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Va. governor commutes inmate's death sentence

RICHMOND -- Virginia's governor yesterday spared the life of a man who would have been the 1,000th person executed in the United States since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976.

Robin Lovitt's death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole a little more than 24 hours before he was to be executed by injection tonight for stabbing a man to death with a pair of scissors during a 1998 robbery.

In granting clemency, Governor Mark R. Warner said that evidence from the trial had been improperly destroyed, depriving the defense of the opportunity to subject the material to the latest in DNA testing.

''The Commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly," Warner said in a statement.

Warner, a Democrat, had never before granted clemency to a death row inmate during his four years in office. During that time, 11 men have been executed. Virginia is one of the most active death-penalty states, having executed 94 people since 1976.

The 1,000th execution is now scheduled for Friday in North Carolina, where Kenneth Lee Boyd, who was convicted of killing his estranged wife and her father, is slated to die.

The 999th execution since capital punishment resumed a generation ago took place yesterday morning, when Ohio put to death John Hicks, convicted of strangling his mother-in-law and suffocating his 5-year-old stepdaughter.

Lovitt's lawyers, who include former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and death penalty opponents had argued that his life should be spared because a court clerk illegally destroyed the bloody scissors and other evidence, preventing DNA testing that they said could exonerate him.

Lovitt was convicted in 1999 of murdering Clayton Dicks at an Arlington pool hall. Prosecutors said Dicks caught Lovitt prying open a cash register with a pair of scissors, which police found in the woods between the pool hall and the home of Lovitt's cousin.

Lovitt admitted to taking the cash box, but insisted someone else had killed Dicks. DNA tests on the scissors at the time of the trial were inconclusive, but more sophisticated DNA techniques are now available.

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