Nov. 30, 2005 – Less than one day before 42-year-old Robin Lovitt was scheduled for execution in Jarrat, Virginia, outgoing Governor Mark Warner (D) commuted his death sentence to life without parole. Under Warnerâ€™s term as governor, the state has executed eleven other people.
An all-white jury convicted Lovitt of murdering Arlington pool-hall manager Clayton Dicks in 1998. The prosecution said Lovitt stabbed Dicks to death with a pair of scissors. Lovitt, a former employee of the pool hall, admitted to being at the scene the night of the murder. He also admits to having been under the influence of drugs and stealing the cash register drawer after exiting a bathroom and finding Dicks on the floor of the bar.
But Lovitt has always maintained that he did not murder Dicks. During the trial, the prosecution argued that Lovitt, who is African-American with a history of drug use and a non-violent criminal record, intentionally came to the pool hall to steal money and killed Dicks after a confrontation.
But the stateâ€™s case against Lovitt was teeming with irregularities, according to Lovittâ€™s defense team, including ineffective initial counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, circumstantial evidence, inconclusive DNA tests, deliberate destruction of evidence, and questionable testimony from the sole eye-witness.
Legal documents state that the eye-witness, Jose Alvarado, told police that he only saw the killer for a few seconds, did not get a good look at him and was not sure if he could identify him. Months later, Alvarado said he was only 80 percent certain that Lovitt had killed Dicks. In a signed affidavit that was recently sent to Governor Warner, Alvarado said he did not want Lovitt to be executed because he could not be sure that he was the killer.
Defense attorney Ashley Parrish says another major problem is that a court employee of 27 years, Robert McCarthy, willfully destroyed all the physical evidence while the case was still pending, effectively wiping out any chance for exoneration through DNA testing.
"The destruction of evidence was done in violation of Virginia law that was specifically designed to make sure that all this type of evidence, including DNA evidence, was preserved until prosecution," Parrish told The NewStandard. "He destroyed evidence, violating long-standing court policies that he was supposed to follow."
On appeals, the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Fourth US Circuit Court both affirmed the jury's death sentence. Lovittâ€™s execution was scheduled for July 11, 2005, but defense attorneys requested a last-minute appeal. The US Supreme Court, under then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, granted a stay until the full court resumed this fall.
This was Lovitt's last chance to have the courts examine the state's responsibility in the destruction of physical evidence that his attorneys argue, through modern DNA testing, could have exonerated him. However, when the justices returned for a new term under Chief Justice John Roberts on October 3, they refused to hear Lovittâ€™s case, leaving Lovitt no other recourse but a plea for clemency from Virginia's governor.
If the governor had refused clemency, Lovittâ€™s death would have marked the 1000th execution in the US since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Virginia has executed 94 people since then.
Lovitt had an unlikely defense team fighting for him. Former Independent Counsel Ken Starr and about a dozen other lawyers with the international corporate law firm Kirkland & Ellis have been representing Lovitt pro-bono in the appeals process and the plea for clemency.
In a statement, the firm said it was "gratified that Warner exercised his executive power of clemency, given the extraordinary circumstances of Mr. Lovitt's case."
Numerous groups had organized petition drives and written letters to Warner urging him to grant clemency, including Amnesty International, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Virginia Catholic Conference and Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
"I believe clemency should only be exercised in the most extraordinary circumstances," wrote Gov. Warner 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."
Despite the admission of inadequate due-process, Warner has only decreed Lovittâ€™s sentence be commuted to life in prison.
Jack Payden-Travers, Director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, canceled a protest scheduled for tonight at the prison in Jarrat after hearing the Governor's announcement.
"We need to celebrate the commutation of Robin Lovitt's death sentence while we prepare to continue our work to abolish capital punishment," wrote Payden-Travers in a statement. "This insanity known as the death penalty will end. We must continue to work for the end of state killing. The death penalty is not just a state-by-state issue it is a national disgrace."
This development leaves neighboring North Carolina slated to carry out the 1000th court-sanctioned execution on US soil since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment. Kenneth Lee Boyd, convicted of the 1988 killing of his wife and her father, is scheduled for lethal injection at 2 a.m. Friday.