Just 41/2 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.

"We are hopeful that when the members of the court return in the fall, the court will review the important issues raised in Mr. Lovitt's petition and reverse the judgment of the lower court," said the statement from Kirkland & Ellis, which took the case on a pro bono basis.

In their Supreme Court petition, Lovitt's attorneys argued that with the increasing importance of DNA evidence, decisions in the Lovitt case "will have far-reaching consequences for the administration of the death penalty in this country."

Other courts had sided with the state attorney general's office, saying the destruction of evidence by an Arlington court clerk was not done in "bad faith."

The high court petition also focused at length on a decision by Lovitt's trial attorneys not to tell the jury about Lovitt's "horrific" childhood in a home with drug use and physical and sexual abuse.

The attorney general's office, supported by the lower courts, had argued that Lovitt's experienced attorneys had made a strategic decision not to introduce his background, which could have hurt as much as helped him.

Mary Dicks was discouraged about the stay. "I don't know what they're doing," said Dicks, who sat through the 1999 trial. "They ain't got the wrong boy. . . . If they got the wrong man, why did they keep him in jail six years?"

Dicks said she believed that Starr -- one of the nation's best-known lawyers -- had somehow played a role in the stay of execution. "I knew that Ken Starr man, when he came up here, [the courts] wouldn't do nothing."

Prosecutors had argued that Lovitt was high on crack when he was confronted by Dicks while trying to steal the cash register. Lovitt grabbed a pair of scissors from a container near the register and stabbed him six times, they said.

Two men walked in on the scene, with one taking the stand at trial to say he was "80 percent" sure Lovitt was the killer.

The other evidence against Lovitt included a jailhouse informant's testimony. Lovitt told police that he emerged from a restroom to see someone else in a fight with Dicks and that he ducked back in to avoid trouble.

When he came out, Dicks appeared dead, he said, and he sought to leave quickly but then decided to take the cash register drawer, which contained about $200.

The drawer was found at his cousin's house, through some woods, behind the pool hall. The scissors were found discarded in the woods.

Nearly all the evidence from Robin Lovitt's trial was discarded, ending the chance of future DNA testing.Clayton Dicks was slain in 1998 during a robbery at the Arlington pool hall he managed.