USA

The US economy ended 2004 with the strongest surge in corporate profits in three years, the Commerce Department reported. It said growth in the final quarter, when annualized, was 3.8 percent - a performance that's expected to improve in the opening quarter of this year, perhaps to 4 percent. Consumer spending, the report said, rose by 4.2 percent in October, November, and December. But spending by businesses - especially on equipment and computer software - grew by 18.4 percent. After-tax profits also gained by 12.5 percent to a record seasonally adjusted $973 billion, compared to a decline of 4.2 percent in last year's third quarter.

In a ray of hope for the parents of Terri Schiavo, a federal appeals court in Atlanta agreed Tuesday to consider their request for a new hearing on restoring her feeding tube. While granting the emergency motion, however, the 11th Court Circuit Court of Appeals, which has twice ruled against the parents, did not indicate when it would consider rehearing the case. The request contends that the federal court in Tampa, Fla., mistakenly reviewed only the Florida state court case, one of numerous stops in a contentious right-to-die dispute that has wound its way through six jurisdictions over seven years. Federal courts were given jurisdiction to review Schiavo's case by emergency congressional legislation.

On a visit to Afghanistan kept secret until her departure, first lady Laura Bush, a former teacher and librarian, visited with women who are training to be teachers and others who've made a business selling handicrafts. Mrs. Bush said she'd wanted to visit earlier to express solidarity between American and Afghan women, but delayed the trip because of security concerns. Her itinerary also called for her to meet with President Hamid Karzi and to dine with US troops stationed there.

Johnnie Cochran, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles, was one of the nation's highest-profile trial lawyers, having defended such celebrities as Michael Jackson, rap artists Tupac Shakur, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, and Snoop Doggy Dog, and Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant tortured by New York police in 1997. He was best known for winning an acquittal of retired pro football star O.J. Simpson on murder charges. Below, he and Simpson are seen in court at the latter's 1995 trial.

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