The U.S. Supreme Court declined yesterday to hear a Virginia death-penalty case that had raised concerns about destroyed DNA evidence, rejecting inmate Robin Lovitt's bid for a hearing.
Within hours of yesterday's decision, Virginia officials informed Lovitt's attorneys that they were suggesting Nov. 30 as a new execution date. At the same time, Lovitt's supporters turned their focus to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who has the power to grant clemency to the 41-year-old inmate.
The Supreme Court made no comment in its ruling, as is routine in such cases. But the decision came as something of a surprise to many involved in the case -- handed down only 12 weeks after a majority of justices granted Lovitt a last-minute stay of execution. That reprieve came July 11, as Lovitt waited in the state's death house in Jarratt, Va., his scheduled execution just 41/2 hours away.
"I'm so shocked, I'm speechless," Minnie Lovitt, Lovitt's aunt, said yesterday when she learned of the court's action. "It's so hard right now. All I can do is continue to pray."
Lovitt was sentenced to death in the 1998 stabbing and robbery of Clayton Dicks, 45, a night manager at a pool hall in Arlington County.
The likelihood of a reprieve from the governor is unclear. Since Warner took office in 2002, there have been 11 executions in the state. He has never approved a clemency bid. Yesterday, the governor's office had no comment on Lovitt's clemency petition, which requested life in prison without parole. It was filed in July and now will be considered anew.
The case stands out because a Virginia court clerk, over the objections of two other clerks, destroyed DNA evidence presented at Lovitt's trial. As a result, Lovitt did not have the chance to retest inconclusive DNA samples. Lovitt has maintained his innocence since his arrest.
Last spring, civil liberty, civil rights and religious leaders in Virginia asked that Lovitt be spared, citing the destroyed evidence and a critical audit of Virginia's DNA laboratory. Warner ordered a DNA review of Lovitt's case, which found no procedural violations.
But critics said the review was not comprehensive enough. "We cannot send a man to his death with so many unanswered questions," they wrote to the governor.
Those opponents are now expected to be part of a clemency campaign, said Jack Payden-Travers, director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
On the other side, Mary Dicks, the victim's mother, said she remained convinced of Lovitt's guilt. "If they give him the electric chair, fine," she said. "My son died on the job, and he was out there making an honest living."
Virginia officials have argued that DNA evidence was not critical to Lovitt's conviction, and yesterday the Virginia attorney general's office described the court's decision as "appropriate." Emily Lucier, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim's family."
Lovitt has had a team of pro bono lawyers leading his appeals, including onetime independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton during the impeachment scandal. Yesterday, Starr's law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, released a brief statement saying the lawyers were disappointed but would "continue to do everything we can to seek redress for Mr. Lovitt in this unusual and troubling case."