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A bumblebee alights on the bloom of a thistle in Berlin, Vt., in 2011. Increasingly sick domesticated honeybee populations are infecting the world's wild bumblebees, a new study in the journal Nature finds. (Toby Talbot/AP/File)

Not just honeybees: Affliction may be spreading to bumblebees, scientists say (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.20.14

The mysterious disorder that has befallen domestic honeybees may be spreading to bumblebees, researchers say.

Beekeepers in the United States and Europe have documented massive honeybee losses for several years, but less has been understood about their wild counterpart, the bumblebee, which also appears to be in global decline.

American beekeepers first reported the mysterious death and disappearance of entire colonies of domesticated honeybees in 2006. Since then, apiarists have implicated multiple culprits working in concert, including pesticides, viruses, and exotic pests. It now appears that the same pathogens and pests that have befallen honeybees may also be affecting wild pollinators as well, according to a paper published online by the scientific journal Nature Wednesday.

“Ongoing spillover of EIDs [emerging infectious diseases] could represent a major cause of mortality of wild pollinators wherever managed bees are maintained,” the study authors write.

While the researchers cannot say with certainty which direction the pests and pathogens are traveling, from honeybee to bumblebee or vice versa, they say that the higher percentage of infection in honeybees suggests that honeybees are the primary hosts.

Honeybees in the US are actually European honeybees (Apis mellifera) and are not native to America.

A survey of 26 sites in Britain found that 20 percent of bumblebees suffer from a virus that has been identified in 88 percent of honeybees, the researchers report. The researchers also found evidence of the fungal parasite that afflicts honeybees in British bumblebees.

“Although our data are only drawn from Great Britain, the prerequisites for honeybees to be a source or reservoir for these EIDs – high colony densities and high parasite loads – are present at a global scale,” the paper states.

American researchers have also seen evidence of this spillover effect in the US.

In the US, there are 20 species of bumblebees, four of which are considered endangered, says native bee expert Cory Stanley-Stahr of the University of Florida in Gainesville. While habitat fragmentation plays a major role in the decline of American bumblebees, there is also evidence that pathogens are contributing to bumblebee losses as well, she says.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, examined data collected between 2009 and 2010 from 30 honeybee colonies and local native bumblebee populations across seven states and found preliminary evidence that pests and pathogens may be spilling over from managed colonies to native bees.

Jason Graham, another native bee expert at the University of Florida, has been examining the potential spillover of pathogens between honeybees and the 300 species of bees (including bumblebees) found in Florida as part of his doctoral dissertation. He has found similar evidence that honeybees and bumblebees, as well as other species of solitary bees, share the same pathogens. He expects to publish his findings later this year.

While honeybees get much of the attention, the US is home to 4,000 species of native bees, which are equally important in the process of pollinating crops. 

“In the United States alone, native bees contribute at least $3 billion a year to the farm economy,” Mace Vaughan, pollinator program director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Ore., told the National Wildlife Federation in July. “We grossly overlook the critical role these animals play.”

Certain plants, such as blueberries and sunflowers, can be pollinated only through buzz pollination, where bumblebees disconnect the muscle attaching their wing to their thorax and vibrate just their body, Mr. Graham says. 

Police Officer Steven Hiebert, in Minnesota, uses the License Plate Ready System, which consists of a camera that photographs license plates and then compares the numbers with those in a database of stolen vehicles, March 18, 2011. In February 2014, the US Department of Homeland Security solicited proposals to create and manage a national license plate database. (Jim Gehrz/Star Tribune/AP/File)

Why does Homeland Security want a database of license plates? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.19.14

The US Department of Homeland Security wants a new nationwide database of vehicle license plates to help it track illegal immigrants and fugitives from the law, a move that is raising privacy concerns among civil libertarians.

Perhaps anticipating those concerns, DHS is asking that a private company build and manage the database, to be called the National License Plate Recognition database, so that a federal government agency would not maintain such information itself. 

DHS last week released a request for proposal for companies to bid on the contract, according to a Washington Post report, and the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be the primary user, with a focus on "criminal" illegal immigrants. 

