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Arlington Man Stokes Gubernatorial Debate Over Executions

Kaine denounces “misleading” death penalty ad as Republicans fear backlash.

Arlington resident Stanley Rosenbluth defended his accusations that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine represented the man who murdered his son, which engendered a controversy that has brought the death penalty to the forefront of the governor’s race.

In an ad for Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, Rosenbluth claims that Kaine represented Mark Sheppard, the man who fatally shot his son and daughter-in-law in 1993 over unpaid drug debts, saying the state’s lieutenant governor “stood with murderers in trying to get them off death row.”

Rosenbluth, president of the death penalty advocacy group Virginians United Against Crime, has worked with Kilgore on strengthening criminal sentencing procedures. Rosenbluth also denounces Kaine in the ad, which began airing in Northern Virginia early last week, for being out of touch with voters by opposing executions even for those who commit the most heinous crimes, including Hitler.

“Everything in the ad is factual,” said Rosenbluth, during a phone interview last week. “The ad showed my feelings. It’s nothing I haven’t said publicly for year.” The ad does not reflect the position of his organization, Rosenbluth added.

Kaine’s law firm was appointed by the courts to serve as defense in Sheppard’s 1997 appeal. The firm spent a total of 1,000 hours on the case, but Kaine offered advice to his partner for a total of 48 minutes, billings records reveal. However, Kaine has acted as lead attorney for two other death row inmates during their appeals.

“I didn’t know Mark Sheppard,” Kaine told reporters in a conference call last Thursday. “I never visited him. I never spoke with him.”

Rosenbluth said it did not matter to him how little time Kaine spent on the appeal.

“I don’t care if Kaine put in five minutes or 50 hours, he did represent [Sheppard],” Rosenbluth said.

Kaine does not know if Rosenbluth is aware of the actual extent of his participation in the case, but said Kilgore is intentionally misleading the public.

“It is the most egregious and prejudicial kind of claim by a desperate candidate,” Kaine said. “The whole issue about this ad is about trust,” Kaine said a few minutes later. “This is … the most outrageous misrepresentation yet.”

Kilgore, in a separate conference call with reporters, said he stood by the authenticity of the advertisement and called it “shameful” that Kaine would question Rosenbluth’s motives.

“Tim Kaine defended cold-blooded killers convicted of murder,” Kilgore said. “His record doesn’t disappear because he’s running for governor.”

Kilgore admitted his campaign had not checked the billing records to ensure the accuracy of the ad, but said records from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals listed Kaine as an alternate attorney for the case.

Kilgore has accused Kaine of wanting to impose a moratorium on executions in the state. Though Kaine is opposed to the death penalty because of his Catholic faith, he has said he would uphold the law if elected.

Polls show a majority of Virginians support the use of the death penalty, but the state’s voters do not view the issue as a priority when they cast their ballots. For months pundits have said Kaine is vulnerable on the issue and the attack ads came as little surprise in the wake of the candidates’ acrimonious debates.

Kilgore has attempted to use the death penalty as a wedge issue to divide Democrats, some of whom are strongly in favor of executions. Eleven individuals have been put to death during Gov. Warner’s term in office, and he has yet to grant clemency to any death row inmates.

There is a strong possibility that the ads will backfire even though most Virginians oppose Kaine’s stance on the death penalty, said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. If Kaine can rebut the ads effectively he could turn them into a pointed attack on Kilgore’s character and judgment, Rozell said.

“This could have a snowball affect over time,” Rozell said. “People could get the feeling that Kilgore will do or say anything to get elected.”

There has been a palatable concern in the state’s Republican circles that the ad went too far in attacking Kaine’s stance on the death penalty and is producing a backlash among undecided and swing voters. Some Republicans are wondering if the Kilgore campaign made a grave error by invoking Hitler in a debate where most Virginians already agree with their position.

“I have heard from conservative Republican constituents that they are turned off by the ads,” said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-34), who opposes the death penalty. “I know people who are a little upset by them.”