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Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta announces that government safety rules are changing to let airline passengers use most electronic devices from gate-to-gate during a news conference on Thursday at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Tablets at takeoff: FAA eases rules on devices, but please, hold the calls. (+video)

By Contributor / 10.31.13

Plane travelers’ entertainment options during takeoffs and landings have now expanded beyond feigning sleep or perusing SkyMall.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Thursday that airline passengers will be allowed to use portable electronic devices during “all phases of flight,” provided that the airline can demonstrate that the devices pose no risk to their aircrafts and that the device is in “airplane mode.” Using cellphones to make calls will still be banned between departure and arrival gates.

The announcement was made after months of FAA-ordered expert review of its policy on the use of laptops, iPods and other electronic devices during flights. FAA regulations had banned use of the devices during taxiing and while flying below 10,000 feet.

In January, the FAA had established a 28-member advisory committee to review its regulations on portable electronic devices. In recent years, criticism of the administration’s ban had mounted, as gadget-fans noted that the regulation dates to 1966 and was based on studies between 1958 and 1961 showing that radio waves could muddle a plane’s navigation system. Some five decades ago, planes’ insulation against radio waves was far less sophisticated, and there has since been no hard evidence to support the idea that a tablet could bring down a plane, critics said.

"We're flying in a Lockheed Eagle Series L-1011,” the Toby Zeigler character quipped in the 1999 pilot episode of "The West Wing." “Carries a Sim-5 transponder tracking system, and you're telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?"

In September, the panel released its report to the FAA and confirmed the public’s suspicion: aircraft do just fine despite radio interference signals.

Panel membership had included representatives from the mobile technology industry, airlines, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, and flight attendants.

“This is great news for the traveling public – and frankly, a win for common sense,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, who had in recent years waged an earnest campaign for expanded use of the devices, said in a statement.

The new permissions will take effect at varying times for different aircraft carriers, though for most airlines the implementation should be complete within a year, the FAA said. Airlines carriers must prove to the FAA that their planes can safely handle portable device use in flight. No guidelines have yet been released for how airlines can apply for expanded portable electronic device use.

Passengers will still be asked to turn off their devices during the pre-departure safety briefing, as well as in low visibility conditions during landings, the FAA said. Such landings occur in about one percent of flights, it said.

Using cellphones to make voice calls remains prohibited throughout all flights. But phones can be used to connect to games and to other data, so long as they’re in "airplane mode,” which disables cellular connection. WiFi will be available if the aircraft offers a WiFi connection.

In an attention-galvanizing incident in December 2011, an American Airlines pilot kicked Alex Baldwin off a plane for using a cellphone after the plane’s doors had closed and as it readied for departure. Mr. Baldwin tweeted afterward that he had been playing “Words With Friends.”

Robin Thicke performs on NBC's 'Today' show in New York. The superstar is named in a lawsuit alleging that he plagiarized his hit song, 'Blurred Lines.' (Charles Syke/Invision/AP)

Marvin Gaye family v. Robin Thicke: Lawsuits mount over 'Blurred Lines'

By Contributor / 10.31.13

Everybody get up – the song “Blurred Lines” is back in the news. Robin Thicke, who has taken blistering criticism over the past seven months for the lyrics, music video, and VMA performance of his controversial song “Blurred Lines,” is now starring in another drama, this time in a courtroom. 

The children of late Motown singer Marvin Gaye filed a copyright infringement lawsuit Wednesday against recording artists Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and Clifford Harris Jr., alleging that the songwriters plucked compositional elements from a Gaye song for use in their own "Blurred Lines," a 2013 hit single. The suit also targets music publisher EMI April, which has business ties with the musicians on both sides of the legal battle, accusing it of promoting “Blurred Lines” at the Gaye estate’s expense.

Gaye, famous for his 1982 hit “Sexual Healing,” among other songs, and as the posthumous winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, died in 1984. He has been called the “The Prince of Soul.”

The lawsuit, first reported by the Hollywood Reporter, comes two months after Thicke, Williams, and Harris filed a preemptive suit against the Gaye estate in a California court, seeking a ruling to establish that "Blurred Lines" does not plagiarize Gaye’s 1977 song, "Got to Give it Up.” At the time, rumors had been mounting that Gaye’s children – Nona Marvisa Gaye, Frankie Christian Gaye, and Marvin Gaye III – were planning to sue the songwriters for comments that both Thicke and song reviewers had made suggesting that the 2013 hit had been pulled from one of Gaye’s songs.

