A former state chemist for Massachusetts pleaded guilty Friday to breezing fraudulently through tens of thousands of tests used to prosecute drug-related crimes and then covering up her shortcuts. Annie Dookhan will serve three to five years in prison, and the Massachusetts criminal justice system must now reevaluate thousands of prosecutions that relied on her tests.
After initially denying the charges, Ms. Dookhan, who was born in Trinidad, raised in Boston, and is now a single mother in her 30s, changed her plea Friday. She pleaded guilty to 27 charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and tampering with evidence.
Dookhan's actions may have distorted the results of the criminal trials of more than 40,000 individuals, and close to 350 people have already been released from prison as a result, Boston public radio station WBUR reports. The Boston-area Department of Public Health laboratory where she had worked for 10 years was closed in August 2012 after the scandal surfaced, and the Associated Press reports that 1,100 criminal cases have been dismissed or not prosecuted as a result.
Judge Carol S. Ball, who delivered Dookhan's sentence in Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston, said in her ruling that “the consequences of her behavior, which she ought to have foreseen, have been nothing short of catastrophic." She continued, "Innocent persons were incarcerated, guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core."
As of Friday, the state had spent a total of $8.5 million responding to the drug lab crisis, AP reports, and another $8.6 million was authorized to be spent in the current fiscal year, according to Alex Zaroulis, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance.
Dookhan was removed from her laboratory duties after she was caught forging a colleague's initials in June 2011, according to The New York Times. But she continued to serve as an expert court witness until she was put on administrative leave in February 2012. In August 2012, she admitted to having mishandled samples, and a subsequent investigation, CNN said, alleged that she had routinely tampered with criminal evidence by altering vials of substances awaiting evaluation for drug content. She altered them, allegedly, to cover up the practice of "dry labbing" samples, which means testing only a fraction of a group of samples before marking them all positive for illegal drugs.
WBUR created charts that show the breakdown of Dookhan's lab results, along with the seemingly remarkable speed with which she processed drug tests. Her colleagues' work slowed down significantly after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the Sixth Amendment right to confront one's accusers required that chemists make themselves available to testify in court about the results of criminal drug tests. But Dookhan actually started processing drug samples more quickly after that point.
During her August 2012 confession, a police report quoted by The New York Times noted, “She became sad and a slight tear came to her eye, and she stated, ‘I screwed up big time. I messed up. I messed up bad. It’s my fault. I don’t want the lab to get in trouble.’”
But Dookhan's motives remain unclear.
Evidence emerged that she became a go-to chemist for prosecutors who needed their evidence analyzed quickly. Anne Goldbach, of the Massachusetts public defenders agency, told WBUR, “You can tell that Annie Dookhan felt a sense of allegiance to the prosecution. That is absolutely unconscionable.”
Dookhan's attorney, Nicolas Gordon, said, "Her motivation is to be the hardest-working and most prolific and most productive chemist that she could possibly be, and that's how this whole mess begins," WBUR reports.
The Boston Globe suggested that a humble background left Dookhan with a big need to prove herself. "A petite 4 feet 11 inches and a native of Trinidad, Dookhan appeared determined even as a young immigrant girl to outrun expectations and the perceived anonymity of her circumstances," the Globe wrote in February. "Notably intelligent, 'Little Annie' Dookhan was going to make sure that she would never be overlooked."
Dookhan's choice to plead guilty means that the case will not go to trial, so her motive may remain hard to pinpoint.
The Massachusetts state prosecutor had asked for a five- to seven-year sentence, citing the "egregious nature" of Dookhan's actions, AP reports. Her defense lawyer requested a one-year sentence for his client, who has no previous criminal record and has been the primary caretaker of her disabled son.
According to The New York Times, at least 50 of the defendants who have been released from jail because of the scandal, now known as "Dookhan defendants," have been rearrested. Two were murdered upon their release, and one man, Donta Hood, who had been serving time for cocaine possession, is back behind bars after allegedly shooting a man during a drug dispute.
Jamell Spurill, who had been jailed on drug charges, was recently released but soon rearrested, charged with possessing a stolen gun, the Times reports. According to Dookhan's prosecutors, he told police, “I just got out thanks to Annie Dookhan. I love that lady.”
The story of the so-called Scottsboro Boys, Depression-era black teenagers who hopped a box car to find work, got into a fight with some white men, and ended the day arrested for the rapes of two white women, is finally ending with a long-delayed chapter of redemption.
