Nation roundup for June 19


Chrysler agrees to recall of Jeeps at risk of fire

DETROIT (AP) — Chrysler abruptly agreed to recall 2.7 million older model Jeeps Tuesday, reversing a defiant stance and avoiding a possible public relations nightmare over fuel tanks that can rupture and cause fires in rear-end collisions.

In deciding on the recall, Chrysler sidestepped a showdown with government safety regulators that could have led to public hearings with witnesses providing details of deadly crashes involving the Jeeps. The dispute ultimately could have landed in court and hurt Chrysler’s image and its finances.

The company said calls from customers concerned about the safety of their Jeeps played a part in its going along with the government’s request.

Earlier this month, the automaker publicly refused the government’s request to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that monitors vehicle safety, contends that the Jeep gas tanks can rupture if hit from the rear, spilling gas and causing a fire. NHTSA said a three-year investigation showed that 51 people had died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks positioned behind the rear axle.

Chrysler had until Tuesday to formally respond to NHTSA.

Two weeks ago, Chrysler said that the vehicles aren’t defective, despite prior statements to the contrary from NHTSA. The company vouched for the vehicles’ safety again Tuesday.

Chrysler said that dealers will inspect the vehicles and install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. The company said vehicles without hitches will get them, as will those with broken hitches or hitches that aren’t from Chrysler.

Chrysler Group LLC, which is majority owned by Fiat SpA of Italy, wouldn’t say how much the hitches would cost, although they sell for about $200 each on Internet sites.

Erik Gordon, a law and marketing professor at the University of Michigan, says Chrysler realized it was headed for a public relations disaster and decided to reverse course.

“What happened is they get surprised by how loud the hue and cry is. They didn’t want to take the public relations hit,” Gordon says.

Gordon says Chrysler’s image will still get dinged a little “because it looks as if they have done the right thing only because they were forced to.”

Chrysler executives probably realized that their chance for success was slim, because courts have given wide latitude to government regulatory agencies, says David Kelly, former acting NHTSA administrator under President George W. Bush.

“They have some very smart people at Chrysler and probably looked into a crystal ball and didn’t think this would end the way they wanted it to,” says Kelly. The automaker, he says, historically has been very committed to safety.

NHTSA said in a statement that it’s pleased with Chrysler’s decision. The agency plans to keep investigating the issue as it reviews recall documentation from Chrysler.

NHTSA began investigating the Jeeps at the request of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. Clarence Ditlow, the center’s director, says the trailer hitch remedy should be tested by NHTSA before the repairs are made. He’s cautiously optimistic that the solution will make the Jeeps safer.

“We’re no longer arguing over whether Chrysler is going to do a recall, but we’re now discussing what we’re going to do,” he says.

Chrysler will begin notifying owners about the recall in about a month, the company said.

The last time an automaker defied a NHTSA recall request was early in 2011, when Ford said that calling back 1.2 million pickup trucks for defective air bags wasn’t justified. Ford later agreed to the recall after NHTSA threatened to hold a rare public hearing on the issue.

In a statement one June 4, Chrysler said its review of nearly 30 years of data showed a low number of rear-impact crashes involving fire or a fuel leak in the affected Jeeps. “The rate is similar to comparable vehicles produced and sold during the time in question,” the company said. It also said NHTSA left some similar vehicles out of its investigation.

But NHTSA found at least 32 rear-impact crashes and fires in Grand Cherokees that caused 44 deaths. It also found at least five rear crashes in Libertys, causing seven deaths. The agency calculated that the older Grand Cherokees and Libertys have fatal crash rates that are about double those of similar vehicles. It compared the Jeeps with the Chevrolet S10 Blazer, Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Sidekick and Suzuki XL-7.

Prosecutor: 3 Ohioans enslaved disabled mom, child

CLEVELAND (AP) — A mentally disabled woman and her young child were enslaved for more than a year, sometimes denied food and threatened with a pet python and pit bulls, and the woman was beaten and forced to get pain medication for her captors, authorities said Tuesday in announcing federal charges against three suspects.

The three invited the woman and her child, whose names were withheld, to live with them and, beginning in early 2011, forced the mother to do housework by threatening to hurt her and the girl, described as 5 or 6, federal authorities and Ashland police said.

The mother and child were freed in October after police investigated an abuse allegation one of the suspects made against her, authorities said, and they are doing well.

“The victim in this case is slowly recovering,” U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach said.

Jordie Callahan, 26, Jessica Hunt, 31, and Daniel J. “DJ” Brown, 33, all of Ashland, were charged with forced labor. They were being held, pending a federal court hearing. Callahan also was charged with tampering with a witness in the investigation.

No attorneys were listed for them in court records.

According to an FBI affidavit, the mother and child were denied food at times or given leftovers; on one occasion when they hadn’t eaten all day, the mother was given a plate of food and ordered to feed the pet dog.

The trio looted the woman’s bank account and public assistance and on several occasions injured her and ordered her to go to the emergency room for pain medication, according to the affidavit.

The woman told investigators the trio learned of her plan to try to escape and punished her by shaving her hair into a Mohawk and using a marker to write “slut,” ”tramp” and “whore” on her face and chest. She was forced to clean up the hair without a broom or dust pan, according to the affidavit. The woman was forced to do house work and shop for her captors and clean up after pets, authorities said.

