Nation roundup for March 28


Christie cleared in his own probe

NEW YORK (AP) — Lawyers hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration said Thursday that the governor was not involved in the plot to create a traffic jam last fall, a conclusion that left the lead lawyer defending the integrity of his report, which came ahead of the results of separate and ongoing federal and legislative investigations.

The taxpayer-funded report released by former federal prosecutor Randy Mastro relied on interviews with Christie and other officials in his administration — who were not under oath — and 250,000 documents, many of them emails and text messages. But the key figures in the political payback plot did not cooperate, leading Democrats to question the credibility of the report and its thoroughness.

The investigation concluded Christie had no knowledge beforehand of lane closings Sept. 9-12 near the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York that caused four days of massive gridlock in the community of Fort Lee.

The closings became a major scandal for the governor in January when he had to backtrack and acknowledge the involvement of a top aide and an associate in orchestrating the closings. He has repeatedly denied knowing about the plot or being involved in the closings.

“Governor Christie’s account of these events rings true. It’s corroborated by many witnesses, and he has conducted himself at every turn as someone who has nothing to hide,” the report found.

“We uncovered nothing contradicting the governor’s account,” it concluded.

Democrats blasted the findings, with the party’s national committee calling the report “nothing more than an expensive sham.” New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, co-chair of the legislative committee investigating the same issues, said it “raises more questions than answers.”

Autism estimate rises to 1 in 68

NEW YORK (AP) — The government’s estimate of autism has moved up again to 1 in 68 U.S. children, a 30 percent increase in two years.

But health officials say the new number may not mean autism is more common. Much of the increase is believed to be from a cultural and medical shift, with doctors diagnosing autism more frequently, especially in children with milder problems.

“We can’t dismiss the numbers. But we can’t interpret it to mean more people are getting the disorder,” said Marisela Huerta, a psychologist at the New York-Presbyterian Center for Autism and the Developing Brain in suburban White Plains, N.Y.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest estimate Thursday. The Atlanta-based agency said its calculation means autism affects roughly 1.2 million Americans under 21. Two years ago, the CDC put the estimate at 1 in 88 children, or about 1 million.

The cause or causes of autism are still not known. Without any blood test or other medical tests for autism, diagnosis is not an exact science. It’s identified by making judgments about a child’s behavior.

Thursday’s report is considered the most comprehensive on the frequency of autism. Researchers gathered data in 2010 from areas in 11 states.

Baggage thefts probed at LAX

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Police served more than two dozen search warrants and made six arrests in an investigation targeting the theft of baggage by handlers at Los Angeles International Airport, authorities said.

Detectives and officers from the city and airport also seized jewelry, electronics, clothing and other personal belongings on Wednesday night at 25 locations in the region, including the airport, airport police Assistant Chief Michael Hyams said.

“We believe that there has been a culture of being able to take property that wasn’t theirs, and that’s what we want to be able to put a stop to,” Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Ray Maltez told KABC-TV.

The people arrested were primarily employees or ex-employees of companies contracted to handle luggage and did not work directly for the airport, Hyams said.

Some of the suspects worked for Menzies Aviation, which has an office at the airport. The alleged crimes “were limited to a handful of employees, acting independently,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.

“Menzies supports this enforcement action and pledges its complete cooperation with the police investigation,” the statement said.

The undercover investigation came in response to a string of theft reports from planes, terminals and runways, police said.

Four suspects were taken into custody on suspicion of receiving stolen property and two for outstanding warrants.

Tex. must reveal drug supplier

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A judge ordered Texas prison officials Thursday to disclose the supplier of a new batch of lethal injection drugs to attorneys for two inmates set to be executed next month, but she stopped short of revealing the identity of the manufacturer to the public.

The ruling by state District Judge Suzanne Covington came after the Texas Department of Criminal Justice argued that threats against execution suppliers are escalating. The agency recently obtained a threat assessment from law enforcement officers, and pictures on the Internet suggest physical harm against pharmacists making the drugs, Assistant Attorney General Nicole Bunker-Henderson said.

State prison officials have lost previous attempts to keep information about its execution drug supplier confidential.

“The circumstances have changed from 2012. We can show there’s evidence out there that there has been a significant, real concrete threat to similarly situated pharmacists,” Bunker-Henderson said.

Phil Durst, one of the attorneys trying to make the suppliers known, said they had a right to know where the drugs originated.

“Is it eBay? Did they have some good customer service rankings? We have no idea where it’s from or how it was made,” Durst said. “Maybe this stuff is A-OK. Maybe this stuff was laced with strychnine off the street. We don’t know, and they need to know before they inflict the ultimate penalty.”

Texas prisons spokesman Jason Clark said the agency was “disappointed” in the ruling and would appeal.

The prison agency lost its previous supplier last year after the compound pharmacy’s name was made public and it received threats. Prison officials contend the identity of the new drug source should be withheld to protect the new supplier.

Attorneys for two death row inmates filed the lawsuit that led to Thursday’s abruptly scheduled hearing, contending that prisoners cannot evaluate the risk that could result in them being subjected to unconstitutionally cruel pain.

Texas was scheduled to execute its fourth inmate this year Thursday night using the last of execution drugs supplied by a different compounding pharmacy last year.

Attorneys for convicted killers Tommy Lynn Sells and Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas filed a lawsuit demanding the Texas Department of Criminal Justice name the provider of the new supply of pentobarbital, the sedative the state uses for lethal injections.

Sells and Hernandez-Llanas are scheduled to die April 3 and 9 respectively. Sells was condemned for slashing two girls’ throats in 1999 at a home near Del Rio; one girl died. Hernandez-Llanas was condemned for the 1997 beating death of a man who owned a ranch where Hernandez worked near Kerrville.

Covington’s ruling doesn’t affect the execution dates, but once the source of the drugs are given to their attorneys, a delay could be sought based on questions about the supplier. State attorneys told Covington the drugs have been tested and fall within acceptable ranges for potency.

The current supply of pentobarbital used for lethal injections in Texas expires April 1. Prison officials said last week they have a new supply but cited security reasons for declining to disclose the supplier’s name.

The office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has previously concluded the information should be public.

But Abbott’s office is also obligated to represent the state in court. That had Bunker-Henderson defending the prison agency that her office has rebuffed at least three times since 2010 over similar attempts to keep execution drug information exempt from state open-records laws.

Most recent was in 2012, when Abbott’s office wrote that prison officials failed to show how disclosing information about suppliers “create a substantial threat of physical harm to any individual.”

But Bunker-Henderson told Covington those previous rulings were informal and shouldn’t be applied to other cases.

On Wednesday, an Oklahoma judge voided that state’s execution law, agreeing with inmates that a “veil of secrecy” preventing them from seeking information about the drugs used in lethal injections violated their rights under the state constitution. Oklahoma officials plan to appeal.

Oklahoma is among the states that have promised companies confidentiality if they will provide the sedatives or paralyzing agents used to execute condemned prisoners, and went beyond that to prevent information from being revealed even in court.

Jen Moreno, a staff attorney at U.C. Berkeley School of Law’s Death Penalty Clinic, said the decision in the Oklahoma case “shows there is a growing concern by courts that states are keeping information secret.”

 

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