The state of Alabama on Thursday granted a posthumous pardon to the last three of the nine men who still had marks on their records. Their sagas, which began in 1931, helped galvanize the civil rights movement and yielded two landmark US Supreme Court decisions.
Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems, and Andy Wright all died decades ago, but their six-year court battle continues to inspire books, songs, documentaries, and a 2010 Broadway musical. The lyrics from one song explain:
"Our story beings one fine spring morning,
March the 25th, nineteen hundred and thirty-one,
on a box car headed for Memphis.
And 9 young boys, 9 complete strangers,
are about to begin the ride of their lives."
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After an all-white jury delivered the boys an initial death sentence – after six hours of deliberation, despite a recanted testimony by one of the accusers – the US Supreme Court ruled that blacks could not be excluded from juries on racial grounds, and that all criminal defendants required adequate legal representation.
The men's story also inspired Sheila Washington, a resident of Scottsboro, Ala., who read Mr. Patterson's memoir when she was a teenager, to seek some kind of justice for them.
Ms. Washington founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in 2010, and earlier this year she gathered support in the Alabama legislature to pass a law allowing for posthumous pardons of felonies committed at least 75 years earlier. The new legislation was tailored to exonerate the three remaining Scottsboro Boys, who died as convicted felons, and in October, a group of scholars delivered a 107-page petition to the board seeking the pardons.
“Today is a reminder that it is never too late to right a wrong," Republican state Sen. Arthur Orr, who sponsored the bill, told the state parole board Thursday. "We cannot go back in time and change the course of history, but we can change how we respond.”
A three-person panel of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to approve the measure, in a hearing Thursday in Montgomery.
“This decision will give them a final peace in their graves, wherever they are,” Washington told the Montgomery Advisor.
"[That]'s a nice thought," commented The Week's Emily Shire, on Washington's words. "But the gesture can only be considered too little, too late. Posthumous pardons may give comfort to a town that still bears the scars of hosting one of the most racist and blatantly biased trials in history. But it will never reclaim the years lost by the young men sitting on death row."
The three mens' relatives were invited to attend Thursday's hearing, but none did.
Though all of the men eventually made their way out of prison, many of them never recovered from the trials, their time on death row, and the stigma that dogged them during and after the high-profile, six-year ordeal, Ms. Shire writes. "Andy Wright was paroled in 1943, but when he returned to Alabama he was jailed until 1950. His brother Roy, the youngest of the nine, killed his wife and then himself in 1959. Haywood Patterson was jailed for killing a man in a barroom brawl, and died in prison at the age of 39. Willie Roberson had an IQ of 64 – legally mentally retarded – and the time and date of his death are unknown. Olen Montgomery tried to create a music career, but after struggling, spent his final days drinking away his frustrations."
Courts had overturned five of the men's convictions in 1937, but by the end of their lives, each of the nine had spent between six and 19 years in jail. Norris, the last surviving member of the group, was pardoned in 1976 and died in 1989; he was the only one to receive a pardon during his lifetime.
Accounts differ on how exactly the rape charges emerged. According to Washington, one of the two young women had been banned from crossing state lines, after a brush with the law. When the white men who had scuffled with the Scottsboro Boys sent police to stop the train and arrest them, a sheriff asked the woman on parole why she was on the train. She responded by asking if he was really going to arrest her "after what they did to us," telling the officer that the black boys had raped them.
James Goodman, a professor of history and creative writing at Rutgers University, described to CNN the effect the cases had on the awareness of white Americans. "African-Americans had never stopped agitating for their rights after Reconstruction, but this is the beginning – once again – of an interracial movement for equality that had been stalled between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Depression," he said. "Suddenly, white people who just hadn't been paying attention begin to say, 'Holy mackerel, they're going to put nine African-American teenagers in the electric chair?' "
But, said Mr. Goodman, today's criminal justice system is still clogged with racial bias.
"Sadly, our prisons are still full of youngish black people who have been falsely accused of crime," he said. "Your chance, even to this day, of being incarcerated for something that you didn't do are still much greater if your skin is black or dark."
The arrest of the Scottsboro Boys on March 25, 1931, came on the same day when Ida B. Wells, the African-American investigative journalist who spent her life writing about miscarriages of racial justice, and campaigning against lynchings, died while writing her autobiography.
"Neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or becomes his rival," wrote Ms. Wells in 1892.
