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Originally published October 25, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 11:21 AM

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Truth Needle: Not much truth in nasty attorney general ads

Truth Needle: Competing television ads in the attorney general's race are misleading and mostly false.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Ads that are largely accurate in their specific components can be mostly false in overall impression or truth. That's the case with two TV ads from national groups — one Republican, one Democratic — trying to influence voters in our state attorney-general race.

The claims: One ad, by the Republican State Leadership Committee, attacks Democratic candidate Bob Ferguson. According to the ad, Ferguson said working for a cop killer was "a great feeling." The ad then quotes a local deputy sheriff, who says Ferguson helped the most "vile" kind of criminal. The deputy calls that decision "unfathomable" and claims it "says volumes" about Ferguson's public-safety priorities. The ad ends with a scene showing a boy on a playground swing. Then he disappears as if abducted.

The other, by the Washington Committee for Justice and Fairness, attacks Republican candidate Reagan Dunn, a former federal prosecutor. The ad says "prosecutors should keep us safe from criminals." But Dunn, it says, "cut a deal with a drug smuggler; he cut a deal and reduced the charges for a child pornographer; Dunn even cut a deal with a convicted domestic abuser who only 10 days after his release beat someone to death in a drunken rage."

What we found: Both ads are so misleading that they are mostly false.

The anti-Ferguson ad

It starts by referring to Ferguson's work for a cop killer. But it doesn't say that work was done two decades ago when Ferguson, now 47, was a second-year law student working under a grant for the Arizona Capital Representation Project. The organization sought to provide death-row inmates with legal representation.

Ferguson wrote a motion that helped get a lawyer for an inmate, Ronald Turney Williams, who killed two cops. Ferguson wasn't Williams' lawyer. He didn't help him get out of jail — Williams is still serving two life sentences.

Ferguson, who opposes the death penalty, told a student-law journal in 1993 that winning representation for Williams was "a great feeling." He went on to say the "reason I went to law school was to work against the death penalty." He has noted in debates and interviews that while he remains personally opposed to the death penalty, he would defend the state's right to impose capital punishment as attorney general.

The ad contends that "Washington law enforcement is outraged" by Ferguson's work in Arizona. Snohomish County sheriff's deputy Ian Huri appears in the ad saying Ferguson's work for Williams calls into question his decision-making and public-safety priorities.

"I know what it takes to keep our communities safe and Bob Ferguson is definitely not it," Huri says in the ad.

But not everyone in Washington law enforcement is outraged. The Washington State Patrol Troopers Association has endorsed Ferguson and its president has defended Ferguson's crime-fighting priorities.

Federal Public Defender Thomas Hillier called the ad "disturbing."

"The ad is, in effect, an attack on any lawyer who does what he or she has sworn to do — represent people who have come to them for help or need representation," said Hillier, who is not publicly supporting either candidate in the race; he also criticizes the Democratic ad against Dunn.

The anti-Dunn ad

This ad also is very misleading, starting with its premise of criticizing plea-bargain deals that prosecutors strike with defendants. Although some believe plea bargains give prosecutors too much discretion, they are struck almost every day to secure guilty pleas, often in exchange for reduced charges.

According to a Department of Justice report last year, scholars estimate that 90 to 95 percent of federal and state cases are resolved through plea bargains, "an inherent part of the criminal-justice system."

Prosecutors don't have time to take all cases to trial. Plea deals also are more cost-efficient.

As for the specific charges in the ad, it's true that Dunn, while working as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2004, reached a plea agreement with a smuggler, Thanh Cong Dinh, who was part of a Canadian ring bringing marijuana into Washington state.

Dinh was arrested in 2004 in connection with an earlier attempt to smuggle about 300 pounds of pot into the state. Dinh agreed to cooperate with authorities and led them to a vehicle containing 50 pounds of pot. Dunn filed a conspiracy-to-distribute charge, based on the 50 pounds. Dinh received a seven-month jail sentence and three years of supervised release.

In another case, Dunn struck a deal with Ryan Andrew Hamburg, who pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography. In the plea deal, Dunn wrote that Hamburg had more than 100 images of child pornography. Federal-sentencing guidelines for such a crime suggested a minimum of 27 months in prison.

A prosecutor who took on the case after Dunn was elected to the Metropolitan King County Council noted that Hamburg actually had more than 400 images, which would have put the minimum-sentencing guideline at 33 months. Hamburg was eventually sentenced to one year in prison, with three years of supervised release.

Finally, the ad accuses Dunn of cutting a deal with Kyle Davie Graham, a domestic abuser who was found with a loaded gun during a traffic stop.

In this case, Dunn did not reach a plea agreement with Graham. That was done by other federal prosecutors, who charged Graham, a felon, with unlawful possession of a firearm. Based on the plea agreement, Dunn submitted a sentencing memorandum in the case, recommending 40 months in prison. But he did not "cut a deal" in the case.

What's more, the ad says Graham killed a man "only 10 days after his release." That implies Graham killed 10 days after he was released from a sentence negotiated by Dunn. But, in fact, Graham killed a man in Oregon a year after he was released from the sentence that Dunn played a part in imposing.

In that year, Graham ran in to trouble with the law at least five times for offenses including malicious mischief and drunken driving. He was twice sentenced to halfway houses. He killed a man 10 days after his latest release in 2008.

Hillier said none of those plea agreements sound unusual. "To criticize plea bargaining per se is to suggest one doesn't know anything about the criminal-justice system," Hillier said.

This ad is funded by the Democratic Attorneys General Association and a trial lawyers group. They should know how the system works.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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