Death Row Gives Kaine A Test of Faith, Duty

In an ad, Kaine touted his faith but vowed to uphold the law.
In an ad, Kaine touted his faith but vowed to uphold the law.
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

It was, perhaps, the defining moment of last fall's campaign for Virginia governor. Under fire for his opposition to capital punishment, Timothy M. Kaine looked directly into the television camera.

"My faith teaches life is sacred," said Kaine, a Catholic. "That's why I personally oppose the death penalty. But I take my oath of office seriously. And I'll enforce the death penalty. As governor, I'll carry out death sentences handed down by Virginia juries, because that's the law."

The first test for Kaine, now governor, hit his desk yesterday.

Attorneys for Dexter Lee Vinson, a Suffolk man who has been on death row since 1999 for the abduction and killing of his ex-girlfriend, filed a formal clemency petition to Kaine. Vinson is scheduled for execution this month, and Kaine's aides said the governor is not likely to act on the petition until next week at the earliest.

But Vinson's petition places Kaine for the first time at the intersection of his personal faith and his official duty.

"It's a very solitary decision," said Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall. "We're aware that there's going to be a lot more scrutiny this time because it is the first one for Governor Kaine. And we're aware there's going to be scrutiny because it was an issue during the campaign."

Kaine's promise to juggle faith with duty was key to his ascendancy to the governor's mansion. It became a crucial issue when his Republican opponent, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, ran a TV ad lambasting Kaine's stance on the death penalty, saying it was at odds with the majority of Virginians who favor it. Kaine counterpunched with an ad in which he touted his faith but vowed to uphold Virginia's capital punishment law.

Yesterday, Vinson asked the governor to reconsider his death sentence. Vinson, now 43, was convicted in 1998 of capital murder, carjacking, abduction with intent to defile and sexual penetration with an inanimate object in the death of his ex-girlfriend, Angela Felton, 25, a mother of three.

Felton's beaten body was found in a vacant house in Portsmouth with cuts to the limbs, buttocks and genital area. Vinson denied any role in the slaying.

But according to court papers, forensic evidence connected Vinson to the crimes: His fingerprints were found on the kitchen sink of the vacant house and on a pane of glass from the kitchen window. Felton's DNA was matched to a bloodstain found on a pair of blue shorts belonging to Vinson.

Those who know Kaine well say the decision will not be an easy one. The Rev. Robert A. Brownell, Kaine's pastor at St. Elizabeth Church in Richmond for years, said he knows the governor's power to order an execution will put his faith to the test. The decision, he said, probably is not one Kaine would make without seeking spiritual guidance from the church.

"He's a very thoughtful, prayerful person," Brownell said. "He's a person who looks for greater inspiration than his own."

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