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A month after the death of a popular teacher at Danvers High School in Massachusetts, a grand jury has indicted 14-year-old Philip Chism on charges of murder, aggravated rape, and armed robbery.
Philip will be tried as an adult on the murder charge, which is required by Massachusetts law for anyone over 14 indicted for murder, according to a statement Thursday by the Essex District Attorney’s Office.
The rape indictment alleges that Philip sexually assaulted the teacher, Colleen Ritzer, with an object, and the armed-robbery charge stems from the allegation that Philip, armed with a box cutter, robbed Ms. Ritzer of credit cards and other items.
State law requires that the latter two charges be initially handled in juvenile court, though the statement says prosecutors will seek to have the charges handled alongside the murder charge in adult court.
“The indictments returned today detail horrific and unspeakable acts,” district attorney Jonathan Blodgett said in the statement. “Since the moment Ms. Ritzer’s body was discovered, a dedicated and professional team of state police detectives assigned to my office, Danvers Police officers, crime scene forensic experts and assistant district attorneys have worked tirelessly to compile and present the evidence to the Grand Jury. This is the first step in a long process to secure justice for Ms. Ritzer and her family.”
On Oct. 22 Ritzer, a math teacher who was in her 20s, stayed after school to talk with Philip about an upcoming exam, according to The Boston Globe, citing prosecutors and students. Philip was new to the school this year and played soccer.
When both individuals were reported missing later that day, police began an investigation. Blood was found in a second-floor bathroom of the school, and Ritzer’s body was recovered in woods near the facility.
Philip, who was arrested the night of the death while he was walking along a highway, is being held without bail. The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, noted the statement from the district attorney’s office.
Denise Regan, Philip’s court-appointed attorney, declined comment, the Globe said Thursday.
The same week as Ritzer’s death, a teacher at a Nevada middle school was fatally shot in an unrelated incident. Michael Landsberry, also a math teacher, was killed on Oct. 21 by a 12-year-old male student who then killed himself, police say. Mr. Landsberry was trying to talk down the student and has been hailed as a hero for preventing more tragedy at the school.
"Mama, Mama can't you see? What the Marine Corps’s done to me," goes a Marine Corps cadence sung during marches. "After I passed the really hard test, They stuck a ribbon in my chest."
In a historic first, three women graduated from US Marine infantry training school Thursday, having passed 59 days of, indeed, "really hard" tests, including a 12.5-mile march through the woods of North Carolina, lugging 85-pound packs. But these newly minted US Marines, who were held to the same standards of physical and combat readiness as 221 male counterparts, will not be assigned to infantry units, despite the Pentagon's announcement this year that it would lift the ban on women in combat.
"The male graduates will join infantry units right away," The Washington Post reported. "The women will have to take other jobs, though their successful completion of the course will be noted in their personnel files."
Marine Corps leaders told the Post they need two more years to observe women's attempts to pass infantry training courses, to evaluate the feasibility of placing them in combat positions. Among the 10 women who have enrolled in the even harder infantry training course for officers, they noted, none have passed.
“Any force-wide changes to be made will occur only after we have conducted our research, determined the way ahead and set the conditions to implement our recommendations,” wrote Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman, in an e-mail to the Post.
Ground combat units are to be opened to women no later than 2016, the Pentagon has said. And the secretary of Defense has ordered that assessments of how the services will integrate women into such units be completed by July 2014. However, exceptions may be granted that keep certain positions male-only, and some see the Marine Corps as resistant to the changes.
A report published by the Marine Corps Times about the women's achievement this week alludes not only to the physical strength but also the judgment skills deemed necessary for the armed forces' most male-dominated branch:
"Their successful completion of the program, confirmed Monday by a Marine official with knowledge of ongoing efforts to determine what additional ground combat jobs should open to women, is a historic milestone, one that would suggest at least some female Marines posses both the physical strength and acumen to keep pace with their male counterparts on the battlefield," wrote the paper, an independent outlet that reports on the military.
In recent wars, women have served increasingly important functions. As the Post put it: "The decision [to lift the ban on women in combat] was prompted in part by the recognition that women played a critical role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where commanders stretched rules to allow them to bear arms and support combat forces."
The ban on women in combat has made military careers less viable for them, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Since combat experience is crucial to career advancement, many women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq say they face difficult decisions about whether to stay in the military if they are not allowed to compete for such assignments," the paper says.