In a May interview with GQ, Thicke said he and Williams had written “Blurred Lines” in just 30 minutes, after listening to Gaye’s song and deciding “we should make something like that, something with that groove.” Several music reviewers, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Vice, found that highly plausible, noting the resemblance of the two songs.

"Don’t let the video’s modernism fool you: white-soul conservatism is the order of the day, and this hit is just as nostalgic as Mr. Thicke’s first single was," wrote The New York Times in an August review of "Blurred Lines," which made explicit comparison of the song to Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up." The review, which wryly called Thicke "white soul's leader," had seemed at the time a harbinger of a coming lawsuit against the superstar for ripping off a pioneering black soul singer's music.

Thicke, after filing the preemptive lawsuit in August, retracted his own comments in a September interview with TMZ, in which he said his song and Gaye's song had no relationship

“Being reminiscent of a 'sound' is not copyright infringement," write the plaintiffs in the preemptive lawsuit.

As expected, Gaye’s children did indeed file a lawsuit. But, in a surprise, they also allege that Thicke plagiarized more than one of their father’s songs. In addition to “Blurred Lines,” Thicke's 2011 song, "Love After War," is a rip-off, this time of Gaye's 1976 song, "After the Dance,” the suit charges.

The suit, filed in US district court in Los Angeles, includes an attached report from a musicologist who identifies at least eight similar compositional features between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give it Up,” including the “unusual cowbell instrumentation, omission of guitar, and use of male falsetto.” The plaintiffs also write that “any ordinary observer would immediately recognize ‘Love After War’ as a copy of ‘After the Dance.’ ”

“The songs’ substantial similarities reach the very essence of each work,” the suit says.

The suit also names EMI April, the song publisher, now under Sony/ATV, which manages Gaye’s roster of songs and which also co-owns Thicke’s songs, the Hollywood Reporter said. The plagiarism lawsuit also alleges that EMI April’s chairman tried to intimidate Gaye’s family into not filing suit, telling his heirs that in doing so they would be “killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” as well as “ruining an incredible song” ["Blurred Lines"].

Overall, EMI April failed “to remain neutral when faced with a conflict of interest, and instead g[ave] strong support to the Blurred Writers, in direct detriment of the Gaye Family,” the suit says.

The Gaye family is asking that EMI April lose the rights to administer Gaye’s catalogue of songs, as well forfeit all profits from Thicke’s music. The plaintiffs are also seeking $150,000 in damages for each act of infringement.

“We have repeatedly advised the Gaye family's attorney that the two songs in question have been evaluated by a leading musicologist who concluded that 'Blurred Lines' does not infringe 'Got To Give It Up,’ ” said SONY/ATV, in a statement. “And while we very much treasure the works of Marvin Gaye and our relationship with the Gaye family, we regret that they have been ill-advised in this matter."

The Gaye family’s lawsuit also names Thicke's wife, actress Paula Patton, who is featured in "Love After War,” Star Trak Entertainment, Interscope Records, and Universal Music Group recordings, among others.

The first-in-class Zumwalt, the largest US Navy destroyer ever built, floats off a submerged dry dock in the Kennebec River, Monday in Bath, Maine. The ship, unlike anything else in the water, is as stealthy as it is massive: It is barely visible to radar. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Navy new destroyer: USS Zumwalt is bigger, badder than any other destroyer (+video)

By Contributor / 10.30.13

The Navy’s biggest-ever destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, sailed from a Maine port on Monday. The stealth warship is the first of the DDG-1000 class of destroyers, a controversial line of three ships to be deployed to the Pacific during the next three years as sentries to China’s burgeoning naval might.

The USS Zumwalt is big: It is 610 feet long, has an 11,000-square foot flight deck, and displaces 14,564 tons of water. That’s about 100 feet longer than other destroyers, as well a water displacement about 50 percent larger than the next biggest destroyer on the water, the Military Times reported.

Despite its colossal size, Zumwalt is also stealthy, with concealed antennas and an angular frame that makes it much less detectable to radar than are current warships. It also packs a punch. Its “Advanced Gun System” fires warheads at a range of about 63 miles with impeccable precision, three times farther than current destroyers can fire, CNN reported. Its massive electrical capabilities are also expected to support future laser weapons.

But, as precedent suggests with ships of unprecedented size, there’s a problem: Engineers aren’t quite sure if Zumwalt ships are capable of weathering giant waves, according to Defense News. A single sizable swell that hits the ship’s back end might take the ship down, engineers have said. That’s because these ships sport a new, downward-sloping hull that primes the ship to move stealthily, but not necessarily stably; traditional ships have upward-flaring hulls.

