RICHMOND, Oct. 13 -- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine challenged the accuracy of television ads criticizing his stance on the death penalty Thursday, saying they were designed to mislead Virginians.
In a conference call with reporters, Kaine said one of the ads, unveiled by Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore on Tuesday, misstates the details of the work he did in a 1997 death penalty appeal. He said it illustrates that Kilgore "cannot be trusted" with facts regarding his record.
"This whole issue about this ad is about trust," Kaine said. "Time and time again during this campaign Jerry Kilgore has been called out . . . for egregious misrepresentation of facts. This is the most egregious misrepresentation and the most outrageous representation yet. Virginians respect the truth and know who they can trust."
In the ad, Stanley Rosenbluth, whose son and daughter-in-law were slain in 1993 in a drug deal gone awry, according to court documents, says Kaine "voluntarily represented the person who murdered my son." The Kilgore campaign is using the ad to suggest that Kaine's personal opposition to the death penalty places him outside the Virginia mainstream.
"That statement and representation is . . . frankly false," said Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer who is now the state's lieutenant governor.
Kaine said he served only as an assistant on the appeal of convicted murderer Mark Sheppard and spent less than an hour working on the case. "I never met Mark Sheppard. I didn't know Mark Sheppard. I never visited him. I never spoke with him," Kaine said.
Kilgore, in his own conference call, said that Kaine was running from his own record.
"We stand by our ad," Kilgore said. "These comments are disturbing in their cynical stand and their intentional misrepresentation of all the facts about Tim Kaine and his activist stand against the death penalty."
Kaine also took issue with Rosenbluth, who said in the 60-second ad: "Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty."
Rosenbluth is president and co-founder of Virginians United Against Crime, an Arlington-based victims' rights group that has lobbied the General Assembly.
"The claim . . . that I wouldn't carry out a death sentence for Adolf Hitler is the most egregious and prejudicial kind of statement by a desperate candidate," Kaine said. "It's far below the standard that somebody should try to meet if they want to be governor of seven-and-a-half million Virginians."
The tense exchanges between the candidates illustrated the fierce pitch of the campaign since Sunday's third and final debate.
Polls show that Virginians overwhelmingly support the death penalty but that the issue does not weigh heavily on their minds regarding this election.
Kaine represented several defendants in death penalty cases during their appeals. He says that his opposition to executions is rooted in his Roman Catholic religion but that a governor swears an oath to uphold state law and that he is prepared to do so.
A Washington Post poll conducted Sept. 6 through 9 found that 63 percent of registered voters believed Kaine would uphold the death penalty law.
But Kilgore, a former attorney general who wants to expand use of the death penalty, believes he has found an issue that will resonate.
"Tim Kaine has worked to eliminate the death penalty from his days at Harvard Law School all the way to his call for a moratorium on the death penalty," he said during a news conference earlier Thursday. "He opposes the death penalty on constitutional and policy grounds. He always has."
Kaine supported a moratorium on the death penalty when questions were raised about DNA testing in 2001. Kaine's campaign said that as lieutenant governor, he did not seek a moratorium on executions.
In a second ad that began running Tuesday, the widow of a Winchester police officer says that her husband was killed by Edward Bell, "a drug dealer, illegally in this country." She says in the ad that she "doesn't trust" Kaine to uphold the law because of his past support for a moratorium.
Jon Sheldon, Bell's former attorney, said in an interview Thursday that his client, who was convicted and is on death row, had been on bond pending deportation proceedings at the time of the slaying and was not an illegal immigrant.
"You are an illegal immigrant when you don't hold a valid visa or passport for citizenship," Sheldon said. "He was legally in the country with a permanent visa."
Kaine's press secretary, Delacey Skinner, said the inaccuracies illustrate a pattern in Kilgore's campaign.
"Over and over and over, you have someone who lies for political gain," she said.
Tim Murtaugh, Kilgore's spokesman, said a previous conviction had changed Bell's status. He echoed Kilgore's comments that Kaine was trying to distance himself from his role in death penalty cases.
"Tim Kaine is trying to back away from his prior support for these cases because he has seen it as politically inconvenient," he said.
Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.