The milestone of the three US Marines – Pfc. Julia Carroll, Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro, and Pfc. Katie Gorz – comes amid an alarming rise in the number of sexual assaults reported by servicewomen, along with a tense congressional debate over how to protect them. The US Senate and its 26-member Armed Services Committee are divided over whether to support a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, which would strip commanders of the authority to decide which serious criminal charges from within their command are brought to trial. Her proposal would shift that authority to high-ranking military prosecutors, who might be less hesitant to pursue divisive criminal charges.
In a survey last year, the Post reports, 1 in 6 male US Marines said he would probably leave the service if he had to serve alongside women in ground combat units. The rate of female enlistment in the Marine Corps is 7 percent, which is half the rate of the military overall.
Carroll, Montenegro, and Gorz appear to have broken a meaningful barrier. According to United Press International, some 40 female US Marines started the enlisted infantry program in the past few weeks, up from 15 who started two months ago with Thursday's graduates.
Scientists haven't yet discovered how many children, upon hearing of time travel, dream of heading back a few decades to visit their parents as kids. Stripped of height and authority, would parents be any fun? Maybe they would just be bossy, brutish, and short. Would they know how to play tag?
If today's kids could wangle such a playdate, however, they might find themselves left in the sandbox dust, according to new research presented at Tuesday's annual meeting of the American Heart Association.
Exercise physiologists at the University of South Australia who analyzed research on 25 million children around the world determined that today's kids, on average, take a minute and a half longer to run a mile than did kids in 1975. The studies measured how far children of different ages could run in 5 to 15 minutes, and how quickly they could run distances up to two miles.
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But do fleet feet really matter now that most of our predators, as well as our prey, are stored behind bars? Isn't texting speed more relevant to modern survival?
Apparently running still matters. According to these researchers and many others, several factors make running fitness a key measure of heart health.
The Associated Press reported details on the findings, which were fairly constant across gender and age groups:
"The decline in fitness seems to be leveling off in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and perhaps in the last few years in North America. However, it continues to fall in China, and Japan never had much falloff – fitness has remained fairly consistent there. About 20 million of the 25 million children in the studies were from Asia."
The study's lead scientist, Grant Tomkinson, said that increased bodyweights and TV/video game consumption, along with unsafe and decentralized neighborhoods, and school curricula stripped of physical education, may all make it hard for children to get the 60 minutes of daily exercise recommended by government health experts.
"We are currently facing the most sedentary generation of children in our history," said Sam Kass, a White House chef and head of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move program, in a speech to the conference.
According to Tomkinson, it's important that parents limit their children's sedentary time – spent curled over a tablet, computer, or smartphone – to less than two hours per day.
What kids really need, he said, is good old-fashioned sweaty, exhausting exercise. Roller skates, anyone?
"You want exercise to be fun," said Tomkinson, "but there needs to be some huff and puff there as well."
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Voters in Albuquerque, N.M., turned out in record numbers at the desert city’s polling stations Tuesday and defeated the US anti-abortion movement's first effort to pass a municipal ban on late-term abortions.
The "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance" would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the city. According to multiple accounts, Albuquerque is home to New Mexico's only two clinics offering late-term abortions. One of those, Southwestern Women's Options, may be one of the only abortion clinics in the country that is open about providing abortions in any trimester of pregnancy, according to The New York Times, which reports that out-of-state license plates can often be seen parked in its parking lot.
Thirteen states have passed similar "fetal pain" laws, which ban abortion at 22 weeks of pregnancy or earlier, based on estimates of the point at which fetuses are thought to develop the ability to feel pain. The Albuquerque measure, which included an exception to save the life of a pregnant woman, was rejected by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.
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Twenty-four percent of the city's voters turned out to vote on the measure, exceeding the turnout for a recent mayoral election by four percent.
"The vote … shuts a door that abortion opponents were trying to open at the municipal level," wrote Politico.
But anti-abortion activists say otherwise. Father Frank Pavone, national director of the New York-based Priests for Life, said in a statement cited by Al Jazeera and other news outlets: "It is a brilliant strategy, and we will see to it that this effort is introduced in other cities and states."
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national group that supports female political candidates who oppose abortion, told Politico that “despite being outspent four to one, pro-life grassroots activists were able to educate thousands of citizens about fetal pain and the reality of late abortion." That was "no small feat in a deep blue city," she said, adding, "polls show Americans are united in opposing this brutal practice.”
