By BILL STRAUB
Scripps Howard News Service
November 29, 2005
The decision complicated the political future of the popular governor, who is considering running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.
In a statement, Warner announced his intention to commute Lovitt's sentence for murdering pool-hall worker Clayton Dicks to life in prison without possibility of parole. In doing so, Warner said he found no fault with the judgment of the jury and was "acutely aware of the tragic loss experienced by the Dicks family."
But the governor said one particular aspect of the case gave him pause. Under Virginia law, the state is obligated to maintain physical evidence until a defendant has exhausted every legal post-trial remedy in the case.
That didn't occur in this instance. A court employee destroyed the Lovitt trial evidence, including the scissors prosecutors said were used in the 1998 slaying in Arlington, Va., before the appeals process was completed.
"In this case, 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," Warner said. "The commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly."
The next in line to be executed in the United States, hence becoming the 1,000th to face the ultimate penalty, is Kenneth Boyd, who is on death row in North Carolina. His execution is scheduled for Dec. 2.
Warner recently has emerged as a possible candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. His approval rating hovers above 70 percent in the Old Dominion, generally a strong Republican state.
Warner, who has rejected 11 pleas for clemency from condemned prisoners in the past four years, is not the first presidential contender to face the death-penalty question. Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic standard-bearer in 1988, saw his support erode because of his opposition to the death penalty, among other issues. And in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to preside over an execution.
The death penalty played a significant role in the recently concluded election to choose Warner's successor. Republican Jerry Kilgore sought to gain political points by attacking Democratic foe Tim Kaine for voicing personal opposition to the death penalty based on the teachings of his Catholic faith. Kaine said throughout the campaign that he would follow the law regardless of his personal views.
Kaine won handily on Nov. 8, thanks in some degree to Warner's support.
During the trial, prosecutors asserted Lovitt stabbed Dicks with a pair of scissors and absconded with the pool hall's cash drawer. The money was found in a cousin's house. A witness testified he was 80 percent sure Lovitt was the man he saw commit the stabbing.
While acknowledging he was patronizing the pool hall at the time of the crime, Lovitt protested his innocence, maintaining that someone else killed Dicks and that he grabbed the cash drawer only as an afterthought. The conviction withstood a series of appeals.
But the National Coalition to Oppose the Death Penalty, as well as other groups dedicated to halt executions, maintains the evidence against Lovitt was "circumstantial at best" and that the defense ultimately was deprived of the opportunity to present evidence that could establish his innocence.
Initial DNA tests on evidence in the case proved inconclusive. On appeal, the defense sought further analysis, only to discover that the bloody scissors and other physical evidence had been destroyed prematurely. Lovitt's attorneys said the death penalty should be eliminated since they no longer are privy to material that could prove his innocence.
"The death penalty has to be administered with the utmost caution and reserved for the gravest offenses," said Kenneth Starr, the former federal judge and special prosecutor in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, who argued in Lovitt's defense before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "This is not that kind of case. Robin Lovitt maintains his innocence, and evidence that might prove his innocence has been destroyed. I'm very distressed by that."
But some groups urged Warner to detach himself from the situation.
Others maintain Lovitt had numerous opportunities to establish his innocence but has failed to do so. Warner, they maintain, shouldn't involve himself. Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away the Key, an anti-crime organization, said Lovitt's execution "for his cold-blooded killing" would have demonstrated "Clayton Dicks mattered, even though he was just an 'Average Joe,' and also that murderers and other thugs are not welcome in the Old Dominion State."
Virginia already has a well-established record when it comes to capital punishment. Nearly half of the 999 executions that have occurred in this country since the death penalty's revival 29 years ago have taken place in either Texas or Virginia.
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