Today's Papers

The Appeal of Death

The New York Times leads with the main conclusion of what it calls the “most far-reaching study of the death penalty in the United States”: Two out of three death penalty convictions were overturned on appeal. The study is almost sure to dovetail with the interest the press has been showing of late in the details of Texas death cases under George W. Bush’s administration. (But forgive Today’s Papers for not seeing how this can possibly help death penalty supporter Al Gore.) The study is also top-fronted at the Los Angeles Times but carried inside elsewhere. USA Today goes with an exclusive, another report (can you tell it’s Monday?), this one from NASA, saying that in 40 percent of the 152 cases of unruly airline passenger behavior it studied, the disruption was found to have caused pilot errors that compromised safety, such as flying too fast, taking the wrong altitude, or taxiing across runways at the wrong time. Nearly half the incidents in the study involved alcohol. The Washington Post goes with the mourning in Syria over the death of longtime president Hafez Assad and the emerging signs of a seamless transition of power to his son Bashar, who, the paper reports, was named commander of the army. The LAT leads with an economic broadbrusher explaining that thanks to the resurgence of the economies of most of the rest of the world in the past year or so, U.S. prospects for narrowing its trade deficit are improved.

The NYT lead says most of the convictions in the Columbia University study–to be released today–which covered all capital case appeals from 1975 to 1993, were reversed because of incompetent defense counsel or police or prosecutors who withheld evidence. Of the people whose death sentences were set aside by the courts, 75 percent were later given lesser sentences, 7 percent were acquitted on retrial, and only 18 percent were given the death penalty again, although, the paper explains, many of these convictions were also overturned on appeal. The story waits until the 18th paragraph to inform that the study is thought by some experts to show that the enormous inconsistencies in the application of the death penalty that the Supreme Court cited when invalidating the sanction in 1972 are still in force today. And it waits until the 32nd paragraph to mention that 20 percent of the reversed errors in the study were caused not by cops or DAs but by judges.

The WP reports that Bashar Assad, an army-trained ophthalmologist, spoke on the phone yesterday (through an interpreter) with President Clinton. The Syrian succession also gets big front play (with a picture of mourners) at the LAT. And it’s the top story in the Wall Street Journal’s front-page worldwide news box and the subject of an op-ed inside as well. But the cake is taken and iced by the NYT, where the story is the off-lead, the subject of the lead editorial, and the topic of not one but two op-ed columns (by William Safire and Thomas Friedman). At the height of the Cold War, when Syria was a Soviet client state, this sort of coverage in American papers made sense. But nowadays doesn’t it verge on obsession?

The NYT fronts a Clinton administration report to be released today forecasting that the nation will experience substantial consequences of global warming in the next several decades, including summer water shortages and New York weather that feels like Atlanta’s. The report, which tends to support the mainstreamization of the belief that the greenhouse effect is warming and changing our planet, will be available at

The WSJ reports on a forthcoming Department of Justice study purporting to show that 1) only a tiny percentage of state court civil cases result in the award of any punitive damages; 2) juries are far more stingy than judges when it comes to imposing punitive damages; and 3) most punitive awards amount to less than $40,000–far below the headline-making sums chronically mentioned by would-be tort reformers.

But wait–there’s more! Another Journal effort reports that Oxford economists have done a statistical analysis of 152 countries from 1965 to 1995, which, they’re convinced, shows that civil wars are not irrational feuds but can be understood as rebels responding rationally to market issues governing the export of primary commodities. They say that a country where such exports make up at least 28 percent of GDP has four times the risk of civil war as a country with no such exports. (Rebels have to meet payrolls too, the authors reason, and controlling such goods is a proven way.) They also assert that ethnically diverse countries are less likely, not more, to have civil wars, because the economic costs to them of doing so are greater. The story doesn’t explain that piece of logic, which seems fanciful in any case. The Croat-Serb dynamic did not seem smoothed by the interposition of the Kosovars.