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Starr, in New Role, Gives Hope To a Needy Death Row Inmate

Jury Not Told All in Va. Slaying, Famed Lawyer Says

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A01

Robin Lovitt was deep in the throes of a major relapse. He had sold his television for $20, he would later tell police, and used the money for beer and cigarettes. Then he bought two rocks of crack in what became a long night that ended in an Arlington pool hall on Nov. 18, 1998.

Across the Potomac River that day, Kenneth W. Starr was rehearsing a much-anticipated speech that would mark his first public testimony to explain the findings of his investigation of President Bill Clinton. Amid accusations that his four-year, $40 million probe had become a political witch hunt, Starr would make his case to the public, partly in his own defense.

The jury in Robin Lovitt's case was not told about several things, says Kenneth W. Starr, right, shown with Charles Bakaly during the 1998 presidential impeachment inquiry. Among those were Lovitt's upbringing and a report challenging the validity of the murder weapon. (Gary Hershorn -- Reuters)

The next morning, nine miles from the televised drama on Capitol Hill, police in Arlington were immersed in their investigation of a homicide at Champion Billiards Sports Cafe. The night manager, Clayton Dicks, 45, had been stabbed to death and a cash register drawer stolen.

Lovitt, then 35, was soon arrested.

It was a time of turning points, in worlds that do not often intersect. Only recently, long after Lovitt was sent to Virginia's death row, have the paths of Starr and Lovitt converged around the lesser-known events of that November.

Starr had left his job as independent counsel and returned to his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, where Lovitt's case had become a pro bono project. Last year, Starr became one of Lovitt's lead attorneys after being disturbed by how much he says went wrong, both in Lovitt's childhood and in his legal proceedings, including the destruction of nearly all physical evidence from his trial.

"A compassionate and decent society has to ensure that a death penalty regime is as error-free as humanly possible and as fair as humanly possible," Starr said in an interview. For Lovitt, he said, the system has failed that test. Moreover, he said: "He is maintaining his innocence, and as his counsel, I am maintaining his innocence."

As Starr talked, he sounded in moments not so much like the hard-driven prosecutor who did not let up on Clinton, but more like the committed volunteer who once taught high school students in Anacostia about the Constitution.

Full Cast of Lawyers

Few people as poor as Lovitt have such luminaries as Starr as their attorneys, particularly on death row. Among the roughly 3,400 people who await execution in 38 states, most have little or no funding for private lawyers. Some have no legal counsel.

"We just can't find enough lawyers for everyone who needs them," said Robin Maher, director of the Death Penalty Representation Project of the American Bar Association, who said hundreds of death row inmates need attorneys.

"Many of these defendants have never had a persuasive, effective, zealous advocate before," she said. Volunteer lawyers, she added, frequently turn up new evidence and "have had successes that include exonerations and new trials."

When Starr took on Lovitt's cause, he was a supporter of the death penalty and among the nation's best-known lawyers. He did not so much find Lovitt's case as the case found him -- through a circuitous route by way of his law firm and its connection to a Washington program for undergraduate students at the University of Notre Dame.

Now, Starr is part of a full cast of lawyers and assistants. In all, 40 Notre Dame students have visited Lovitt in prison, a handful each semester. More than a dozen lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis have investigated possible trial errors, done legal research, hired experts and prepared briefs in a $2 million effort co-led by the nonprofit Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, which handles many death penalty cases.

How Starr -- now the law school dean at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. -- may change Lovitt's fate is unclear. His arguments in June failed to convince a federal District Court. In February, he went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which is expected to rule in the next month or so.

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