Exclusive: Republicans Launch Willie Horton-Style Attack on Kaine

RNC releases video ahead of Tuesday's vice presidential debate

While Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine fought to avoid the death penalty for his clients as a defense attorney, a number of executions were carried out on his watch as governor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The day before Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine takes the debate stage in his home state, Republicans are attacking his record on the death penalty.

In a new web ad that recalls the Willie Horton attack on the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, the Republican National Committee is highlighting two of Kaine's clients when he was a defense attorney.

Richard Lee Whitley was convicted of murdering a 63-year-old neighbor in Fairfax County, while Lem Tuggle was found guilty of raping, sodomizing and murdering a 52-year old woman from Smyth County.

While numerous executions took place on his watch as Virginia governor, Kaine had come up as a defense attorney working to keep people convicted of capital offenses from facing the death penalty.

[Banishing the Ghost of Willie Horton to Promote Criminal Justice Reform]

"The hardest thing about being a governor was dealing with the death penalty," Kaine told the National Catholic Reporter in August. "I hope on Judgment Day that there's both understanding and mercy, because it was tough."

The RNC spot also references the commutation of the death sentence of convicted triple murderer Percy Levar Walton in 2008. In a statement released with the commutation, Kaine said that the commutation of Walton's sentence was due to his lack of mental competence, despite court rulings indicating the sentence could be carried out.

"I am again compelled to find that one cannot reasonably conclude that Walton is fully aware of the punishment he is about to suffer and why he is to suffer it," Kaine said. "Given the extended period of time over which Walton has exhibited this lack of mental competence, I must conclude that a commutation of his sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole is now the only constitutionally appropriate course of action."

There's also the widely publicized case of Jens Soering. Current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe rejected a bid by the German diplomat's son to be sent back to his home country (which was still West Germany at the time he was sentenced to life in prison in connection with a double murder in Bedford County).

The Washington Post reported that Kaine had approved of such a transfer, but that action was stalled by his Republican successor Gov. Bob McDonnell when he assumed office. A Kaine aide said after a back-and-forth with German authorities that there were assurances that Soering would not be released if sent back to Germany.

The presidential campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton did not immediately release a statement in response to the Republican video, but facing campaign ads and criticism of his record on capital punishment is nothing new for Kaine, currently the junior senator from Virginia.

[Pence and the Path to Power for the GOP]

When Kaine ran for governor in 2005, his GOP opponent Jerry Kilgore ran a negative spot featuring Stanley Rosenbluth, the father of a murder victim whose killer was represented by Kaine.

That ad included Rosenbluth saying that Kaine would oppose the death penalty for Adolf Hitler, a reference that drew criticism at the time.

Kaine released his own direct response in what might be a preview of what to expect Tuesday night in Farmville, Virginia, when the Commonwealth senator will face off against Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana in the only vice presidential debate of 2016.

"My faith teaches that life is sacred," Kaine said then. "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 RNC's release of the new attack video Monday is likely designed to ensure that the death penalty is a topic of conversation between Pence and Kaine on Tuesday.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.