Friday, November 04, 2005

Innocence and the death penalty

If I were a supporter of the death penalty, I would want to bend over backwards to make sure that no innocent person is ever executed, period. Why? Because nothing will erode the institution of capital punishment more quickly than the knowledge -- or even the suspicion -- that we are executing an innocent human being.

Which brings us to two scheduled executions this month: Robin Lovitt, scheduled to be executed Nov. 30 by the state of Virginia and John Spirko, scheduled to be executed Nov. 15 by the state of Ohio.

Regarding Lovitt:

John Whitehead, founder and president of the conservative Rutherford Institute, yesterday released this letter:

Robin Lovitt, who has been on death row since March 1, 2000, has now been
rescheduled for execution on November 30. On July 11, 2005, the United States
Supreme Court granted the Virginia death row inmate a glimmer of hope. Amid
claims that he could prove his innocence if DNA evidence used at his trial had
not been destroyed, the Court decided to stay Lovitts execution and consider
whether his appeal merited further review. Last month, however, the High Court
shattered Lovitts hope when they decided not to hear his case. Lovitts final
appeal for justice now rests solely on the shoulders of Virginia Governor Mark

Lovitt's long and unsuccessful crusade through state and federal courts is
a story many claim is marred with countless instances of injustice. It began
when he was convicted of fatally stabbing a man with scissors during a 1998 pool
hall robbery in Arlington, Va. But since his 1999 conviction, Lovitt continues
to insist that although he committed the robbery, he is innocent of

During Lovitt's trial, low-level DNA evidence was deemed "inconclusive" as
to whether he was the perpetrator. But history has shown that previously
inconclusive DNA evidence can later be deemed "conclusive" upon further
analysis. The case of Earl Washington, Jr., who was convicted of rape and
murder, illustrates this fact. Washington spent 9 1/2 years on death row, only
to be exonerated 9 days before his scheduled execution when a re-examination of
previously inconclusive DNA evidence proved his innocence.

In response to the alarming reality of inconclusive DNA evidence in the
Washington case, Gov. Warner ordered the re-examination of low-level DNA
evidence for many death row inmates. But although Lovitt was among this group,
his chances for exoneration were dealt a devastating blow when the DNA evidence
that might have spared his life was destroyed by the chief clerk of the
Arlington Circuit Court.

Two clerks at the Arlington County Circuit Court testified that they had
advised their superior, Robert McCarthy, not to destroy the evidence from
Lovitts trial. But McCarthy destroyed it anyway, in violation of the law and in
violation of Robin Lovitts right to have the evidence re-examined.

Consequently, Lovitt once again turned to the courts, appealing to the
Supreme Court of Virginia, the District Court for the Eastern District of
Virginia and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. At every stage, his claim was
denied. The Fourth Circuit even went so far as to declare that although McCarthy
made a "serious error in judgment," Lovitt was not entitled to relief because he
could not prove that McCarthy destroyed the evidence in "bad faith." The U.S.
Supreme Courts subsequent refusal to hear the case in Oct. 2001 seemingly left
Robin Lovitt with no further legal recourse.

To read the entire letter, go here and scroll all the way down.

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