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News Briefs, part 1

Minority Cabinet in Japan May Not Have Long to Serve

Los Angeles Times

Bracing himself for what he called "many extremely difficult problems," Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata on Thursday appointed Japan's first minority Cabinet in 39 years to run what was widely expected to be a short-lived government.

Hata, 58, vowed to resolve economic frictions with the United States by June, including fixing an outline for a major revision of Japan's tax system. Part of that reform will be needed to meet American requests to extend a single-year income tax cut over several years to stimulate Japan's stagnant economy and pull in imports.

Not once did the usually cheerful Hata smile during a nationally televised news conference. And when asked about a statement he once made describing himself as "an actor" in "scenarios" written by Ichiro Ozawa, his chief strategist, he scowled. "An actor himself chooses his scripts and sometimes orders them rewritten," Hata said.

Deserted by the Socialists in the middle of the night earlier this week, Hata's coalition holds only 37 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament and 24 percent in the upper chamber. But the self-described "coordinator" insisted that the Socialists and the Liberal Democratic Party agree with many of the coalition's policies and said he would appeal to them, bill by bill, for support in reform legislation.

Kevorkian Jury Begins Deliberations

The Washington Post

The trial of Jack Kevorkian for assisting a terminally ill man commit suicide ended Thursday with his lawyer's emotional appeal to the jury to protect Kevorkian's mission of "kindness and compassion" against government tyranny. But a prosecutor portrayed the retired pathologist as a deceptive and dangerous medical renegade whose defiance of the law must be stopped.

In a closing argument to the jury, defense attorney Geoffrey N. Fieger compared enactment of the Michigan law that prohibits assisted suicide to the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1950s and accused state authorities of attempting "to make mercy toward your fellow human beings a crime."

"You tell the whole world whether we as a people own our own bodies," Fieger thundered at the close of the five-day trial.

But referring to the 65-year-old Kevorkian as "Doctor Death," Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Timothy Kenny said there could be no doubt Kevorkian deliberately violated the law. Citing the funeral Wednesday of Richard M. Nixon, Kenny said the former president was forced from office in the Watergate scandal "because nobody, no matter who you are, (is) above the law."

An acquittal by the jury of nine women and three men who began deliberations this afternoon would almost certainly be interpreted as license for Kevorkian and perhaps others, to continue the practice. A conviction is likely to be seen as a signal of public apprehension over giving such power to physicians.

Va. Serial Killer First to Die Based on DNA Test

The Washington Post

Serial killer Timothy Wilson Spencer, the first person in the country convicted of a capital crime through DNA testing, died in the state electric chair late Wednesday night.

The man known as the Southside Strangler was pronounced dead at 11:13 p.m., said Wayne Brown, operations officer at Greensville Correctional Center here in southern Virginia.

His electrocution came after a flurry of last-minute legal efforts that went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected a request for a stay at 10:45 p.m. Spencer's attorneys had frantically pleaded for retesting of the DNA genetic material that led to his convictions for raping and murdering four women during a 10-week rampage in 1987. A crowd of about 100 gathered outside the prison, about half of them death-penalty opponents conducting a candlelight prayer vigil. The rest were local high school students who boisterously cheered for Spencer's death. As death-penalty opponents sang "Amazing Grace," some of the students yelled, "Kill the bitch."

The case was watched closely nationwide because Spencer, 32, was the first defendant ever sentenced to death on the basis of DNA genetic "fingerprinting." According to state specialists, the chances were less than 1 in 700 million that someone other than Spencer had left the semen at the murder scenes.

His conviction was such a legal milestone that it prompted Virginia to open the first state DNA laboratory in the country and inspired mystery writer Patricia D. Cornwell's popular 1990 novel "Postmortem."

"It was a landmark case because prior to that, none of us really knew much about DNA and we didn't know whether a jury would be able to understand that sufficiently to convict someone of something as serious as capital murder," said U.S. Attorney Helen F. Fahey, who won the first conviction of Spencer when she was Arlington's chief prosecutor.