Monday, July 11, 2005

It Really Matters

This is why it matters who is on the Supreme Court. Sometimes judges are the only ones standing between life and death in an ambiguous case. This particular murder case has made some of the strangest bedfellows, including the NAACP, the conservative Rutherford Foundation, religious leaders on the anti-death penalty left, and former right wing Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, who defended the defendant in one of his appeals.

As Donna St. George, The Washington Post reporter who covered this story, points out, the unusual twist is that a clerk destroyed the DNA evidence that might either have cleared or proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused, Robin Lovitt, was the killer.

Virginia has one of the worst execution records, second only to Texas for the amount of people put to death. In more than one case, there was reasonable doubt as to the condemned's innocence.

Given that context, it seems incredible that this execution could have continued after the DNA evidence was destroyed before the appeals process had run its legal course.

Although the state of Virginia claims that the clerk who destroyed this crucial evidence did so due to an honest and well-intentioned mistake, I find that hard to believe. Especially since one of his employees begged him not to do it. How well-intentioned could this employee have been, or how incompetent to have done such a thing in a capital case where a man's life was at stake?

And shame on Governor Mark Warner that he did not step in to prevent what could be an egregious miscarriage of justice and possible execution of an innocent man.

The truth is we will never know for sure whether Lovitt is innocent because a state employee took it upon himself to destroy the evidence that could have told us for certain whether he was innocent or guilty. But surely, when in doubt, it's better to err on the side of caution and to keep Lovitt in prison rather than take his life.

If it turns out that Lovitt's attorneys could ever prove innocence, it would be far harder to make amends to a dead man. And if he's guilty as originally charged, well, he's not going anywhere. Virginia prisons are punishment, not country clubs. I certainly wouldn't want to be in one for life. And nobody is proposing to release Lovitt without evidence that exonerates him. All anybody, even his lawyers, are requesting is to proceed with caution.

I think that's a great idea in this case. And it's also another reminder of why it's important who sits on that Supreme Court, or any court. Ambitious politicans who have visions of their future career in the White House dancing in their heads, like sugarplums, certainly can't be expected to actually take a stand, lead by conscience, or do the right thing (they'll do the "political thing" every time instead). All that stands between life or death in ambiguous cases like this is a good judge who cares about the law. Fortunately, Robin Lovitt found one.

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