A Dec. 2012 Gallup poll indicates that, while 61 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal within the first three months of a pregnancy, only 27 percent believe it should be legal within the second trimester, and a scant 14 percent believe it should be legal during a pregnancy's final trimester.
An umbrella organization called "Respect ABQ Women" raised $680,000 to defeat the Albuquerque measure, reports Politico. The group was a coalition of abortion-rights groups, including Organizing for Action – President Obama’s political arm – and Planned Parenthood.
According to The New York Times, the referendum allowed anti-abortion groups to test their strategy of bringing the abortion fight to a local level. "They have successfully pushed for changes in zoning and for other rules that close abortion clinics or keep them from opening. Virginia’s busiest clinic, in Fairfax, closed in July after the city denied it a permit, citing inadequate parking under a recently amended ordinance," wrote the Times.
As early as August of this year, national anti-abortion activists began to focus on Albuquerque, organizing the city's first weekend-long pro-life training conference. At the end of that weekend, a large protest was organized outside the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum, in downtown Albuquerque. Young protesters with cheerful smiles held anti-abortion posters, and an immense banner reading "Albuquerque's Holocaust."
The Times also suggested that the Albuquerque fight gave political strategists insight into how abortion messages resonate among Hispanics, who account for half of Albuquerque voters and pose an interesting challenge for Republican social marketers.
“There’s not a model anywhere in the country to help us figure out whether a Catholic Hispanic woman thinks that an abortion ban that makes no exception for rape or incest has gone too far,” Pat Davis, the executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, a grass-roots advocacy group, told the Times. "That, he said, “could be one of the big takeaways of this vote.”
At least seven states have enacted new laws this year restricting the services of abortion clinics, and Albuquerque's decision came on the same day the US Supreme Court refused to temporarily block Texas' new abortion regulation, which shutters any clinic operating in the absence of a doctor who has admitting privileges at a local hospital. The law is being challenged in a federal appeals court.
Albuquerque's Southwestern Women's Options, which also operates a clinic in Dallas, employs two doctors who were former colleagues of George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider who was targeted by a radical anti-abortion activist and killed in 2009.
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The Pennyslvania Methodist minister convicted by a jury of his ecclesiastical peers of breaking church law for presiding over his son's wedding to a man is refusing to repent.
"I did not want to make this a protest about the doctrine of the church. I wasn't trying to be an advocate," The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a father of four, testified Tuesday in a hearing to determine his punishment. "I just wanted this to be a beautiful family affair, and it was that."
Rev. Schaefer took a visible and increasingly clear stand over the course of Tuesday's proceedings, wearing a rainbow-colored stole on the witness stand. He declined the church prosecution's offer to "repent of and renounce his disobedience to the (Methodist Book of) Discipline," the Associated Press reported, and refused to promise that he wouldn't officiate at more same-sex unions.
Later in the day, his tone became more defiant. The church "needs to stop judging people based on their sexual orientation. We have to stop the hate speech. We have to stop treating them as second-class Christians," he said. "I will never be silent again."
The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who served as prosecutor for the church, argued that "ministers are not free to reinterpret (their) vows according to personal preference," according to the Associated Press. "As a father, I understand the desire to show love and support to my children," he continued. "It's not always true we can do for our children everything they want us to do. True love draws boundaries."
Schaefer, who was raised in a conservative Evangelical home in Germany, told the Washington Post that he, too, had once believed that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” but decided as a seminarian that there were many possible ways to understand the Christian scriptures.
When he arrived at Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pa., a community with mixed views on sexual orientation, he avoided discussing the subject both at church and at home. He only learned that his eldest son was gay when he got an anonymous phone call letting him know that the boy, then 16, was considering suicide.
Since then, three of Shaefer's four children have come out as gay.
"In a nation where places of worship tend increasingly to line up on one side or the other on hot-button issues, something beyond Schaefer himself seemed to be on trial: the possibility of a spiritual middle ground," writes the Washington Post.
When his eldest son asked him in 2006 to preside over his wedding, Schaefer told the Post, “seeing my son needing ministry, asking me for help ... I couldn’t pass on the other side of the road like a Levite to preserve a rule. All I saw was love for my son.”
