Nation roundup for May 24


States look to the past for execution methods

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The disarray surrounding lethal injection in the U.S. is beginning to steer states back toward methods of execution that many had long ago deemed less humane than the needle. Tennessee jumped out front this week with a law that could essentially bring back the electric chair. Elsewhere around the country, lawmakers have been talking about reviving the firing squad and the gas chamber, methods largely abandoned a generation ago.

The reason: Lethal injection — the primary means of execution in all 32 states with capital punishment — is under fire as never before because of botched executions, drug shortages caused by a European-led boycott, and a flurry of lawsuits over the new chemicals that states are using instead.

The Tennessee legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday would allow the state to use electrocution against any current or future death row inmate if lethal injection drugs become unavailable.

In truth, Tennessee never did abandon the electric chair; killers who committed their crimes before the state adopted lethal injection in 1999 have been given the choice of electrocution or the needle.

But the new law could take that choice away from the inmates and make everyone on death row subject to the electric chair.

Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied executions for more than two decades, called Tennessee’s law unprecedented.

“No state has gone backward, to go back in time to a prior method of execution,” she said. “For over a century, they have all moved forward.”

Some attorneys warned that changing the method of execution on inmates who were originally subject to lethal injection would be unconstitutional.

Other experts noted that the legal and political attacks on lethal injection as cruel and unusual have had the unintended effect of driving states toward methods that are considered even worse.

Wyoming lawmakers are talking about changing the law to allow the firing squad, while their counterparts in Utah have proposed repealing a law that ended firing squads for prisoners convicted after 2004. Missouri law allows for the gas chamber, and politicians from both parties last year suggested rebuilding one.

During the electric-chair debate in Tennessee, one lawmaker said he would support hanging and the firing squad, too. Another legislator, Republican Rep. Dennis Powers, the bill’s House sponsor, shrugged off legal and ethical concerns about the measure.

Obama aides tackling foreign policy concerns

WASHINGTON (AP) — White House officials have been holding private meetings this week aimed at soothing lawmakers’ concerns over the U.S. posture in Syria, the future of the American military presence in Afghanistan and defense spending. The meetings come as a frustrated White House seeks to push back at criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

But the White House outreach appeared to be having little effect on some lawmakers’ concerns.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Tuesday night’s White House meeting with chief of staff Denis McDonough and national security adviser Susan Rice as “one of the most bizarre I’ve attended.”

Another senator who attended the meeting said Obama’s advisers refused to provide lawmakers with answers about whether the president plans to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the war formally concludes later this year or about the Pentagon’s efforts to find nearly 300 kidnapped Nigerian school girls.

Unsatisfied, some of the lawmakers started to leave one by one before the meeting had finished. The senator and three congressional aides briefed on the meeting insisted on anonymity to discuss the private talks.

Asked about Corker’s assertion that Tuesday’s meeting was “bizarre,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday, “I don’t know what he’s referring to.”

The meetings, which have been taking place both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, come as Obama prepares for a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he is expected to try to answer critics who say he has surrendered America’s global leadership and faltered on problems in the Middle East, Russia, China and beyond.

S&P 500 closes above 1,900 for first time

NEW YORK (AP) — Call it the Great Slog. Stocks are bumbling along this year after a gangbuster 2013.

The upward grind is underscored by the Standard &Poor’s 500 index, which closed above 1,900 for the first time on Friday. The index has eked out a gain of 2.8 percent this year compared with a 16 percent increase over the same period last year.

Other major indexes haven’t fared any better. The Dow Jones industrial average and the Nasdaq composite are barely positive for 2014. The market’s five-year bull run has slowed as investors become more evenly split between those that remain optimistic on the outlook for stocks and the economy, and those that think it’s time for a sell-off. Investors haven’t seen a “correction,” Wall Street-speak for a drop of 10 percent of more, for an unusually long time.

“People have been waiting for this huge correction, but as soon as we have even a little bit of a pullback, people see the value in it, and they’re jumping in,” said Karyn Cavanaugh, senior market strategist at Voya Investment Management.

Cavanaugh believes that there will be a “spring snapback,” in the economy. Company earnings, already at record levels, will keep climbing and support stock prices.

The S&P 500 rose 8.04 points, or 0.4 percent, to close at 1,900.53. The index first rose above 1,900 during trading on May 13, but fell back to close below that level.

The Dow climbed 63.19 points, or 0.4 percent, to end at 1,606.27. The Nasdaq rose 31.47 points, or 0.8 percent, to 4,185.81.

Investors bid up homebuilder stocks following news that sales of new U.S. homes increased last month. Lennar rose $1.55, or 4 percent, to $40.54. D.R. Horton rose 92 cents, or 4.1 percent, to $23.57.

The Commerce Department reported that sales of U.S. new homes rose 6.4 percent in April after slumping in the previous two months.

“While it wasn’t a stellar number, it was not weak and it helps assuage fears” that the housing recovery is weakening, said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist with Prudential Financial. “It really did help set the tone of the market.”

On Friday, investors favored stocks that stand to fare better than others in a strengthening economy. Gains were led by technology, materials and consumer discretionary stocks.

The S&P 500 has gained 180 percent since bottoming out in March, 2009 during the Great Recession. Stocks are now in the second-longest bull market since 1946, according to data from S&P Capital IQ. The index has also gone 2½ years without a correction. Typically those declines occur once every 18 months.

Another sign that investors have been more nervous this year than last is that while the S&P 500 has ground higher, the riskier parts of the stock market, such as small-company stocks, social media and biotechnology stocks have had sharp sell-offs.

The Russell 2000, an index that tracks small company stocks, is down 3.2 percent this year at 1,126.19. The index has flirted with a correction after falling as much as 9.3 percent from its March 4 high of 1,208.65.

Many investors still remain optimistic though, pointing to record company earnings and the Federal Reserve.

In the first quarter of the year companies in the S&P 500 earned an average of $27.59 a share, the second-highest level recorded, falling just below the $28.46 per share earned in the fourth quarter of 2013. Thus far during the economic recovery, companies have boosted earnings by cutting costs. As the economy continues to strengthen the hope among investors is that overall demand will improve and corporations will start reporting higher revenues.

Corporations “haven’t had any real help from the economy,” said John Manley, chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Fund Management. “If the economy ever kicks in, these people who made more with less can make a lot more with more, and that’s going to surprise people.”

The stock market’s rise has also been supported by the Federal Reserve’s policy. Although policy makers are winding down the stimulus, many economists don’t think that the Fed will start raising interest rates before the second half of next year.

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