Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore unveiled two television ads Tuesday in which family members of murdered Virginians denounce Democratic candidate Timothy M. Kaine for failing to support the death penalty.
Kaine's campaign immediately released its own ad, in which Kaine says he has a personal objection to the death penalty but would carry out Virginia law.
The exchange highlighted the importance of the issue to both candidates during the final month before the Nov. 8 election. Polls show that Virginians overwhelmingly support the death penalty. The Kilgore campaign says Kaine's positions on this and other issues place him outside the Virginia mainstream. Kilgore, a former attorney general, wants to expand use of the death penalty.
Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer who is now the state's lieutenant governor, represented several defendants in death penalty cases during his earlier career. He says that his opposition to executions is rooted in his Roman Catholic religion but that a governor swears an oath to uphold the law and that he is prepared to do so.
In one of Kilgore's ads, the widow of a slain Winchester police officer says she "doesn't trust" Kaine to uphold the law because at one time he favored a moratorium on the death penalty.
"How could you not think the death penalty was appropriate?" says Kelly Timbrook, wife of Sgt. Rick Timbrook, who was killed in 1999. "When Tim Kaine calls the death penalty murder, I find it offensive."
In a second ad, the father of a Chesterfield murder victim, whose assailant Kaine helped represent, accuses Kaine of being out of step with Virginians because he does not believe that death is an appropriate punishment for murderers.
"Tim Kaine voluntarily represented the person who murdered my son. He stood with murderers in trying to get them off death row," says Stanley Rosenbluth, whose son, Richard, and daughter-in-law, Becky, were killed by Mark Sheppard in 1993. Sheppard was executed five years later.
Rosenbluth is president of Virginians United Against Crime, an Arlington-based victims' rights group.
Rosenbluth says in the ad that Kaine's position is so extreme that he would not believe in the death penalty for Adolf Hitler. He adds: "No matter how heinous the crime, he doesn't believe that death is a punishment. Being as liberal as he is on the death penalty, he's not representing everybody in the state."
Mo Elleithee, Kaine's director of communications, said Kaine's counter ad is scheduled to be shown in the same markets as the Kilgore ads as early as Tuesday night.
"I approve this ad to set the record straight," Kaine says to the camera. "My faith teaches that life is sacred. That's why I personally oppose the death penalty. But I take my oath of office seriously, and I'll enforce the death penalty . . . because it's the law."
The campaign released a transcript of Kaine's comment regarding Hitler, from an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month. He said of people like Hitler: "They may deserve it, of course they may for doing something heinous, they don't deserve to live in civilized society, they may deserve the death penalty."
In a conference call with reporters, Kilgore sought to reinforce the messages in his ads.
"Records mean far more than rhetoric," Kilgore said. "If Tim Kaine had been successful in his efforts, Mark Sheppard would not have been put to death.
"Everyone is entitled to representation, but not every activist defense attorney is entitled to be governor of Virginia," he said.
Kaine's press secretary, Delacey Skinner, said Kilgore was "not only calling Tim a liar, he's attacking his faith. He's attacking his ability to uphold his oath because of his Catholicism."
She said that although Kaine indeed served as counsel for Sheppard, he was not the lead attorney.
Skinner cited a Washington Post poll, taken Sept. 6 to 9, in which 63 percent of registered voters said they believed Kaine would uphold Virginia law.
"Tim is not going to try to call for a moratorium," she said. "He is going to enforce the death penalty, just like any other governor has."