The ships are controversial for more than just their Achilles hull: They are expensive – the most expensive Navy ships ever built, to be exact.

Zumwalts began as a dream of the 1990s, imagined as part of the 1991 21st Century Destroyer program, the news website Medium reported. What if a ship could avoid radar detection? What if it could ply the waters unnoticed, a Loch Ness monster of the open seas? What if the US could sport bigger and badder ships than ever before thought possible?

The Department of Defense announced in the 1990s that it would build 32 of the novel class of ships, originally called DD 21 and later DD(X). But the cost of building the ships began to float higher and higher, and, as it did, the Pentagon scaled back the number of behemoth ships it planned to put on the water. In 2003, the Pentagon said it would buy 16 ships. Then, it said seven ships. Then, in 2008, it said three ships.

In 2009, the number of ships was almost reduced to no ships at all, when costs ballooned to over $5 billion per ship, a violation of the Nunn-McCurdy amendment, which says that defense projects whose cost per unit grows more than 15% above what was originally estimated must be tabled. That year, to keep the program going, Department of Defense officials dialed back the cost of the first Zumwalt destroyer to $3.3 billion, with subsequent ships costing about $2.5 billion.

The most recent new destroyer, the US Arleigh Burke class of ships, cost about $1.8 billion each. The Navy is expected to return to building the cheaper class of ships after production wraps up on the three Zumwalts.

All three Zumwalt ships, called Zumwalt, Michael Monsoor, and Lyndon B. Johnson, are due to be based out of San Diego and to be charged with policing the Pacific. Their super structures are constructed at Huntington Ingalls Industries, in Gulfport, Miss., and assembled at Maine's Bath Iron Works, which is part of General Dynamics Marine Systems. The first ship will be delivered to the Navy in 2015, the Washington Times reported.

Zumwalt has hit the water, but it is not quite battle-ready, and Bath Iron Works will keep working on the ship in the water for the next few months. The ship had been due to be christened earlier this month with a bottle of champagne smashed against its hull, but the ceremony was postponed due to the government shutdown. The shipyard expects the champagne slinging to happen sometime in the spring, Fox News reported.

The class of ships is named for Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., the chief of naval operations in the early 1970s. He is credited with ordering the Navy to end racial discrimination and allowing women to serve on ships.

Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, testified on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary hearing on 'stand your ground' laws. (Manuel Balce Cenet/AP)

Trayvon Martin mom assails 'stand your ground' in Congress. Will it matter? (+video)

By Contributor / 10.29.13

Two mothers whose unarmed, black sons were fatally shot last year spoke before the Senate Tuesday, pressing lawmakers to ask states to clarify their controversial “stand your ground" laws.

The women – Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; and Lucia Holman McBath, mother of Jordan Russell Davis – both lost their 17-year-old sons in incidents in which “stand your ground” laws became a justification for shooting the teenagers, rather than fleeing the situation.

The Democrat-convened hearing was held despite no expected congressional action on the issue, the Associated Press said. The 2014 midterm elections could put pressure on members of Congress to clarify their positions on guns, but so far, Congress has been reluctant to intervene in states' right to keep stand your ground laws on the books.

In February 2012, Trayvon was walking home in Sanford, Fla., with a package of Skittles in his pocket, when a complex narrative unfolded: George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, and Trayvon got into an fight, and Mr. Zimmerman said he shot Trayvon in self-defense. But others said that Trayvon had come under suspicion of being a criminal because he was wearing a hoodie.

The trial this summer for Zimmerman factored in stand your ground legislation. Such laws, on the books in some version in 22 states, including Florida, allow a person who believes him- or herself threatened with death or harm to choose not to retreat, even if retreating is an available option. On July 13, Zimmerman was acquitted of both second-degree murder and manslaughter.

The trial has furnished a continued brimming debate over stand your ground laws.

"I just wanted to come here to talk to you for a moment to let you know how important it is that we amend this stand your ground because it certainly did not work in my case," Ms. Fulton, Trayvon's mother, told the Senate.

"The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today,” she said. “This law does not work."

Florida’s stand your ground law is also expected to factor into the trial of Michael David Dunn, Jordan’s alleged killer, next year. Last year in Jacksonville, Fla., Mr. Dunn allegedly fired nine rounds on a Dodge Durango with four teenagers inside, after complaining about their loud music. He says he saw a gun inside the vehicle, though authorities did not retrieve a gun from the scene.

