Are attorneys who volunteer to represent death row inmates enemies of the victims' families? That's what Jerry W. Kilgore's television ads suggest ["Kilgore Ads Seek to Divide Democrats; Kaine Death Penalty Position at Odds With Warner, Most Voters," front page, Oct. 13].

Clifford Williams still lives in Culpeper, and the memories of the murder of his wife, Rebecca Lynn, remain vivid. He remembers the relief he felt when Earl Washington Jr. was arrested for the crime and the sense of closure he felt when Mr. Washington was sentenced to death. Mr. Williams also remembers his anger when volunteer lawyers agreed to challenge the conviction.

Mr. Washington turned out to be innocent. The state had hidden from the jury and from Mr. Williams forensic evidence that it had the wrong man. It also "overlooked" the mentally retarded man's description of the victim as black (she was white) and explained away blood at the scene that belonged to neither the victim nor Mr. Washington.

While the state turned a blind eye, Kenneth Maurice Tinsley, the real killer of Mrs. Williams, remained at large and raped two more women at knife point.

Mr. Washington came within nine days of execution in the electric chair. He eventually was exonerated by DNA evidence, but Mr. Tinsley's role as Mrs. Williams's killer wasn't confirmed until Mr. Washington's lawyers, over the strenuous objections of then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, conducted their own tests of crime scene evidence. Mr. Tinsley's DNA was found in the victim's body.

Attorneys who volunteer to represent death row inmates play an essential role. Mr. Williams has thanked Mr. Washington's lawyers for identifying his wife's killer when the state had failed to, and for preventing the execution of an innocent man in her name.

If, by releasing these ads, Mr. Kilgore is "on message," it's the wrong message.


Potomac Falls

The writer was one of the attorneys for Earl Washington.