Today's Papers

Mortis Interruptus

The Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all lead with Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision yesterday to postpone the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh until June 11, in light of the revelation late in the week that the FBI had failed to turn over thousands of pages of evidence to McVeigh’s defense team prior to his 1997 trial. In a press briefing, Ashcroft explained the delay, saying that “our system of justice requires basic fairness … essential to protecting the constitutional rights over every citizen and to sustaining public confidence in the administration of justice” (WP). Ashcroft was hard pressed to explain why data from the investigations of 45 FBI field offices only surfaced a few days ago, and he has ordered a Justice Department investigation into the matter. Ashcroft expressed confidence that “these documents do not create any reasonable doubt about McVeigh’s guilt, nor do they contradict his admission of guilt for the crime,” according to the WP.

The papers point out that most of the over 700 newly discovered documents are witness interview reports known as 302s. The WP stresses that several of these reports pertain to “John Doe No. 2,” another bombing suspect described by some witnesses but never found. According to the WP’s legal experts, the new information could only cast doubt on McVeigh’s death sentence if his lawyers can make the case that these 302s might have persuaded McVeigh’s jury that someone else organized the 1995 attack. McVeigh’s attorneys say that the monthlong delay may not provide sufficient time to analyze the new evidence. McVeigh’s lead attorney, Rob Nigh, says his client (who had earlier refused further appeals) is “now willing to take a fresh look and evaluate the information,” a comment carried by all the papers. A lawyer for McVeigh’s convicted co-conspirator Terry Nichols said he will use the new material as grounds to seek a new trial for his client. And according to the LAT, McVeigh’s attorneys suggested that the blunder “provides a strong argument for a moratorium on all federal executions.”

All papers report the anger and disbelief of the families of the bombing victims. The WP stresses the “embarrassment” this episode causes for the FBI, “exposing the bureau’s sloppy handling of thousands of documents.”

Both the LAT and the WP carry tandem front-pagers that spotlight the FBI’s obsolete information processing technology, whose deficiencies, according to the LAT, “have surfaced repeatedly in recent years in connection with high-profile investigations” and have prompted the FBI earlier this month to undertake a $51 million overhaul of its technology systems and internal security. And an LAT expert notes that while the cause of the gaffe “will probably turn out to be sheer inefficiency,” it is “going to be impossible for many members of the public not to be suspicious about what really happened.”

The WP fronts the bipartisan tax cut plan unveiled yesterday by the chairman (Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa) and senior Democrat (Sen. Max Baucus of Montana) of the Senate Finance Committee and the ensuing fallout in the Democratic ranks. Baucus agreed to speed up the rate of income tax reduction in exchange for a benefit that provides a child tax credit to one- or two-children families that do not pay income taxes but make more than $10,000. The Grassley-Baucus plan provides tax relief for those low- and moderate-incomes first, delaying more costly, high-income benefits until later in the decade. Opponents suspect that the order of tax relief obscures the fact that the majority of benefits are still for the wealthiest Americans. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle yesterday called the plan “nearly as flawed” as President Bush’s original proposal.

Both the WP and the NYT front President Bush’s remarks yesterday at a White House news conference (the third since his inauguration) that passing his $1.35 trillion tax cut package was the best way for Americans to cope with the rising price of oil and gas. Both papers find some opportunism in these comments. The WP quotes the ranking Democrat on the Energy and National Resources Committee, who argues that the tax cut “is not going to get money into people’s pockets for some time.” The NYT is less subtle, noting that “Mr. Bush and his advisers clearly craved an opportunity for the president to appear empathetic and in charge of the situation.” What’s more, says the NYT, Bush’s appeal comes after weeks of his administration’s warnings that its energy plan could do precious little to provide short-term relief for consumers.

The LAT and WP front–and the NYT carries in its “Business” section–the recommendation of an FDA advisory panel yesterday that the allergy drugs Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec be made available to consumers without a prescription. If the FDA heeds the panel’s advice, insurance companies, whose health plans usually only cover prescription drugs, will save a bundle. Reclassification would mean huge financial losses for drug manufactures, who will be forced to drop the cost of their products if consumers have to pay for them out of pocket. The LAT and NYT question whether the FDA can legally force companies to change their drugs’ status, and an NYT economist explains that “selling over the counter has always been left to the discretion of drug companies.”

An NYT front-pager recaps Italy’s race for prime minister, which ended yesterday as both candidates–conservative tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and his liberal opponent and former mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli–appeared on television to make their final pleas to voters. Because the candidates’ economic plans are fairly similar, the bitter campaign has been largely dominated by debates about Berlusconi’s potential conflicts of interest as head of an Italian media empire and his ties to the far right-wing leader of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi. Italian voters go to the polls Sunday.

Large professor: The NYT arts section profiles the debut album of Cornel West, the flamboyant professor of Afro-American Studies and philosophy at Harvard University. The spoken-word recording, titled “Sketches of My Culture,” engages African-American history through a blend of poetry, rap, jazz, and rhythm & blues. West’s lyrics are largely improvisational; for example, dig this: “We have been taught to hate ourselves and told we have the wrong hips and lips and noses and hair texture and skin pigmentation. … But we engage in a sweet and sad indictment of such misery with the strength of our souls and with the vision of our struggle.” The album’s producers plan to donate part of the album’s profits to charity, and a reconciliatory duet with Eminem is in the works.