Ms. McBath, Jordan’s mother, told the Senate that she is confronted with the "very real possibility that my son's killer will walk free, hiding behind a statute that lets people claim a threat where there was none." 

"Even the Wild West had more stringent laws governing the taking of life than we have now. Stand your ground defies all reason. It goes against the sound system of justice established long ago on this very hill," she said.

In a microcosm of the discussion that has rankled the United States in recent months, senators tussled over stand your ground legislation at the Judiciary Committee hearing.

“It is clearly time for stand your ground to be carefully reviewed," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, who had called for the hearing.

"These stand your ground laws have allowed shooters to walk free in shocking situations,” he said.

But Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas said, "No one in this room knows exactly what happened that night," referring to the night Trayvon was shot.

There’s a difference "between serious efforts to stop violent crime and efforts to advance a political agenda,” he said.

Florida was the first state to pass a stand your ground law in 2005. Since then, many other states have adopted some version of the law: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia, according to the AP. At least nine laws include the language “stand your ground.”

Pedestrians pass the Barneys New York department store on Monday. When a black teen came forward with a story of being detained after buying a $349 belt at the Manhattan luxury store, an already-fraught relationship between the New York Police Department and New York's minority communities became even more tense. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Racial profiling claims at Barneys, Macy's: N.Y. attorney general probing (+video)

By Contributor / 10.29.13

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton was to meet Tuesday with Barneys New York’s CEO to discuss allegations of racial profiling at the luxury store.

Mr. Sharpton, of the National Action Network, has threatened a boycott of Barneys, after two black shoppers came forward this week with allegations that in separate incidents police had detained them on suspicion of stealing their expensive purchases from the high-end retailer. His meeting with Barneys CEO Mark Lee was scheduled for Tuesday morning at the National Action Network’s headquarters in Harlem.

Meanwhile, the New York Attorney General’s Office on Monday sent letters to both Barneys and Macy’s in an official probe of racial profiling at the stores. The two retailers have until Friday to provide information on their policies for stopping customers based on race, the New York Daily News reported.

"Attorney General [Eric] Schneiderman is committed to ensuring that all New York residents are afforded equal protection under the law," Kristen Clarke, head of the attorney general's Civil Rights Bureau, wrote to the two retailers' CEOs.

"The alleged repeated behavior of your employees raises troubling questions about your company's commitment to that ideal," the letters said.

The developments come amid an already-troubled relationship between the New York Police Department and the city’s minority communities and has put another spotlight on the city's pushback against persistent racism. 

Reports of racial profiling first surfaced last week when Trayon Christian, 19, a Queens student, filed suit against both Barneys and the NYPD in Manhattan Supreme Court for an alleged incident on April 29. In that incident, plainclothes officers stopped him a block away from the Barneys flagship store on Madison Avenue, where he had just purchased a $349 Ferragamo belt with his debit card, he said. He was held at the 19th Precinct for two hours before he was released, with no charges filed against him, he said.

Also, Kayla Phillips, 21, a nursing student from Canarsie in Brooklyn, told the New York Daily News that four plainclothes officers surrounded her three blocks from the same Barneys store, after she had purchased a $2,500 orange suede Céline bag with a debit card in February. Ms. Phillips said she plans to sue the NYPD.

Two Macy’s shoppers have made similar allegations of racial profiling. One of them, the actor Rob Brown of HBO's "Treme," said he was handcuffed and held for an hour after purchasing a $1,350 gold Movado watch at Macy's Herald Square, the Daily News said. In the other, Art Palmer, an exercise trainer from Brooklyn, said that police swarmed him after he purchased $320 worth of Polo shirts and ties at the same store, the Daily News reported.

Mr. Brown is suing the NYPD and Macy's. Mr. Palmer has filed a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York.

Macy's told the Daily News it was not involved in the incident with Brown. Barneys said in a statement that “no employee of Barneys New York was involved in the pursuit of any action with [Mr. Christian] other than the sale.”

“Barneys New York has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination and we stand by our long history in support of all human rights,” the statement said.

Following reports of the incidents, Change.org launched a petition asking Jay Z to cut all ties with Barneys, with which he is collaborating on a Christmas collection. When the superstar and man-of-the-street rapper made no immediate comment, he was pilloried on social media as betraying his previous stands for social justice.

