Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's last-minute attempt to return an imprisoned murderer to his native Germany, where he likely would have been freed in two years, is threatening to emerge as a key early issue in one of the most anticipated U.S. Senate races next year.
National Republicans are in hot pursuit of records from Mr. Kaine's last year as governor that they say could shed light on why he tried to return Jens Soering to Germany instead of allowing him to serve a life sentence in a U.S. prison. The former University of Virginia student is serving two life terms for killing his girlfriend's parents in 1985.
"There are over 11,000 criminals currently housed in the Virginia state penal system," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "We're simply seeking to understand why one of them, and particularly a convicted double-murderer, was singled out for leniency by Tim Kaine, because his explanation ... does not add up."
The decision has become something of a political nuisance for Mr. Kaine, a Democrat who quietly signed Soering's release just days before leaving office in January 2010, only to have it reversed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican.
Mr. Kaine, who last month resigned as Democratic National Committee chairman to run for Senate, said at the onset of his campaign that he made the decision to save taxpayers money.
He offered the Associated Press a second reason earlier this month: At the time, he didn't anticipate running for office again.
The explanations aren't quieting the GOP, which has George Allen and his tough-on-crime reputation on its side. Mr. Allen, who also has announced a bid for the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, is widely expected to win the Republican nomination. Mr. Allen overhauled Virginia's criminal justice system while serving as governor in the 1990s, though he is perhaps best known for abolishing parole.
In a race against Mr. Allen, Mr. Kaine risks appearing soft on the issue, especially after comparing the number of pardons issued by the two former governors.
Mr. Kaine granted 130 pardons during his four-year term as governor, compared with 15 for Mr. Allen.
At one point, Mr. Kaine put all state executions on hold for 15 days while the U.S. Supreme Court considered a challenge to the constitutionality of lethal injections. He lifted the moratorium after the court upheld the method of execution.
National and state party leaders are calling on Mr. Kaine to release documents held in the archives of the Library of Virginia that otherwise would remain sealed for 75 years.
Placing the issue solidly onto the political battlefield, the Virginia Republican Party last week sarcastically sent a records release form for him to sign.
"All Tim Kaine has to do is sign it, put it in the mail and Virginians will be able to learn much more about just how and why Kaine decided to let a man convicted of killing two people in cold blood return to his home country for possible early release," the document states.
If he has nothing to hide, Mr. Kaine should release the documents, said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the state Republican Party.
"We're really anxious to see Gov. Kaine follow through on his commitment to openness," Mr. Shipley said. "The former governor has the ability to release pretty much whatever he wants to out of his archive."
The NRSC also is seeking documentation of Mr. Kaine's actions from state and federal agencies. Party leaders have appealed to the Brunswick and Buckingham correctional facilities after their requests under the Freedom of Information Act were denied. Mr. Walsh said the committee is waiting for a response from the departments of State and Justice.
The son of a German diplomat, Soering was convicted by a Bedford County Circuit Court jury of two counts of first-degree murder in a case that made international headlines.
Soering has long maintained his innocence and has written a series of contemplative books from prison. He has said that his girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, killed her parents, and that he confessed to spare her the death penalty. Soering also has said he thought at the time that he was entitled to diplomatic immunity and would be extradited to Germany and sentenced as a juvenile to less than 10 years.
Now 44, he has been eligible for parole since 2003 and goes up for consideration later this year.
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