On death row at the Sussex State Prison in Waverly, 41-year-old Robin Lovitt has less than a week before his execution. As Lovitt prepares to die, Catholic leaders in Virginia are pleading with Gov. Mark Warner for clemency.
"Reports have indicated that physical evidence which may have been improperly tested was later destroyed, thus eliminating the opportunity for post-conviction retesting to prevent error," Bishops Paul Loverde of the Arlington Diocese and Francis DiLorenzo of Richmond diocese wrote in a joint letter to the governor. "Circumstances like these heighten a risk that is surely one to avoid at all costs — that is, the risk of executing someone when doubts about his conviction linger. Commuting the sentence in this unusual type of case is the only way to prevent such a tragic and irreversible result."
Lovitt was convicted in 2000 for the murder of Clayton Dicks in a Shirlington pool hall. Yet DNA evidence in the case was destroyed, according to court records, only one day after the state enacted a law ordering the preservation of such material. What DNA was recovered tested inconclusive, and a fingerprint analysis on the pair of scissors police believe was used to kill Dicks failed to find anything that singles out Lovitt as the murderer.
Lovitt's new attorney, former White House Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, said Lovitt had inadequate representation during his first trial. Lovitt's court-appointed counsel, Starr said, failed to bring facts about his client's past into the courtroom that could have made the difference between a death sentence and one of life in prison. Lovitt, Starr said, suffered years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a stepfather who also got him addicted to crack cocaine. It was this addiction that landed Lovitt in jail several times as a youth and ruined his prospects for a functional life.
"This very, very sad, poignant story could have the difference in his sentencing," said Starr.
QUESTIONS OF DUE PROCESS have surfaced, Starr said, surrounding limitations the courts placed on how Lovitt's first attorney could challenge evidence. A juror on Lovitt's initial case was also found to have lived next door to a family that was murdered, a fact that defense attorneys argue made her prejudiced in examining the case.
Lovitt's conviction, however, was upheld by four courts, and representatives of the state's attorney general's office stand firm on the guilty verdict. Lovitt's execution is set for July 11, and anti-death penalty groups are planning candlelight vigils for him that night. Meanwhile, Starr has appealed to federal courts in a last ditch effort to gain more time for his client.
Social activists have challenged Lovitt's conviction on legal grounds; the bishops question the death penalty arguing Christian morality.
"That philosophy affirms that laws exist to protect society and its individual members, and also that human dignity resides innately in every person," the letter reads. "Within this framework, we examine the issue of the death penalty and question its use in our time and place. We do so personally mindful that, when lives are cut short by terrible murders, families experience immense suffering."
Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the representative of U.S. Catholics to the Vatican has joined the bishops in petitioning Warner. In the letter to the governor, the bishops ask that Virginia adopt life sentences as an alternative to the death penalty.
"We readily acknowledge the need for our criminal justice system to ensure that one who has been convicted of a heinous crime be rendered incapable of repeating it," they wrote. "With the availability in Virginia of a life-without-parole sentence, however, that need is routinely met without terminating more lives. The life-sentence alternative, we believe, is unique in its ability to securely protect state residents and at the same time uphold the dignity belonging to every person, even to one convicted of a brutal crime."
According to Ken Hall, spokesman for Warner's office, Lovitt's request for clemency is now under review, but Warner has never granted such a request. Hall declined to comment on the merits of the case.