In 2006, the Brooklyn native had banned Cristal champagne from his swanky nightclub after the company's CEO made racist remarks, the Daily News reported.

On Saturday, Jay Z defended his choice to continue working with Barneys, at least for the time being.

''I am against discrimination of any kind, but if I make snap [judgments], no matter who it's towards, aren't I committing the same sin as someone who profiles?” he wrote on his website, Life + Times, noting that a quarter of the proceeds from his collection would benefit the Shawn Carter Foundation, which helps low-income students.

“I am no stranger to being profiled and I truly empathize with anyone that has been put in that position,” he wrote. “Hopefully this brings forth a dialogue to effect real change.”

Racism has been a foregrounded issue in New York City in recent years, as pressure has mounted on the NYPD to ease its aggressive stop-and-frisk policies. In August, a federal judge ordered the NYPD to reform its stop-and-frisk program. Last month the judge, Shira Scheindlin of US District Court in Manhattan, also granted class-action status to a lawsuit brought by public housing residents and visitors who say they were illegally stopped in the buildings.

Ohio to use untested cocktail of drugs in upcoming execution

By Contributor / 10.28.13

Ohio said Monday that it will use an untested cocktail of two drugs in an execution scheduled for next month, after reporting that it does not have enough of the drug pentobarbital to carry out the death sentence.

Ohio is among the states that have in recent months reported shortages of pentobarbital, the drug used in 13 states for lethal injections, after the drug’s manufacturer announced last year that it would no longer sell the drug to prisons. The state’s announcement comes amid a debate over the legality of states tapping into alternative markets for supplies of lethal-injection drugs or turning to new, never before used drug cocktails.

The Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, Lundbeck, banned the sale of its product to prisons in 2011 because of Denmark’s membership in the European Union, which opposes the US practice of capital punishment. The announcement sent states with death rows scrambling: Lundbeck holds the sole license to produce pentobarbital in the US. Most states had enough of the drug to get through to this September. After that, their reserves would expire.

Since then, corrections departments have been pressing for alternative drugs to carry out death penalty sentences. For some states, that has meant turning to a little regulated wing of the pharmaceutical market: compounding pharmacies, which custom brew drugs. Texas and Georgia have announced deals to purchase pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies but are now embroiled in federal lawsuits by death-row inmates, who are challenging the states' right to use the drugs. Pennsylvania and Colorado are also courting compounding pharmacies for lethal injection drugs but have put all executions on hold.

Just South Dakota has so far used drugs from compounding pharmacies to carry out executions. The state executed two convicts with the drugs in October of last year.

Meanwhile, other states have turned to invention, hoping to find a replacement drug for pentobarbital. Pentobarbital itself had been ushered in to replace the drug sodium thiopental in 2011, after its Illinois-based producer said it would not sell the drug to prisons.

Ohio says it will use a combination of the drugs midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, in the execution of Ronald Phillips, scheduled for Nov. 14. The state said on Monday that it had looked for a compounding pharmacy as an alternative pentobarbital supplier but had been unsuccessful.

Both tactics of procuring lethal injection drugs have come under fire from anti-death penalty advocates in recent months, The New York Times reported in August. Compounding pharmacies are not subject to us Food and Drug Administration regulation and do not need to receive accreditation from the Pharmacy Compounding Accreditation Board, advocates note. In 2012, an unaccredited compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts was found to be the source of an outbreak of fungal meningitis that infected over 700 people and killed 61 people.

In the wake of the incident, advocates have urged states to hold off on using drugs purchased from compounding pharmacies, saying that unregulated brews of the drug could result in botched executions. Advocates have similarly questioned the use of alternatives to pentobarbital, noting that such cocktails are untested and could cause undue pain to the condemned.

Earlier this month, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon halted what was to be the first execution in the United States using propofol, the drug that killed Michael Jackson in 2009. Over the summer, the Missouri Supreme Court had approved the use of the drug in the state’s executions. The state has since said it is investigating purchasing pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies.

On Monday, Mr. Phillips's lawyers asked a federal judge to delay the execution, giving them time to contest the state’s right to use an untested drug combination, AP reported.

Phillips was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in 1993.

Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's former doctor, sits in a courtroom during his involuntary manslaughter trial in Los Angeles in 2011. Murray, who was convicted in connection with Jackson's death, was released from jail Monday, about two years early. (Reed Saxon/AP)

Conrad Murray out of jail. What next for Michael Jackson's former doctor? (+video)

By Contributor / 10.28.13

The former cardiologist convicted of accidentally killing Michael Jackson was released from prison Monday, after serving about half of his four-year sentence.

