The Supreme Court gives judges leeway to stray from sentencing guidelines.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 11 2007 6:13 AM

Guiding Light

The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with the Supreme Court ruling that federal judges have wide discretion to impose criminal sentences that are different from those called for by sentencing guidelines that were once mandatory. In a pair of 7-2 decisions, the justices said appeals courts should give district judges leeway to make a sentencing decision based on the particular circumstances surrounding a case. The decisions will mostly be felt in drug cases, but other federal criminal cases will also be affected.

The Washington Post fronts the Supreme Court decisions but leads with a former CIA officer speaking out about water-boarding. John Kiriakou, a former interrogator, said the first high-level al-Qaida detainee was defiant for weeks but broke down 35 seconds after the water-boarding started. Although the information he gave "probably saved lives," Kiriakou now says that he considers water-boarding to be torture, and "Americans are better than that." USA Todayleads with a look at how some of the nation's most elite and expensive colleges are putting together plans to increase the financial aid that is offered to students from relatively well-off families. More schools are replacing loans with grants, and yesterday Harvard announced that families with annual incomes of up to $180,000 will have to pay only a small percentage of the university's annual fee.

Advertisement

With yesterday's decisions, the Supreme Court went to lengths to clear up the confusion that has existed since 2005, when the justices announced the sentencing guidelines should be seen as advisory rather than mandatory. Yesterday, the court made clear that just because it's fair to assume that sentences within the guidelines are reasonable, it doesn't mean that those that stray from them are automatically unreasonable. The WSJ says yesterday's decisions could result in "thousands of defendants seeking a rehearing," but the LAT thinks the decisions won't affect past sentences. In one of the decisions, the Supreme Court appeared to throw its weight behind recent efforts to change the way that crack offenders are automatically given longer prison terms than those convicted of possessing or dealing powder cocaine. The U.S. Sentencing Commission is scheduled to vote today on whether to make recent changes to its guidelines for crack offenses retroactive.

Even though judges can now officially go outside the guidelines, they must still abide by the mandatory minimum sentences that are set into law and continue to include a vastly higher penalty for crack offenses than cocaine. In an analysis, the NYT says the decisions "will probably accelerate a mild trend toward more lenient sentencing" but just because judges will now have more leeway, doesn't mean most of them will stray from the guidelines. Judges "like to apply clear rules" so the full impact of the decisions may "be more modest than their language," says the NYT.

Top CIA officials are scheduled to testify behind closed doors today before the Senate intelligence committee about the destruction of the interrogation tapes. Yesterday, leaders at the House intelligence committee said they would be launching their own investigation into the tapes. CIA Director Michael Hayden had said both committees had been told of the tapes and their destruction, but lawmakers and congressional staff say that doesn't appear to be true.

The NYT fronts word that lawyers at the CIA's clandestine branch approved the destruction of the tapes, which had hundreds of hours of footage. (The WP says most are of a detainee alone in his cell.) A former senior official tells the NYT that there had been discussions about the tapes with different agencies for two years, and both White House and Justice Department lawyers had advised against destroying the tapes. But since they weren't ever given a direct decision, the head of the clandestine branch decided to go ahead with their destruction after a lawyer within the same department said he had the proper authority. The top CIA lawyer was not asked to approve the move, which several former officials said was more than a little surprising.

Although Hayden last week said that the "videotaping stopped in 2002," the NYT notes that a lawyer representing a former prisoner said there were cameras in his cell and during interrogations after 2002.

In a story inside, the LAT analyzes the question of whether the destruction of the tapes "spilled over into illegal conduct." The case of the Sept. 11 commission shows how "such questions are a close call." Although the WP notes that members of the commission "have said they were repeatedly told that the CIA did not have videotapes of interrogations," the LAT says the panel "never specifically requested taped interviews." If that's the case, then it might be difficult to prove obstruction of justice, although some experts say it would be hard for the CIA to argue that it didn't think the tapes would ever be formally requested, particularly because of the ongoing hearings and investigations at the time.

Most of the papers front news that Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed a longtime loyalist, Dmitry Medvedev, as his successor. The 42-year-old deputy prime minister and chairman of Gazprom has never been part of the country's security services and is seen as one of the rare moderates in the Kremlin. Analysts speculate Medvedev was chosen because Putin trusts him and didn't want to risk appointing someone who could challenge him later on. Medvedev has never run for any political office but there's little doubt he'll win the presidency in March.

The LAT gets word that the Iraqi government has ordered all policewomen to turn over their guns so that they can be given out to men. Women who don't return their guns risk losing their paychecks. This is a huge blow to U.S. efforts to recruit female officers, who had already been mostly relegated to desk jobs, and some see it as a sign of the increasing religious fervor of Iraq's politicians.

Showing that concerns about copyright infringement on Web video sites is not just for the big Hollywood studios, the LAT reports that a major porn producer, Vivid Entertainment Group, has filed a lawsuit against PornoTube. The publisher of Adult Video News Online tells the LAT that adult studios are worried because previous ways to pirate material took at least a little bit of technical expertise. "Now, there's PornoTube, XTube, RedTube—any kind of -Tube you can think of."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.