Schaefer's superior acknowledged on the stand that Schaefer had written in 2006 to inform the church that he planned to officiate at his son's wedding, but says he never saw the letter, and would have objected if he had.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a former clergyman testified that both church attendance and financial giving dropped off dramatically after congregants learned that Schaefer had officiated over the wedding, which took place in Massachusetts. Later, another church minister testified that most of those who left supported Schaefer, and were upset at how the church had handled his church.
Earlier this month, according to another Inquirer report, more than 30 United Methodist pastors from eastern Pennsylvania presided over a gay marriage, in an expression of solidarity with Schaefer.
The church, which has 12 million members worldwide, currently accepts gay members but prohibits gay marriage, United Press International reports. Pastoral trials are an unusual event in the Methodist Church, and according to the AP, Schaefer's jury of 13 could decide to reprimand, suspend, or defrock him.
The Tesla Motors Model S, the luxury electric sedan marketed as the "The Safest Car In America," has become the subject of a federal safety investigation after three of the cars suffered battery fires in six weeks.
In response to the fires, Tesla's CEO Elon Musk said he had decided to ask the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to open an investigation into their cause. NHTSA, however, said Tuesday it decided to open the inquiry independently.
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At the time of the first fire, Mr. Musk provided detailed information on his Tesla website blog, reframing the incident as an indication of the cars' advanced safety mechanisms.
"Earlier this week, a Model S traveling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle," Musk wrote on Oct. 4. "A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit. The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a 3 inch diameter hole through the quarter inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle," Musk wrote.
"The Model S owner was nonetheless able to exit the highway as instructed by the onboard alert system, bring the car to a stop, and depart the vehicle without injury," he continued. "A fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module – the battery pack has a total of 16 modules – but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack. Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle... At no point did fire enter the passenger compartment."
According to data presented on Bloomberg Television, the two fires reported among the 19,000 Model S cars that have taken to US roads since last year have occurred at a tenth of the rate as the 250,000 vehicle fires among the 254.3 million cars on the road during the same period. Since the release of the Tesla Model S, some 400 people have died in vehicle fires, none while riding in a Tesla. The National Fire Protection Association provides more details on U.S. auto fires.
On his company's blog, Mr. Musk had hard words Monday for the "onslaught of popular and financial media seeking to make a sensation out of something that a simple Google search would reveal to be false."
Because of the perception created by those reports, he announced, Tesla had requested the NHTSA investigation of the Model S, which received the agency's highest safety rating in August.
"Given that the incidence of fires in the Model S is far lower than combustion cars and that there have been no resulting injuries, this did not at first seem like a good use of NHTSA’s time compared to the hundreds of gasoline fire deaths per year that warrant their attention," wrote Musk. "However, there is a larger issue at stake: if a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, it will delay the advent of sustainable transport and increase the risk of global climate change, with potentially disastrous consequences worldwide. That cannot be allowed to happen."
But NHTSA, which announced its investigation Tuesday morning, later told the L.A. Times it had decided to open an investigation independently. “In regards to Tesla, the agency notified the automaker of its plans to open a formal investigation and requested their cooperation," the agency said, "which is standard agency practice for all investigations.” The investigation will focus on the two US fires, which occurred in Washington and Tennessee; the fire in Mexico is outside its jurisdiction.
Musk also announced plans to amend the warranty on the Model S to cover fire damage, and to update the car's suspension system, allowing it greater ground clearance at highway speeds. "To be clear," he emphasized, "this is about reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety. The theoretical probability of a fire injury is already vanishingly small and the actual number to date is zero." Last week he clarified that there would "definitely" be no recall of the Model S, reports SFGate.
Telsa's stock prices, which shot upward after the June 2013 release of the Model S, had reached $194.50 per share on Sept. 30, the day before the first fire was reported in Washington. Stock prices began a slow crawl downward after that fire, and abruptly dropped again after the second US fire was reported in Tennessee, closing 25 points lower on Nov. 6, at $151.16, than it had the day before.
The stock dropped again after NHTSA's announcement Tuesday, but rebounded by midday, hovering near $126. According to USA Today, investors had "quickly decided it was an overreaction and began bidding up the price." Other news outlets have been floating the idea that Tesla's tumble may provide a perfect opportunity to buy a piece of the company. "With Tesla Motors shares plunging, is it time to start buying stock?" asked an L.A. Times headline on Nov. 8.
According to the Times, investors don't usually pay much attention to the 150,000 car fires that occur annually in the US. "However, safety officials have been tracking fires in electric cars, as well as computers and other equipment, out of concern that the lithium-ion battery systems might be fire-prone," the paper reported.