Conrad Murray was convicted in 2011 of involuntary manslaughter, for prescribing Michael Jackson the surgical anesthetic propofol, which officials say killed the "king of pop" in July 2009. California's recent efforts to alleviate inmate overcrowding led to Dr. Murray's release from a Los Angeles jail two years into his sentence.

As for Murray's next steps, his representatives have said he intends to return to medicine, although his medical licenses have been invalidated in all three states where he had been authorized to practice, Reuters reported. Murray's return to the medical field is contingent on an appeal he has filed to overturn his conviction, but a California appellate court is still weighing whether it will even hear the case.

“He's prepared to keep fighting this as long as it takes,” Valerie Wass, Murray's attorney, told Reuters ahead of her client's release.

Other news reports have said that Murray, once an anonymous if exceedingly well-paid doctor, plans to parlay his notoriety into singing stardom.

“Murray thinks he can make it as a singer in the future,” Jeff Adams, Michael Jackson’s former bodyguard, told the New York Daily News.

Murray is also courting publishers to write a book about his time with Jackson, unnamed sources told TMZ. That would put Murray in good company with other noncelebrities who have turned their incarcerations into a book deal. Among them are Amanda Knox, the American acquitted of murdering her roommate in Italy, who upon her release from an Italian prison accepted a $4 million advance for her book, “Waiting to be Heard,” released earlier this year.

Reports of bids for a pop career and million-dollar book deals are in keeping with Murray’s often-baffling forays into the limelight during the past two years. In June, Murray called into "Anderson Cooper 360" to sing on live television a personalized version of "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” He also sent Jackson’s daughter, Paris, a perplexing audio message in which he said he loved her as if she were his own daughter and sang to her Jackson’s song “You Are Not Alone.”

Jackson died four years ago amid preparations for high-profile comeback concerts in London, after years of bad press and mounting debt. Jackson’s doctor, whom concert promoter AEG Live had hired as the superstar’s personal general practitioner during the comeback series for $150,000 a month, almost immediately came under scrutiny, as investigators worked to tease out what his care for his patient had entailed.

In a six-week trial two years later, Murray was found to have prescribed propofol as a sleep aid to Jackson during the months leading up to his death. He was also found to have given the superstar a final dose of the medication hours before he died.

Medical experts testified at the trial that propofol is a surgical sedative, not a sleep aid, and said that Murray had not monitored Jackson in accordance with the protocols for administering the powerful drug. On the morning of Jackson’s death in his Los Angeles mansion, Murray had left the pop icon alone in bed with a propofol IV drip in his arm, prosecutors said.

Murray’s lawyers claimed that Murray had refused Jackson’s requests for propofol the night before his death and that Jackson had taken the sedative on his own.

“To hear Dr. Murray say it, Dr. Murray was a bystander,” Judge Michael Pastor said, before announcing the four-year sentence, the maximum allowed, at the trial. “Talk about blaming the victim. Not only is there not any remorse, there’s umbrage and outrage.”

AEG Live was cleared earlier this month in a civil suit, brought by Jackson's children and his mother, accusing the company of negligently hiring the doctor. The company successfully argued that it had been unaware of Jackson’s dependence on propofol and other sedatives when it signed on to manage Jackson’s concert series and hired a personal doctor for him.

The company “never would have agreed to finance this tour if it knew Michael Jackson was playing Russian roulette every night in his bedroom,” said Marvin Putnam, A.E.G. Live’s lawyer, in his closing statement.

A photo of Andy Lopez is shown at a makeshift memorial at the site of his death in Santa Rosa, Calif., October 24, 2013. Andy, 13, carrying a replica of an assault rifle, was shot and killed Tuesday by sheriff's deputies who believed the gun was real. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

California community mourns 13-year-old killed for holding AK-47 look-alike

By Contributor / 10.25.13

Several hundred people marched more than three miles on Thursday evening from the city hall in Santa Rosa, Calif., to the field where two days before, a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot by law enforcement while he was carrying a toy pellet gun that resembled an AK-47.

Some held candles and signs that read: “What a tragedy, what a travesty,” according to media reports.

On Tuesday afternoon, Andy Lopez was walking home from his friend’s house, toy gun in hand, when a sheriff’s deputy spotted him – and the AK-47 look-alike – from behind. 

From there, everything unfolded in a matter of seconds. 

