- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

In between trips to New Hampshire, outgoing Virginia Gov. Mark Warner took time from his busy schedule to order clemency for convicted murderer Robin Lovitt, who was scheduled to be executed last night for the 1998 murder of pool-hall manager Clayton Dicks in Arlington. In announcing that he would commute the death sentence of Lovitt, who was convicted of stabbing Mr. Dicks to death with a pair of scissors, Mr. Warner claimed that clemency was necessary “to reaffirm confidence in our justice system.” Unfortunately, his move is likely to do the opposite: to encourage cynicism that he is politicizing Virginia’s criminal justice system in order to advance his own political fortunes.

The Lovitt commutation is the first since Mr. Warner took office in January 2002; 11 prisoners have been executed during his term. In explaining his decision to commute Lovitt’s sentence to life without parole, Mr. Warner cited the premature destruction of DNA evidence in the case by a court clerk in Arlington four years ago. A look at the evidence in the case, including Lovitt’s extensive criminal history, leads us to the conclusion that the trial court had a reasonable basis for finding Lovitt guilty and sentencing him to death for a heinous crime.

Mr. Dicks, 45, was stabbed to death with scissors Nov. 18, 1998, at the Arlington pool hall where he worked as night manager. Lovitt admits to stealing the pool hall’s cash register, containing $200, but claims that someone else killed Mr. Dicks while he was in the bathroom. Lovitt protests that the loss of the DNA evidence denied him the opportunity to run new tests which would exonerate him. But the prosecution counters that the DNA evidence played a minimal role in the case.

Relatives of the victim called for the governor to go forward with the execution. Why did Mr. Warner now decide to spare Lovitt?

The Lovitt execution would have been the 1,000th in the nation since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. As Mr. Warner campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, he will have to convince primary voters who skew way to the left that he’s someone they can count on. Commuting Lovitt’s sentence is one way for the governor to ingratiate himself with that constituency.

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