The New York Times reports that a NHTSA defect investigation may include crash tests, and take months to complete. If a defect is found that poses a safety risk, the government could order a company recall and structural changes, and impose fines if the company fails to address the problems.
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After months of pressure from the British government, tech rivals Google and Microsoft have announced they are working together to try to push child pornography off the public Internet. The two companies, which account for 95 percent of all online searches, will reprogram their search engines so that 100,000 terms potentially related to the sexual abuse of children will no longer yield links to illegal images.
"We're agreed that child sexual imagery is a case apart; it's illegal everywhere in the world, there's a consensus on that. It's absolutely right that we identify this stuff, we remove it, and we report it to the authorities," Peter Barron, a Google communications director, told the BBC. The filters will take effect immediately in Britain and roll out in more than 150 languages over the next six months.
The details of how and when the system will roll out in the United States are unclear, but the algorithm changes are already in place, an industry source says.
“The sexual abuse of children ruins young lives. It’s why we proactively remove these awful images from our services – and report offenders to the authorities," said Mr. Barron in a statement released by Google.
While Barron was careful to make a distinction between child sexual imagery and other online content that's inherently abusive, some free-speech advocates see the crackdown as being at the top of a slippery slope toward a government-controlled Internet – especially since it comes on the heels of Edward Snowden's revelations that the British and US governments have been tapping these same companies for user information for at least six years in the name of criminal and security investigations.
Such curbs on pornography "could eventually rob Britain of the moral authority to denounce government-imposed Internet filtration in countries such as China," The Washington Post wrote in a Sept. 28 article. "Perhaps more than any other Western nation, critics say, Britain has become a test case for how and whether to more deeply police Internet images and social media in free societies."
British Prime Minister David Cameron placed himself at the helm of an anti-pornography crusade in July, in response to the brutal assault and slaying of two young girls in separate cases. Two British men who were known to have used child porn were convicted of the crimes.
But Mr. Cameron's campaign goes beyond child sexual imagery. Starting next year, British households will have to choose to opt in if they want their Internet providers to continue giving them access to any pornography. Cameron has also announced plans to criminalize the possession of porn images that depict rape, simulated or not.
When the prime minister's campaign began, The Washington Post pointed to examples of countries where child-protection legislation had opened doors to widespread Internet censorship.
"Take Russia, for example," the Post's Andrea Peterson wrote. "Last year, President Vladimir Putin signed legislation allowing a nation-wide register of banned Web sites declared harmful to Russia’s youth. This 'child protection' legislation opened the door for the online bans on political speech by opponents of the Putin regime. It also allowed for the nationwide roll out of a sophisticated surveillance technology called deep packet inspection that has proven to be a cost effective way for autocratic regimes to track online behavior."
"Obviously," Peterson continued, "Britain is a liberal democracy while Russia and China are more autocratic regimes. But before you dismiss the comparison, consider that British intelligence agencies are reportedly considering installing DPI capable “blackboxes” on [Internet service provider] servers to monitor web traffic."
The plan announced by Google and Microsoft, while cracking down on illegal content, also includes an effort to keep constructive information about child pornography available. When users type in any of the 100,000 flagged queries, they will be offered links to counseling services and academic papers, along with a message that child pornography is illegal.
Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, on Monday talked about the challenges inherent in identifying child pornography.
"There's no quick technical fix when it comes to detecting child sexual abuse imagery," he wrote in a Daily Mail op-ed. "This is because computers can't reliably distinguish between innocent pictures of kids at bathtime and genuine abuse. So we always need to have a person review the images."
But some child-protection activists are skeptical that these changes will make a difference.
Jim Gamble, former head of Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, told "BBC Breakfast" that he didn't think they would help protect children. "[Pedophiles] don't go on to Google to search for images. They go on to the dark corners of the Internet on peer-to-peer websites," he said.
A better solution, Mr. Gamble added, would be to redirect the costs incurred by Google and Microsoft to hire child-protection experts and coordinators to hunt down online predators.
In fact, alongside the tech companies' announcement Monday, Cameron also announced a collaboration between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's newly formed National Crime Agency, which has just hired 4,500 specialists to crack those illegal peer-to-peer networks. An FBI/NCA joint operation already damaged confidence in the anonymity of the so-called dark Web last month, reports Britain's Channel 4 news, when the two agencies targeted the underground drug marketplace known as the Silk Road .
