- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

RICHMOND (AP) — Alarmed by an audit that found serious errors in Virginia’s DNA testing, a coalition of civil rights and religious groups yesterday urged Gov. Mark Warner to order retesting in all 23 of the state’s death row cases.

The groups also asked Mr. Warner to halt the scheduled July 11 execution of Robin Lovitt and commute his sentence to life because a court clerk destroyed most of the physical evidence in his case, making postconviction DNA testing impossible.

“The government should not execute someone after its own officials destroy evidence that could have set him free,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group.

Also at a press conference were former death row inmate Earl Washington Jr. and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

An independent audit released last month said the Virginia Division of Forensic Science botched DNA testing in the case of Mr. Washington, who was pardoned in 2000 after retesting raised doubt about his guilt in a 1982 rape and killing.

Mr. Warner ordered a further review of more than 160 cases involving the same kind of “low-level” DNA that was at issue in the Washington case. Five independent DNA experts are conducting that review, but it focuses only on procedures.

The groups said the Lovitt case is similar to the Washington case because DNA tests were inconclusive, perhaps because of the low level of DNA available for testing. Lovitt of Arlington was sentenced to death in the fatal stabbing of a pool hall manager with a pair of scissors.

“It could very well be that the analyst failed to properly exclude Mr. Lovitt and/or may have failed to identify the true perpetrator,” the groups said in a letter hand-delivered to Mr. Warner’s office.

Emily Lucier, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office, said DNA was not a major factor in the Lovitt case.

Warner spokesman Kevin Hall declined to comment on the request to stay Lovitt’s execution.

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