The U.S. Supreme Court refused last week to hear the appeal of Robin Lovitt, the only Arlington resident on death row, despite the destruction of DNA evidence in the case by a court clerk.
The justices voted to stay Lovitt’s execution on July 11, only several hours before he was to be put to death, further fueling the debate over the death penalty in Virginia. Virginia officials set Nov. 30 as a tentative execution date for the 41-year-old inmate, said Emily Lucier, spokesman for the state’s attorney general.
Lovitt’s family and supporters will implore Gov. Mark Warner (D) to grant Lovitt clemency, the only way for him to avoid execution.
“Robin is very upset, but he still has faith that something will happen in his favor,” said Jane Lovitt, who married Robin in 2000. “His spirits are high.”
Lovitt was convicted for the 1998 fatal stabbing of Clayton Dicks during a robbery of Champion Billiards, a pool hall in Shirlington. Dicks, a nighttime manager, was stabbed six times.
“Right now I’m totally devastated,” said Jane Lovitt. “We were all so positive the Supreme Court was going to grant him a new trial.”
INITIAL TESTS OF DNA evidence pertaining to the case proved inconclusive, and an Arlington County court clerk subsequently discarded the evidence because it was taking up space in the court’s storage facility, according to court records.
In 2003, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the clerk did not act in bad faith when he destroyed the evidence and therefore did not grant Lovitt a new trial.
“I’m angry,” Jane Lovitt said. “Somebody should be accountable for the destruction of that evidence.”
According to Lucier the DNA evidence was not a critical element of the case and Lovitt was found guilty based on other “compelling” evidence, including eyewitness testimony. Lucier called last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision “appropriate.”
“How can they not review a case where the state destroyed evidence,” said Jack Payden-Travers, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP). “It is a sad day for justice in Virginia.”
Though VADP will work with the Lovitt family to mount a clemency campaign and pressure Gov. Warner to award a reprieve, Payden-Travers said he is not optimistic at this time. Eleven prisoners have been executed during Gov. Warner’s tenure and he has yet to grant clemency to an individual on death row.
“This case cries out for justice and the only one who can administer it at this point is the governor,” Payden-Travers said.
Kevin Hall, spokesman for Gov. Warner, said the governor had no comment because he is reviewing the case and there was no timetable for granting a stay of execution.
Former White House Special Prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr took up Lovitt’s case on a pro bono basis earlier this year. Starr’s firm, Kirkland & Ellis, released a statement last week saying that Lovitt’s lawyers were, “disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to review the legal claims raised in Mr. Lovitt's petition. We will continue to do everything we can to seek redress for Mr. Lovitt in this unusual and troubling case."
During a February hearing before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court in Richmond, Starr argued that defense attorney’s in Lovitt’s initial trial failed to present evidence that could have changed the outcome of the case, including details of childhood abuse.
The prosecution’s key witness was a fellow inmate in the Arlington County Detention Center, who testified that Lovitt confessed to the murder in jail.
“This is typical of the way Virginia acts,” said Payden-Travers. “We destroyed the evidence so instead of re-opening the case we move toward execution.”