NEW HOSTAGE POLICY
The State Department says a new U.S. policy on responding to hostage taking and kidnappings will focus more attention on the abduction of private U.S. citizens.
"What may be a little bit different now is to say that we look at every kidnapping and every hostage ... to consider what the U.S. government can do to gain the safe return of the individual, whether it's an official American or a private American," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday.
In the past, U.S. embassies were often slow in assisting host governments in kidnapping investigations involving private American citizens. One State Department official told UPI: "We think they should get involved before the trail runs cold."
The announcement of the new policy comes as the State Department is working on one of the highest-profile kidnapping cases in recent memory -- last month's abduction of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan.
Boucher said the change in policy did not stem from the Pearl case and that discussions had been ongoing since late in the last administration. According to one U.S. official, the need to change the existing policy was spurred by kidnappings by the militant Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and the spate of hostage takings in Ecuador in 2000.
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The U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday heard argument on whether the execution of a mentally retarded person violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The case out of Virginia involves Daryl Renard Atkins, who was convicted and sentenced to die for a 1996 killing and robbery of Eric Nesbitt, 21. 18 of the 38 states that have capital punishment forbid the execution of the mentally retarded, generally defined as someone with an IQ of under 70. Atkins' IQ was tested at 59 by his defense team.
The Virginia Court had actually decided that Atkins was not mentally retarded, but expressed a willingness to execute him regardless.
Justice Antonin Scalia remained unconvinced that it mattered whether he was handicapped at all.
"What's wrong with executing the mentally retarded?" he asked Atkins' attorney, James Ellis.
"They lack culpability or blame because they cannot understand their actions," Ellis replied. "I am not saying that they cannot be punished, but the death penalty should be limited to those who know what they did was wrong."
Virginia Assistant Attorney General Pamela Rumpz defended the decision to execute Atkins, noting he had been found competent to stand trial -- an argument that led Justice David Souter to question whether that standard applied to any mental development.
"What about, say, a five year old," he asked, implying that a lack of a "bright line" decision on competency might leave ridiculous scenarios a possibility.
"If that person deliberately and premeditatedly committed a brutal and premeditated murder," she said. "Then yes."
-- Should it be allowable to sentence to death a convicted killer deemed to be mentally retarded? Why or why not?
Representatives of the National Campaign to Close the Newspaper Gun Ad Loophole are scheduled to release a study this week that purports to show that classified ads are "a potential source of guns (including assault weapons) for terrorists, criminals, and the mentally ill."
The organization said such sales permit gun purchasers to avoid mandated background checks in the 16 states surveyed -- where more than 75 percent of the surveyed newspapers allow guns to be sold through classified ads.
"Sales of guns through newspaper classifieds offer the anonymity and ability to avoid law enforcement checks, which make them a potential source of guns for terrorists," John Johnson, executive director of the Iowans for the Prevention of Gun Violence, said in a release.
The Iowa group is one of 24 state and grassroots gun violence prevention groups that make up the campaign.
-- Should it be legal for private citizens to sell firearms? Why or why not? If "yes," should it be the law that such purchasers also be required to undergo background checks?
(From UPI's Capital Comment)