“They treated her with such cruelty that it is hard to comprehend,” Dettelbach said. “They tried to take away her human dignity.”

Police first got involved when the woman was charged with shoplifting a candy bar and asked to be jailed because the three suspects “had been mean to her,” said Ashland police Lt. Joel Icenhour.

Police checking into her claim went to the apartment after one of the suspects said it was the woman who was abusive. Authorities said the allegation was a ruse complete with a video staged by the suspects.

Jury can’t reach verdict in Detroit cop’s trial

DETROIT (AP) — A judge declared a mistrial Tuesday after jurors failed to reach a verdict in the trial of a Detroit police officer who fatally shot a 7-year-old girl during a chaotic search for a murder suspect that was recorded by a reality TV crew.

Loud voices could be heard in the jury room a few hours before jurors threw in the towel and were dismissed. They sent three notes, the last one indicating they still couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on the third day of deliberations, despite encouragement from Wayne County Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway.

Joseph Weekley, a member of an elite police squad, was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones.

He was accused of being “grossly negligent” in how he handled his submachine gun as his black-clad, masked and armed unit stormed the Detroit home to capture a suspect in May 2010. Police threw a stun grenade through a window, and Weekley was the first officer through the door.

He told jurors that he accidentally pulled the trigger during a struggle with the girl’s grandmother, but Mertilla Jones denied interfering with the gun. Weekley was not charged with intentionally shooting Aiyana.

The hunt for a murder suspect was being recorded by a crew from “The First 48,” a police show on A&E Networks. Some video shot from the sidewalk was part of the evidence.

The jury could have convicted Weekley of involuntary manslaughter, a felony, or reckless discharge of a firearm, a misdemeanor. He also could have been cleared of all charges.

“This is a bittersweet outcome: Bitter because Weekley was not convicted, and sweet in that justice for Aiyana Jones will come soon,” said Roland Lawrence, leader of a group called Justice for Aiyana Jones Committee, which pressed for charges.

The judge listed several factors for the jury to consider on the involuntary manslaughter count. To convict, the jury had to find that he willfully disregarded possible injuries to others by failing to control his gun, as well as other elements.

“We are stuck,” the jury said in its first note Tuesday.

Before dismissing the jurors, the judge asked if anyone believed that more deliberations would be fruitful if “some matters” could be addressed. She didn’t elaborate. Only one juror raised her hand.

“One out of 12 probably won’t be enough,” Hathaway said.

The mistrial doesn’t mean the charges go away. Hathaway wants to discuss the status, including another trial, on July 25.

“The Wayne County prosecutor’s office is prepared to proceed with the case,” Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement.

There was no immediate comment from Weekley or his attorney, Steve Fishman.

Weekley, the last witness during the eight-day trial, admitted he must have pulled the trigger, but only because he was trying to wrest the gun from Jones. No other officers, however, testified about a struggle with Aiyana’s grandmother. One said Detroit police are taught specific techniques to keep a gun away from someone who grabs it.

Prosecutor Rob Moran all but accused Weekley of lying, telling the jury in closing remarks: “It did not happen.”

Weekley said he was distraught after the shooting and was shaking and vomiting.

“I just feel devastated and depressed,” he testified. “I’ll never be the same, no.”

Separately, a videographer for the “The First 48,” Allison Howard, is charged with perjury and withholding video crucial to the investigation. Her trial is set for June 24.

Wake-up call: Starbucks to post calorie counts

NEW YORK (AP) — Starbucks has a new way to wake up its customers: showing the calories in its drinks.

The Seattle-based coffee chain says it will start posting calorie counts on menu boards nationwide next week, ahead of a federal regulation that would require it to do so.

Calorie counts on menus are already required in some parts of the country, including New York City.

But starting June 25, Starbucks Corp. says customers at its more than 11,000 U.S. locations will be able to see that there are 300 calories in a small caramel Frappuccino and 230 calories in a small Iced Caffe Mocha.

Pastry cases will also show calorie information, in case customers want to save some calories and opt for a Morning Bun (350 calories) instead of a blueberry scone (460 calories).

The move by Starbucks comes as the Food and Drug Administration irons out the details of a regulation that would require companies with more than 20 locations to post calorie information on their menus. Other chains including McDonald’s Corp. have also moved ahead with posting the information, saying they’re providing it to be more transparent rather than because they’re being forced to.

In its announcement, Starbucks highlighted the various steps it has taken over the years to give customers choices, such as adding sugar-free syrup in 1997 and making 2 percent milk the standard for core beverages in North America in 2007.

The company notes that it already provides nutrition information on its website, through its iPhone app and with printed brochures in cafes. It also says there are numerous ways people can reduce the calories in their drinks, such as by asking for non-fat milk, sugar-free syrup or no whipped cream.

A representative for the company did not know what percentage of customers ask to have their drinks customized.

It’s not clear how posted calorie counts affect what people choose to order. But in announcing its plans to post calorie information nationwide last year, the head of McDonald’s USA at the time said that providing the information doesn’t really change the company’s overall menu mix.

While a few national chains already put calorie information on their menus, a “large majority” are waiting for the FDA to issue its final guidelines, according to Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

The group expects the regulation to take effect by sometime next year.

 

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