- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner last night ordered clemency for Robin Lovitt, who was scheduled to be executed tonight for a 1998 stabbing death of a pool hall manager in Arlington.

Lovitt instead will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Democratic governor, who leaves office in January, said the destruction of DNA evidence in the case warranted the extreme measure of commuting Lovitt’s sentence.

“I believe clemency should only be exercised in the most extraordinary circumstances,” Mr. Warner said in a statement. “Among these are circumstances in which the normal and honored processes of our judicial system do not provide adequate relief; circumstances that, in fact, require executive intervention to reaffirm public confidence in our justice system.”

It is the first time Mr. Warner has commuted a death sentence since taking office in January 2002 — 11 prisoners have been executed during his term. There are 28 persons remaining on death row, according to Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. One Virginia prisoner is scheduled to die before Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine is sworn in on Jan. 14, but the execution is expected to be delayed by the appeal process.

“The commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly,” Mr. Warner said.

Lovitt, 42, was convicted in 1999 of murdering Clayton Dicks with a pair of scissors during a robbery of Champion Billiards. Lovitt admitted he stole the pool hall’s cash box containing $200, but insisted he saw someone else kill Mr. Dicks.

Initial DNA tests of the bloody scissors were inconclusive, and an Arlington court clerk in 2001 prematurely destroyed the scissors and other evidence that could have undergone further DNA testing. A state law requiring preservation of DNA evidence had taken effect a few weeks earlier.

Prosecutors have maintained that DNA evidence played a minimal role in Lovitt’s case and that there was other strong evidence, including eyewitness testimony.

At the trial, an eyewitness to the murder testified he was “80 percent” certain the killer was Lovitt. In a statement earlier this month to a private investigator hired by Lovitt’s attorneys, the eyewitness said he was unsure if Lovitt deserves the death penalty, because he has never been 100 percent certain on the killer’s identification.

Mr. Warner said he is “acutely aware of the tragic loss” felt by the Dicks family, members of whom had been urging him to allow the execution to proceed.

Mr. Dicks, who lived in Northeast when he was killed, was known as a gentle family man, according to press reports from 1998. Mr. Dicks, 45, was stabbed six times with scissors while working as the night supervisor at the pool hall.

“We hear a lot about Robin Lovitt in this case and precious little about Clayton Dicks,” said Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away the Key, a Kensington, Md.-based group that does advocacy in favor of capital punishment.

Mr. Paranzino said Mr. Dicks’ life was precious, and that Virginia should have sent a message through Lovitt’s execution.

“The next killer should think twice before stabbing a man to death in cold blood,” he said.

Before issuing the last-minute decision, Mr. Warner had said Lovitt’s execution was the “most troubling” of his term.

The governor, who is eyeing a 2008 bid for the presidency, was under political pressure from both sides of the issue. Lovitt would have been the 1,000th execution in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Lovitt’s attorneys said the DNA evidence would have proved their client’s innocence. They also argue Lovitt was not given a fair sentencing hearing since his attorney at the time failed to mention he had been abused as a child.

Mr. Warner said the clerk’s mistake came “at the expense of a defendant facing society’s most severe and final sanction.”

“Mr. Lovitt’s case demonstrates all the problems that we have been trying to highlight over the years about how a fallible system that’s administered by fallible human beings can result in the death of someone who might be potentially innocent,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Amnesty International USA’s program to abolish the death penalty.

The group was planning to host a vigil to mark the 1,000th execution.

Death-penalty supporters also noted the grim statistic.

“In a time of those 1,000 executions, there have been 600,000 murders of innocent Americans,” Mr. Paranzino said.

Sixty-eight percent of Virginians favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, according to a Rassmussen Reports poll of 500 likely voters conducted in September. Twenty-two percent are opposed.

Virginia has executed 94 inmates since 1976, more than any other state besides Texas.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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