This Year's Willie Horton?

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The double murder of a popular young couple from tiny Graham, Wash., has become a hot issue in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. And the family and friends of the victims are being drawn into the accusations and counter-accustions of G.O.P. rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

The man accused of committing the Nov. 17 murders, Daniel Tavares Jr., was released in July by Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Kathe Tuttman, whom Romney appointed in 2006, when he was still governor of that state. Tavares had just finished serving a 16-year sentence in a maximum security prison for stabbing his mother to death, and local prosecutors had urged that he be kept locked up because he had allegedly assaulted two prison guards near the end of his term. Judge Tuttman instead ordered that Tavares be released on his own recognizance, and shortly thereafter Tavares apparently moved across the country to Washington State, where he is now accused of shooting Brian Mauck, 30, and Beverly Mauck, 28, execution-style, perhaps over a $50 debt.

On the campaign trail former New York mayor Giuliani has called on Romney to explain his decision to appoint Judge Tuttman. "It's not an isolated incident," Giuliani told the Associated Press, offering FBI crime statistics that he said showed a 7.5% increase in murders in Massachusetts while Romney was governor and a 12% increase in robberies during the same period. "The reality is, he did not have a record of reducing violent crime," Mr. Giuliani told the AP.

Romney has reacted by calling on Judge Tutmman to step down, describing her decision in the Tavares case inexcusable. The seriousness with which he has responded suggests that his advisors, like some political observers, see the Tavares case as similar to the 1988 Willie Horton incident, which famously hurt former Masachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in his run for the presidency. Horton, in prison for life for murder, had been granted a weekend furlough under a Massachusetts program overseen by Dukakis and used the time to flee to Maryland, where he robbed and raped a woman.

Craig Slater, the brother of Beverly Mauck, said he and his family were furious about the release of Tavares. "There's not very many clean words I can think of that come to mind," he told TIME on Sunday, one day after a packed, tearful memorial service that drew hundreds of people who told of the Maucks' love of life and their devotion to each other, their friends and their his-and-hers Harleys. "We've had the greatest couple in the world ripped away from us," Slater said.

As for whom to blame, Slater, 29, said he was waiting to learn more. "Right now I don't know all the facts," he said. "I know that the judge is the one who released him, so right now she's the first one on my list as being responsible. The Massachusetts judicial system is obviously screwed up. I've got no comment on Romney just yet."

Taylor Glasenapp, a spokesman for the victims' families, told TIME that as a conservative-leaning voter, he'll be watching closely to see how Romney and other Republicans handle the law-and-order politics surrounding the tragedy. "This is now a huge issue for me in the presidential election," said Glasenapp. "Something has to be done about this."

Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, told TIME thatRomney understood the anger of the Maucks' family and friends. "Governor Romney is horrified by the vicious murder that took place in Washington State, and his sympathies and condolences are with the families of Beverly and Brian Mauck," Fehrnstrom wrote in an e-mail on Sunday. "They have every right to question a system that would permit a violent offender to re-enter society when it was possible to keep him behind bars."

Fehrnstrom said that Judge Tuttman is not a political associate or supporter of Romney's, and that he appointed her based on "her long record both as a prosecutor and as an advocate for victims." Fehrnstrom also noted that Judge Tuttman had been recommended for Romney's approval by the Massachusetts Judicial Nominating Commission and vetted by the state's bar association as well as the Boston bar association.

"Judge Tuttman's entire experience as a prosecutor suggested she would be a law-and-order judge," he said. "Otherwise, she wouldn't have been appointed. Her actions in this case are inexcusable. Governor Romney believes she should resign for her inexplicable lapse in judgment."

Slater, who tends to vote Democratic, said he didn't even know Romney was running for president until his sister's murder, so the politics surrounding the tragedy probably won't have much effect on his vote. However, his family's statements on the matter could certainly affect the Republican contest going forward, and Slater suggested that as family members learn more about Romney's role in appointing Judge Tuttman they would likely offer their thoughts.

For his part the family spokesman, Glasenapp, 28, said he tends to vote conservative but, because of frustration with the conservatives in power right now, was considering four candidates: Romney, Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. "I haven't been too impressed with Republicans lately, so I'm looking at everybody," he said. "I would be interested to know what each of them has to say, or would be trying to do, to keep this from happening again. You shouldn't be sitting in your living room wondering whether someone with a history of violent acts is going to break through your door. How they handle this will affect who I support."