The deputy and his partner, who were out on regular patrol duty, pulled over their car and took cover behind the vehicle’s doors, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. 

The patrol car’s overhead light and siren were activated, and law enforcement twice ordered Andy, who was about 20 to 30 feet away, to drop the gun, one witness said, according to an Associated Press report.

Andy began to turn around in the direction of the deputies, barrel of the rifle rising up, one officer said.

Seven bullets struck the young teenager. Sixteen seconds later, the officers called for medial attention, according to Reuters.

Andy died at the scene, and what was thought to be an assault weapon turned out to be a plastic replica, officers discovered. 

The trademark orange tip that federal law requires toy-gun manufacturers to place on the ends of fake guns was missing from the pellet gun, law enforcement reported. Also, a toy handgun was found in Andy’s waistband, but it had the orange tip.   

The two deputies involved in the incident have not been publicly identified and have been placed on administrative leave. 

The deputy who shot the teen is a 24-year veteran, and his partner, who did not fire his weapon, is a new hire, Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat news outlet.

The deputy who opened fire was said to have considerable experience with AK-47s. At a Wednesday press conference, law enforcement displayed an actual AK-47 and the airsoft replica held by Andy, making a point about the challenge of discerning real from fake weapons at a distance. 

“It really is a toy gun,” said Ryan Podesta, owner of Thirty First Outfitters, a store in Cotati, Calif., that sells airsoft guns and gear. “It just looks real,” he said. The airsoft rifle, which shoots BB gun pellets, is an increasingly popular toy gun, Mr. Podesta told the Press Democrat in an interview. 

“People have to do something,” said Elbert Howard, a founding member of the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline of Sonoma County, in an interview with Reuters. “He’s a child, and he had a toy. I see that as an overreaction to shoot him down.”

In 2000, an advisory panel of the US Commission on Civil Rights urged Sonoma County, where Tuesday's shooting took place, to create civilian review boards following eight fatal officer-involved shootings in less than three years, but that recommendation went unheeded, Reuters reported

Andy’s death “is a tragedy on many levels,” Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said in a statement Wednesday. “As a father of two boys about this age, I can't begin to imagine the grief this family is going through," he said. "My hope is that we can work with the community to help prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future."

A window display of Daphne Guinness clothing in the Barneys New York store. A young black man recently filed suit against Barneys and the NYPD alleging he was racially profiled after he purchased a $350 belt at the store. (Neilson Barnard/Barneys New York/PRNewsFoto)

Young shopper accuses Barneys New York, NYPD of racial profiling

By Contributor / 10.24.13

A young black man who was stopped by police and briefly held after purchasing an expensive belt at the luxury retail store Barneys New York last spring has filed suit against the New York City Police Department and Barneys, accusing them of racial profiling.

The case has prompted an outcry from a New York-based civil rights group, and further strained the already-fraught relationship between minority groups and the city’s police force.  

“Further action will be planned against the NYPD, [which] has a history of racial profiling against young Blacks and Hispanics,” the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network said. The organization also asked for a meeting with the chief executive officer of Barneys on Thursday in the wake of alleged racial profiling against African-American shoppers, according to the NAN website.

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The young shopper, Trayvon Christian, 19, filed the suit against both Barneys and the NYPD in Manhattan Supreme Court Monday for an incident that he said occurred on April 29. Mr. Christian, a New York City College of Technology freshman who was 18 at the time, said he had been saving up for a $350 Ferragamo belt he had seen rappers wearing. According to court documents, Christian paid for the belt with his debit card and left Barneys.

A block outside away from the store, Barneys bag in hand, Christian was stopped by two undercover police officers, who asked the young student to show them identification and the contents of his bag, saying that someone from the store had raised concerns over the sale, according to court documents.  

Christian said he showed officers the sales receipt, his debit card, and his identification card. The officers allegedly told Christian that his ID card was false, and “that he could not afford to make such an expensive purchase.”

According to the lawsuit filed, Christian was held at the 19th Precinct for two hours before he was released. No charges were filed against him, the Associated Press reported. The lawsuit alleges that the incident occurred because of “discrimination based on the plaintiff’s race and age as he was a young black American male.”  

The police department told the New York Daily News it is waiting for a formal copy of Christian’s lawsuit, but the officers involved in the April incident are under internal review.

The NYPD said it has received 53 grand larceny complaints for credit card fraud at the Barneys Madison Ave. store where Christian bought the belt, and has made more than 47 arrests, according to the Daily News.

