Virginia Governor Grants Death Row Inmate Clemency, Commutes Sentence to Life in Prison

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
November 29, 2005 12:00 am

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Governor Warner Says Destroyed Evidence May Have Demonstrated Innocence

RICHMOND, VA — Governor Mark Warner today granted clemency to Robin Lovitt and commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility for parole. Lovitt was scheduled to die tomorrow evening by lethal injection, and would have been the 1,000th execution in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

“Governor Warner’s decision to grant Mr. Lovitt clemency ensures that Virginia did not execute an innocent man, not this time anyway,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “When the state destroyed evidence that might have proven Lovitt’s innocence, it had no choice but to take the death penalty off the table. It was the right decision in every way.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations sought to halt to Lovitt’s execution because a low-level sample of DNA-testable material was lost when a court clerk purposely destroyed the evidence from the case file in 2001. Of particular concern was a pair of scissors from the crime scene that when tested originally for DNA samples came back inconclusive.

Advances in DNA testing techniques in recent years may have yielded different results had the scissors been tested a second time. The destruction of the evidence also violated a state law specifically requiring that such evidence be kept. The Supreme Court temporarily stayed the execution in July, but later allowed it to proceed.

Lovitt’s case was brought to light last year when an independent audit conducted by the state found that the state’s crime lab erred in critical testing in the case of another death row inmate, Earl Washington Jr., who was later pardoned. That audit prompted the governor to call for a scientific review of more than 160 cases handled by the lab.

Lovitt’s impending execution had drawn unusual attention both because of the destroyed evidence and the fact that it was the 1,000th in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty. A large number of demonstrators had planned to rally outside the Greensville Correctional Center, prompting the ACLU to send legal observers to the facility to make sure that protesters’ free speech rights were protected.

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