“We are driving people out of the public Internet, which is a good thing,” Claire Perry, Cameron's adviser on preventing the sexualization of children, told the BBC. “People can’t find these images, so they are privately going into the deep Internet, and that is where we need to be.”
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Fewer American middle- and high-schoolers are using tobacco-derived products, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among students who did report tobacco use, cigarettes remained by far the most popular product.
Use of tobacco among high school students fell from 24.3 percent in 2011 to 23.3 percent in 2012. Among middle-schoolers, the drop was from 7.5 percent to 6.7 percent. But shifting trends among less common products have focused attention on electronic cigarettes – smokeless nicotine vaporizers whose use nearly doubled among teens in just one year, the CDC reported.
It's still a small sliver of teens who use e-cigarettes – 1.1 percent of middle-schoolers and 2.8 percent of high schoolers – but the tobacco-less cigarettes are almost unregulated because they are not classified as "a tobacco product." Some public health experts speculate that teens may perceive them as safer than traditional cigarettes, and that marketing is raising teen awareness of e-cigarettes. Although some municipalities have banned sales to minors, there are no restrictions on marketing that targets children, the Boston Globe reports.
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A growing segment of the e-cigarette industry does not support marketing to minors, Kip Schwartz, whose Washington, D.C., law firm represents a number of manufacturers and distributors, told the Washington Post. But some companies give their flavored e-cigarettes names – such as "Gummy Bear," "Candy Corn," and "Chick Magnet Cherry" – that seem targeted at the youth market. The US banned flavored paper cigarettes in 2009, amid arguments that flavors like chocolate, cherry, and clove were too appealing to young people.
According to the Chicago Tribune, a federal appeals court has empowered the US Food and Drug Administration to regulate e-cigarettes as if they were tobacco products, and the FDA is at work on a regulation whose contents have not been disclosed.
Only three states – North Dakota, New Jersey, and Utah – currently include e-cigarettes in their public and workplace smoking bans, along with about 100 cities.
A 2009 FDA study found that e-cigarettes release carcinogens and other toxins, but the absence of tar and carbon monoxide may make them healthier and less damaging to smokers' lungs than traditional cigarettes. Some e-models are designed to look just like cigarettes, but in place of the tobacco they hold a slender battery, and in place of the filter they have a refillable reservoir of liquid that includes nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin, and flavorings. When a user inhales, a pressure-triggered atomizer delivers a warm burst of vapor from the filter end while an LED light ignites the tip.
Those nearby will see a curl of vapor resembling smoke, and they may detect a brief sweet smell, but they are otherwise unobtrusive, allowing smokers to enjoy the uninterrupted company of nonsmokers, even indoors.
"We feel very strongly that we not be taxed and regulated as a tobacco product because our goal as an industry is to distinguish ourselves from traditional tobacco cigarettes," Eric Criss, president of the Electronic Cigarette Industry Group, told the Tribune. "We believe there's a ladder of harm. Cigarettes are at the top of that, and our goal is to get people to move down that ladder."
While the CDC report indicates that e-cigarettes are rising in popularity among teens, that rise is commensurate with a drop in their use of bidis, small string-wrapped Indian cigarettes that enjoy occasional surges in popularity in the US. The report showed decreases in tobacco use across all age and ethnic groups except for high-school-age African-American boys, whose use of hookahs, pipes, and especially cigars spiked in 2012. Otherwise, boys' rates of smoking dropped more dramatically than girls'.
The CDC report comes as the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of the first US Surgeon General's report on the dangers of smoking. In 1964, Luther L. Terry rocked the world's perception of smoking when he said it had been identified as a cause of certain cancers in men, a likely cause of lung cancer in women, and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis. But, cautioned the report, the "tobacco habit should be characterized as an habituation rather than an addiction."
Today tobacco is considered highly addictive, and authorities say smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the US, killing more than 1,200 Americans a day. Every day, more than 2,000 youths and young adults become daily smokers, according to the CDC.
A 2011 report from the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project found that the US had the second-lowest rate of teen smoking (12 percent) compared with their peers in 36 European countries. (At 10 percent, only Iceland had a lower rate, and the average rate in Europe was 28 percent, more than twice that of the US.) But in a surprising twist, that same study found that US students had the third-highest rate of marijuana use (16 percent compared with Europe's 6 percent) and the highest use rates of all other illicit drugs, including hallucinogens and amphetamines.
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