A new ad sponsored by the Republican State Leadership Committee attacks Washington attorney general candidate Bob Ferguson's lack of experience prosecuting criminal cases and his public opposition to the death penalty.
"To keep Washington safe, criminals must face tough punishment," the narrator says in the ad. "Democrat Bob Ferguson has never prosecuted a criminal case." (Watch it here.)
Later in the ad, the narrator levels this charge: "After working tirelessly for a convicted murderer who brutally killed two police officers, Ferguson said helping was a great feeling."
The ad -- which promotes Ferguson's GOP opponent, Reagan Dunn -- is based on facts but lacks important context for viewers.
So what exactly was the case involving a convicted murderer who killed two police officers? What did Ferguson really say?
Ferguson made that statement 20 years ago when he was a second-year law student at New York University. The comment is in regard to work he did for the Arizona Capital Representation Project -- a group that helps inmates on death row.
Ferguson helped with a case involving Ronald Turney Williams, who was convicted of murder in West Virginia after he killed a police officer during a robbery attempt. Later, Williams escaped prison in West Virginia, in the process killing state trooper.
Williams was put on the FBI's most wanted list before turning up in Arizona in 1981. Once again, Williams committed murder -- during a home burglary attempt, he shot and killed a 75-year-old neighbor who came by the home to investigate.
By the early 1990s, Williams was on death row in Arizona. Having dismissed his court-appointed attorney, Williams lacked legal representation.
Ferguson and the Arizona Capital Representation Project got involved. A motion Ferguson wrote helped win a new court-appointed attorney for Williams.
In an article in the NYU Student Law magazine, Ferguson explained why he felt Williams was entitled to another attorney: "I felt there was a real injustice here. ... I definitely felt a certain level of responsibility, that I really had to pull through for this guy."
That's where the quote in the anti-Ferguson ad comes in:
"It was a great feeling," Ferguson told the student magazine. "The reason I went to law school was to work against the death penalty."
Ferguson went on to say, "I see absolutely no justification or support for executing people. But after this experience, I came away feeling almost radicalized against the death penalty."
Dunn says voters should not underestimate the importance of criminal work by the attorney general’s office. Ferguson remains opposed to the death penalty. But the ad attacking the Democrat leaves out important context: In Washington state, most crimes, from burglary to murder, are handled by county or federal prosecutors, not the state attorney general.
"It's primarily a civil office. My civil experience is much more substantial than my opponent's," Ferguson said.
And that's true. The state attorney general's office rarely gets involved in criminal cases, only doing so at the request of the governor or a county prosecutor.
Most cases involving the attorney general are civil matters. Rob McKenna, the current attorney general, has argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, each of which was a civil matter.
The criminal division at the AG's office has 17 attorneys, compared with 474 attorneys in the AG's office who focus on civil cases.
One area the criminal division handles is death penalty appeals.
And Ferguson said his personal opposition to the death penalty would not affect how his office would handle these cases. "I would prosecute those cases, my personal opposition to the death penalty has no bearing on my work as attorney general," he said.
Voters will have to decide whether it's OK if the state attorney general opposes the death penalty. The ad, however, fails to note the AG's relatively small role in criminal cases.