Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that Willie Horton committed a murder after he was furloughed. Horton committed armed robbery and rape while on furlough.

Warner Commutes Death Sentence

By Michael D. Shear and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

RICHMOND, Nov. 29 -- Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) issued his first grant of clemency in a death penalty case Tuesday, sparing the life of convicted murderer Robin M. Lovitt a day before his scheduled execution.

Warner said in a statement that the destruction by an Arlington County court clerk of DNA evidence that might have cleared Lovitt convinced him that Lovitt should instead spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Lovitt would have been the 1,000th person executed in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

"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 in the statement. "The Commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly."

Lovitt, whose attorneys include former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, is the first condemned man that Warner has chosen to save from execution during his four-year term, which ends in January. Warner, a likely candidate for president in 2008, has allowed the executions of 11 men to proceed.

For Warner, the action in Lovitt's case could have political implications as he begins to navigate the national scene. He unveiled a federal political action committee this month and has been speaking across the country, including in New Hampshire this month.

"These decisions do get read politically once you are running for the highest office," said Robert D. Holsworth, the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Warner has at least one more criminal justice decision with political overtones to make before he leaves office. A New Jersey charity that investigates wrongful convictions has asked Warner to allow DNA testing in the case of convicted murderer Roger Keith Coleman, who maintained his innocence and was executed in 1992. Warner has been saying for three years that he would decide whether to order the testing.

Lovitt, 41, was convicted and sentenced to death in the November 1998 stabbing of Clayton Dicks, 45, during a robbery at a 24-hour pool hall in Arlington. During a 1999 trial, prosecutors said Lovitt went there to steal money but was confronted by Dicks. They said Lovitt grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed Dicks six times.

Lovitt admitted he was at the pool hall the night of the killing but said he was in the bathroom while Dicks fought with another man. He said that after he emerged and found that Dicks had been stabbed, he grabbed the cash box and fled.

Lovitt's attorneys have argued that DNA tests using the latest technology -- now impossible because evidence, including the scissors, was discarded -- might have exonerated their client. Early forensic tests involving DNA were inconclusive.

The clerk later testified that he destroyed the evidence to create space in the evidence room after learning that the Virginia Supreme Court had upheld Lovitt's convictions, according to a court opinion. Two subordinates said they told the clerk that the evidence should be preserved.

Lovitt's attorneys at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm released a brief statement Tuesday night.

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