RICHMOND, Va. – A day before Robin Lovitt was to become the 1,000th person executed since capital punishment resumed in 1977, Virginia's governor spared his life.
Lovitt's sentence on Tuesday was commuted to life in prison without parole for stabbing a man to death with a pair of scissors during a 1988 pool hall robbery.
"The commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly," said Warner, who had never before granted clemency to a death row inmate.
The 1,000th execution is now scheduled for early Friday in North Carolina, where Kenneth Lee Boyd is slated to die for killing his estranged wife and her father.
"It certainly means the case will draw more media attention, and I hope that means that the governor will therefore take the clemency petition seriously — but I hope that would be true regardless of whether this is case 999, 1,000 or 1,001," said Boyd's attorney, Thomas Maher.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley will treat the execution like others he has considered, spokeswoman Cari Boyce said.
Lovitt, 42, was convicted in 1999 of murdering Clayton Dicks at an Arlington, Va., pool hall. Prosecutors said Dicks caught Lovitt prying open a cash register with the scissors, which police found in the woods between the pool hall and the home of Lovitt's cousin.
Lovitt admitted grabbing the cash box but insisted someone else killed Dicks. Initial DNA tests on the scissors were inconclusive.
In 2001, a court clerk destroyed much of the evidence in the case, including the scissors, making additional DNA testing impossible.
Just a few weeks earlier, Virginia implemented a law requiring the preservation of DNA evidence in death row cases.
Lovitt's lawyers, who include former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, argued that the more sophisticated DNA tests that are available today could have cleared their client.
"We believe this decision to be entirely proper, given the extraordinary circumstances of Mr. Lovitt's case," said Ashley Parrish, one of Lovitt's attorneys.
Warner, who has allowed 11 executions during his nearly four years in office, is considered a potential Democratic presidential contender in 2008. The clemency decision could boost his national prospects, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Democratic party activists in Iowa, which has an early caucus, and New Hampshire, which has an early primary, are vehemently anti-death penalty, Sabato said, so allowing the execution could have hurt Warner's chances in those states.
Republicans such as Starr and Mark Earley, Warner's opponent for governor, also had denounced the execution.
"There wasn't a downside," Sabato said.
Michelle Dicks, the victim's niece, said the family was struggling to cope with Warner's decision.
"We're not too happy, but it doesn't make a difference, because it doesn't bring my uncle back," said Dicks, 35, of Washington, D.C.
The governor said he was "acutely aware of the tragic loss experienced by the Dicks family."
"However, evidence in Mr. Lovitt's trial was destroyed by a court employee" before post-conviction DNA tests could be done, he said. "The actions of an agent of the commonwealth, in a manner contrary to the express direction of the law, comes at the expense of a defendant facing society's most severe and final sanction."
Death penalty proponents were outraged.
"The governor has sided with a killer against the working people of America," said Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away the Key, a group that supports the death penalty. "Lovitt's a cold-blooded killer and he's just been given an early Christmas gift by Warner."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that state laws to reform capital punishment were valid, ending a 10-year moratorium on the death penalty. The first execution took place on Jan. 17, 1977, when Gary Gilmore, 36, was shot by a firing squad at Utah State Prison.