Va. Man Granted Stay of Execution

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Just 4 1/2 hours before his scheduled execution, Virginia death row inmate Robin Lovitt was given a reprieve yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stayed his sentence until the fall, when it will consider whether his case deserves a hearing on its merits.

The decision was relayed to attorneys about 4:30 p.m. after a tense day of waiting among many involved in the case -- and after Lovitt's family had bidden him goodbye, not knowing whether he would be put to death.

Lovitt's sister Tonglya Carter was gathered in a room with other relatives when word came. "I jumped up and said, 'He got the stay! He got the stay!' " she recalled. "And everybody started screaming. Everyone is so excited."

Lovitt's case had raised legal questions as seldom heard before in capital punishment. Four years ago, a court clerk mistakenly destroyed nearly all the evidence from his trial, including DNA from the pair of scissors that was used to kill Arlington pool hall manager Clayton Dicks, 45, in a robbery there in 1998.

Lovitt's attorneys, including former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, had argued that Virginia's mistake took away Lovitt's last chance to prove his innocence -- through post-conviction DNA testing, which other inmates have used to clear themselves.

They also had argued that Lovitt's original trial attorneys had failed to mention their client's upbringing at his sentencing, which could have persuaded a jury to recommend life in prison instead of death.

In its brief, one-paragraph stay, the Supreme Court did not decide the DNA issue or any others. But such stays are rare.

Mary Dicks, mother of Clayton Dicks, said four of his sisters had taken off work and driven nearly all the way to Jarratt, near the North Carolina border, to see the execution when they got a call that it had been stayed. They had wanted to witness it, she said, because they felt that Lovitt deserved the same fate he had given to Dicks.

Mary Dicks said her children didn't want Lovitt to "walk the ground anymore."

In sharp contrast, Carter and other relatives of Lovitt's had visited him in Virginia's death house in Jarratt earlier yesterday. As the hours ticked by, Carter said, Lovitt, 41, remained stable and positive. But as time went on with no word -- and as Carter got calls from friends saying they were keeping the family in their prayers -- Carter finally broke down.

"I was an emotional wreck," she said, still floating with relief. She praised the efforts of Lovitt's volunteer attorneys and said: "God is good, and prayers really do help."

Lovitt's attorneys released only a brief statement saying they were pleased.

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