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SECOND THOUGHTS



Published: Fri, July 6, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a speech Monday in Minneapolis, expressed anxiety about the death penalty, noting that "serious questions are being raised about whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in this country." Justice O'Connor's words on this subject come at a propitious time -- just as the Senate is considering legislation that would begin to address the problem of wrongful convictions, including the problem of quality of death row counsel.

The court has yet to release a copy of the justice's remarks. But an account in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune quotes her as noting the alarming number of death row inmates who have been exonerated in the years since capital punishment was reinstituted and the failure of many states to pass laws to protect innocents from execution. "If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed," she said. The justice went on to describe the noxious influence of poor defense lawyers on capital cases -- arguing that those who can afford to hire their own lawyers are less likely to be convicted and less likely, if convicted, to be sentenced to death. "Perhaps it's time to look at minimum standards for appointed counsel in death cases and adequate compensation for appointed counsel when they are used," the justice is reported to have said.

Moving debate: This is plainly right -- and particularly powerful coming from a justice who has hardly been friendly to death row appeals over the years. She has often voted in the Supreme Court's 5-to-4 majority in cases restricting post-conviction review. Justice O'Connor once wrote an opinion holding that the court could not entertain the serious innocence claims of a Virginia death row inmate -- who was later executed -- because his lawyers had missed a state court filing deadline by a day. Her opinion began: "This is a case about federalism." For Justice O'Connor to be expressing second thoughts indicates just how far the debate has moved and promises to move it further still.

FROM BAD TO WORSE

Scripps Howard: If there is one lesson the United States and its European allies have learned in the Balkans, it is that dawdling inevitably results in events going from bad to worse to even worse. And now the West is dawdling again.

With thuggish Yugoslavian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the hands of a war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands, there is a sense that a problem has been solved. Trying Milosevic is important, but even more important is salvaging the impoverished, demoralized country he left behind.

Yugoslavia's economy has been ruined by 10 years of sanctions, Soviet-style mismanagement and the strains of intermittent warfare; its infrastructure is in ruins from the 1999 NATO bombing. The Serbian part of Yugoslavia is now one of the poorest regions in Europe with over 60 percent of its people living in poverty, subsisting on less than $30 a month.

Debt relief: International donors have promised $1.28 billion in economic assistance, but that money looks to be slow in coming, and some of its uses, like debt relief, will be invisible to the average Serb. The aid should be quick, highly visible -- such as labor-intensive projects to rebuild bridges, roads, power plants -- and distributed in a way as to make at least some modest improvements in everyday life.

The great mass of Serbian people, at some considerable risk, did what the world asked: ousted Milosevic, voted in a democratic government and turned their former leader over for trial. They must not be abandoned now, lest the country relapse into the xenophobic, man-on-a-white-horse nationalism that bedevils the region.

In Macedonia, the West is again slow in facing up to a problem. The beleaguered, democratically elected and ethnically mixed government is faced with a spreading rebellion by Albanian nationalists. The West is trying to broker a cease-fire and is offering NATO troops to supervise a negotiated disarmament.

However, as with other Balkan mini-wars, the bad guys have been emboldened by the West's disinclination to act. Albanian rebels have seized more territory along the country's northern border and seem to be preparing for a larger offensive against Macedonia's untested military. If negotiations fail, NATO must be ready with a Plan B to clamp down on the insurrection; a good start would be to deny the rebels safe haven in U.N.-supervised Kosovo.




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