convicted in 1999 of murdering Clayton Dicks at an Arlington pool hall. Prosecutors said Dicks caught Lovitt prying open a cash register with the scissors, which police found in the woods between the pool hall and the home of Lovitt’s cousin.
Lovitt admitted grabbing the cash box but insisted someone else killed Dicks. DNA tests on the scissors at the time of the trial were inconclusive. But more sophisticated DNA techniques are now available.
The governor, who is considered a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2008, said he was “acutely aware of the tragic loss experienced by the Dicks family.”
“However, evidence in Mr. Lovitt’s trial was destroyed by a court employee” before post-conviction DNA tests could be done, he said. “The actions of an agent of the commonwealth, in a manner contrary to the express direction of the law, comes at the expense of a defendant facing society’s most severe and final sanction.”
The state attorney general’s office released a statement acknowledging the governor’s authority to grant clemency and adding, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family.”
In addition to Starr, Republicans such as Mark Earley, Warner’s GOP opponent in the 2001 gubernatorial election, had also denounced the planned execution.