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Candidates Clash Again Over Plea Bargains

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 1997; Page B01

RICHMOND, Oct. 7—Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. continued today to blast his opponent in the Virginia governor's race for overseeing plea bargains with 35 child molesters, but analysts said agreements like those Republican James S. Gilmore III made as a prosecutor can be the best way to get convictions in difficult cases.

"You're talking about a child victim," said Jay S. Albanese, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Most reasonable D.A.s think twice about [bringing such cases to trial], for fear of putting the victims through further trauma."

Gilmore's campaign, meanwhile, swung back today by marshaling statements from four county and city prosecutors ridiculing Beyer, Virginia's lieutenant governor and a Northern Virginia auto dealer. They said his attack on Gilmore -- a former state attorney general and Henrico County commonwealth's attorney -- indicated that the Democrat did not understand how the criminal justice system works and how prosecutors sometimes use plea bargains to spare children the trauma of testifying in molestation cases.

"It's unfortunate that Don Beyer has chosen to exploit crime victims for political gain," said a statement by Gilmore, 48, who was campaigning with former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp in Southwest Virginia and declined to be interviewed. "Many prosecutions involve sensitive matters that are far more difficult than pulling a spark plug."

Beyer, appearing at a news conference here barely 12 hours after the televised debate with Gilmore in which he first brought up the molestation cases, said he had not planned to skewer Gilmore's record in Henrico until the Republican put out a television ad that incensed the 47-year-old Democrat.

The ad, which Gilmore's campaign distributed late last month, depicts Beyer as soft on child kidnappers and murderers. The ad accuses Beyer of endangering Virginia's children by his 1992 vote to let parole officials release nonviolent offenders three months early to relieve jail crowding. The bill failed.

The ad shows a grainy, black-and-white image of an empty playground swing set as ominous music plays in the background -- "the only Willie Horton ad of this race," an angry Beyer said today, referring to the much-criticized ad that Republican George Bush aired in 1988 that featured a Massachusetts rapist who had been paroled during Democrat Michael S. Dukakis's tenure as governor.

"Every time he speaks these untruths -- that I'm going to repeal the abolition of parole, or that I somehow voted to let violent criminals back out on the street, I will point out the only candidate in this race who put child sex molesters and drug offenders back on the streets is Jim Gilmore," Beyer said.

The rancor that dominated Monday night's debate and gushed forward again today comes at a critical time in the race toward the Nov. 4 election.

Recent polls have indicated that Beyer and Gilmore are locked in a tight race, and Beyer, fearing that Gilmore's plan to virtually eliminate the state's hated personal property tax on cars and trucks will carve into the Democrat's Northern Virginia support base, wants to focus the debate on other issues.

And so besides pushing his plans to raise teacher pay and protect the environment, Beyer is taking on the challenge of casting Gilmore, a former prosecutor, as soft on crime.

While calling Gilmore's swing set ad "perhaps a cheap shot," Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at VCU and a panelist at Monday's debate, said Beyer was pursuing a risky strategy of raising crime as an issue, given the GOP's traditional strength on the issue.

"A Democrat elevating crime by trying to paint a Republican as Michael Dukakis's cousin?" Holsworth said with skepticism.

Still, Democrats said they hoped Beyer's attack would refocus the campaign on their terms. Beyer said at one point today that he was just glad not to be talking about tax cuts, while campaign manager Susan Platt said the debate, which included questions about Gilmore's opposition to abortion, support from religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and endorsement of 1994 U.S. Senate candidate Oliver L. North, had put Gilmore "on the defensive."

Beyer aides released the names of 35 child sexual offenders who entered into plea bargains out of 100 such cases handled under Gilmore from 1987 to 1993, when Gilmore was Henrico's chief prosecutor. The list included three repeat offenders and indicated that some had sentences reduced to as little as 30 days, served on weekends.

Onstage Monday, Gilmore answered Beyer's charge saying, "Sometimes you don't have the case. . . . Sometimes it's better to get at least a conviction" on a less serious offense.

Today, his campaign gave out statements by prosecutors, including Republicans and Independents, calling Beyer's charges "ludicrous," "crass" and "naive."

"It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works to protect child victims, and politically I think he's crossed the line," said Attorney General Richard Cullen (R), Gilmore's successor. By releasing public records including the offenders' names, Cullen argued, "Beyer's giving a road map to the identity of who these victims are."

Duncan P. Reid, Henrico's chief deputy prosecutor, said the office was reviewing the cases cited by Beyer and would comment after that was complete.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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