Death penalty dilemma
Kaine was initially written off as too liberal for statewide office. His Republican gubernatorial opponent, former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore, blasted him for representing death row inmates as a Richmond civil rights lawyer.
His most notorious client was Richard Lee Whitley, convicted of cutting the throat of a Fairfax County widow. On the day he watched Whitley being led to the electric chair, Kaine told reporters: “Murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County . . . and even the Spring Street Penitentiary.”
“That was emotionally devastating for both of us,” said his former law partner Thomas Wolf, who helped with the Whitley case. “I know when he was running for governor he was urged to change his position on the death penalty. He said, ‘No, that wouldn’t be honest.’ ”
Instead Kaine took his feelings straight to voters, casting his opposition to both capital punishment and abortion as strict articles of Catholic faith. But he emphatically pledged that he would uphold laws permitting both.
Kaine’s pitch neutralized both issues, and made him a hero to Democrats fighting to win back Bible voters. But his victory also set him up with a case of moral self-doubt that haunts him still.
Abortion was easier. Kaine has straddled the issue, as many Democrats do, by abhorring abortion but leaving the decision up to each woman. Unlike capital punishment, abortion cases don’t routinely land on a governor’s desk.
The clemency reviews took place in a small conference room off the governor’s main office. Kaine’s chief counsel, Larry Roberts, went over the voluminous file he had assembled, which included details of the crime, the impact on victims’ families, the pleas for mercy for the condemned.
“Those were very somber sessions,” said Wayne Turnage, Kaine’s chief of staff at the time. “The governor had to put his personal feelings aside.”
Only once did Kaine grant a commutation, to an inmate with serious mental incapacities. He did veto every attempt to expand the death penalty to additional crimes in Virginia. Otherwise, he stood aside.
The executions, nine by lethal injection and two by electric chair, took place at night. Kaine would spend each execution in his office, with an open phone line to the death chamber.
“It was awful,” Turnage recalled. “He would be very, very emotional on those nights.”
A moral compass
Kaine’s devout Catholicism can be traced to his suburban childhood in the Kansas City, Mo., area, where his father owned a metalworking shop. He went to a Jesuit boarding school, attended Mass most mornings and envisioned a career in law, not politics.