Barneys has tried to distance itself from Christian’s questioning by the police and issued a statement saying “no employee of Barneys New York was involved in the pursuit of any action with the individual other than the sale.” The statement added the store has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, and extended apologies that any customer would have this experience.

Upon hearing about Christian’s charges against the NYPD and Barneys, another customer, who says she had a similar experience, came forward.

Kayla Phillips, 21, told the New York Daily News she purchased a $2,500 Celine handbag in February, and was then surrounded by police after she left the store. Officers asked Ms. Phillips why she used a debit card without a name on it, she said. After Phillips explained that it was a temporary card, and presented identification to the police, along with another debit card, they let her go.

Phillips said she also plans to sue the police department.

The NYPD has a long antagonistic history with minority groups in the city. Most recently, the police force came under criticism when the Associated Press uncovered an extensive police-spying program that targeted the city’s Muslim population and labeled certain mosques as “terrorist organizations.” Continued debates over the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which critics say allows police to target blacks and Hispanics, have further exacerbated tensions between the force and civil rights groups. 

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Student Christian Veatch (bottom) pauses after leaving flowers and a teddy bear outside the high school in Danvers, Mass., Oct. 23, 2013. Police found the body of Colleen Ritzer, a math teacher at the school, in woods near the facility. (Brian Snyder/ Reuters)

Danvers homicide: 14-year-old charged in second US teacher killing this week (+video)

By Contributor / 10.23.13

A 14-year-old high school student has been charged in the death of a math teacher in a suburb of Boston – the second killing of a teacher in the United States this week.

Philip Chism was arraigned in adult court on Wednesday morning for the murder of Colleen Ritzer, whose body was found in the woods near Danvers High School.

Police began an investigation into the disappearances of Philip and Ms. Ritzer after they were reported missing on Tuesday evening.

Blood was discovered in a second-floor bathroom at the school late Tuesday night before her body was found behind the facility, according to the Associated Press.

Shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning, Philip was spotted walking along a road in Topsfield, Mass., a town about five miles away from Danvers.

In court documents, law enforcement officers said they arrested Philip based on statements made by the suspect and corroborating evidence at multiple scenes. They also recovered video surveillance.

Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said there is no reason to believe anyone else was involved and there is no threat to public safety.

“It is apparent that she is a homicide victim,” Mr. Blodgett said at a news conference. “This is a terrible tragedy for the family of Colleen Ritzer and the entire Danvers family.”

Ritzer, who was in her 20s, was a native of Andover, Mass., and an alumna of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in math, a minor in psychology, and a secondary-education concentration. 

"She was the nicest teacher anyone could ever have. She always had a warm smile on her face," said Chris Weimert, 17, who took Ritzer’s geometry class last year.

Ritzer had a Twitter account that she updated with homework assignments for her class. In her biography, she wrote: “Math teacher often too excited about the topics I’m teaching.”

Her relatives said she had a passion for teaching and mentored each one of her students, the AP reported.

Mary Duffy, who has lived next door to the Ritzers in Andover since the family moved there more than two decades ago, said she had known Colleen Ritzer from the time she was a baby. Ritzer’s only ambition in life was to be a teacher, Ms. Duffy said.

“She was a very respected, loved teacher,” Blodgett said.

Ritzer’s former student, Chris, said he knew the suspect, Philip, from seeing him around school. Philip “seemed like a good kid,” Chris said. “It really threw the whole town of Danvers a curveball.”

Kyle Cahill, a junior at Danvers High School, said he knew Philip from the soccer team. The 14-year-old moved to Danvers from Tennessee before the school year started, and he was a top goal-scorer on the school’s junior varsity team, Kyle said.

“He wasn’t violent at all. He was really the opposite of aggressive,” Kyle said.

He said there was a soccer team dinner Tuesday night that Philip skipped, and team members had wondered where he was.

Philip’s name was not initially published because he is a minor. The defense attorney argued for the proceedings to be closed and her client’s name to stay hidden because of his age, but the judge denied the request.

Philip is being held without bail and is due back in court on Nov. 22.

Another teacher was shot in an unrelated incident at a Nevada middle school on Monday. Michael Landsberry was trying to talk down a 12-year-old student, armed with a semiautomatic handgun, when the student pulled the trigger, killing the teacher.

Both incidents occur nearly a year after a gunman opened fire on students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 students and six adults. The Dec. 14 shooting sparked a nationwide gun-control debate.

All public schools in Danvers were closed on Wednesday, and students planned a candlelight vigil for Wednesday evening.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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