DHS envisions a database that would allow its enforcement officials to snap a photo of a license plate with their smart phones or other devices, send the image to a server that would cross-reference the license plate number with those in the database, and receive notifications indicating a positive match.

Civil liberties advocates caution that indiscriminate tracking of individuals violates the privacy of citizens who have done nothing wrong.

“Where people travel can reveal a great deal about them – where they go to the doctor, who all of their friends are, every deviation from their daily routine,” Catherine Crump, a staff attorney in New York for the ACLU, said in a 2013 report compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union. “That is not the type of information that should be collected about each and every one of us when there is no reason to believe we are doing anything wrong.”

A spokeswoman for ICE said the information would be held by a third party and “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals,” according to the Post report.

DHS wants the company to be able to retain the information for at least one year, but it does not indicate if the company would have the discretion to keep the data for longer.

Tens of thousands of automatic license plate readers mounted on patrol cars, bridges, and overpasses already capture snapshots of passing vehicles' license plates, according to the ACLU report. These images are currently stored in local databases and sometimes connected to regional sharing systems.  

The number of large police departments using license plate readers has skyrocketed in recent years, according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal investigation. "It's one of the most rapidly diffusing technologies that I've ever seen," Cynthia Lum, a former police officer and the current deputy director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, told the Journal.

In 2012, police officers in Orlando, Fla., scanned 38,000 license plates, WFTV has reported. Only 557 of those plates were associated with a crime. In June of that same year, The Star Tribune reported that Minnesota police captured images of 805,000 license plates.

Not all states have welcomed such technology.

Revelations that the federal National Security Agency has been tracking phone call metadata and online activity have spurred at least 14 states to consider new laws that would restrict indiscriminate data collection, including of license plates, reports Fox News.

Jordan Davis's parents, Lucia McBath (l.) and Ronald Davis, speak to the media after the verdict was read Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., in the murder trial of Michael Dunn. Mr. Dunn was convicted of attempted murder in events that led to the shooting death of Jordan during an argument over loud music. (The Florida Times-Union/AP)

'Loud music' trial: Juror No. 4 says deliberations were heated (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.19.14

A juror in the Michael Dunn murder trial has offered the first glimpse into the more than 30 hours of deliberations that found Mr. Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted murder after firing 10 shots into an SUV during a dispute over loud music but that failed to produce a verdict on the charge of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Jordan Davis, a teenager.

The Florida jury was in disagreement about the most serious charge of first-degree murder from the moment the jurors entered deliberations, Juror No. 4, who has asked to be identified solely by her first name, Valerie, told ABC's "Nightline" Tuesday night.

While Valerie said she believes that Dunn got away with murder, three of the 12 jurors remained unconvinced after four days of heated debate.

Asked what she would like to say to Jordan's parents, she replied: “I’m sorry, of course. Nothing will bring back their son. I hope that they feel that we didn’t do them a disservice.”

ABC re-aired the interview during "Good Morning America" Wednesday morning, as Lucia McBath and Ronald Davis, parents of the slain teen, watched in the studio.

“We believe that they did everything they could to come to what they believe was the most just decision,” Ms. McBath told "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts. “We do now know that they were torn, but they’ve done the best that they can with the tools that they had at the time.”

The parents’ poise after the verdict and in subsequent interviews has shocked some onlookers, but both say they have found consolation in their faith.

“People don’t realize that the justice in the court system is not the ultimate justice,” Mr. Davis said. “God is the ultimate justice.”

Davis suggested that the true injustice did not lie with the jury but with the law.

“In Florida, you have the 'stand your ground' instruction,” Davis said. “That confuses juries. These people are torn because of the jury instruction, I believe, and not the case.”

While the defense did not evoke Florida's stand-your-ground law, it did instruct jurors to pay close attention to Page No. 25 of the juror instructions, which stated, “The use of deadly force is justifiable if Michael Dunn reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent imminent death or bodily harm.”

Valerie confirmed that that language played a major role in jury deliberations, which at times included screaming and profanities. In her mind, the fact that Dunn continued shooting after the teens had pulled away in the SUV negated the validity of the claim of self-defense, she said.

Both Davis and McBath have vowed to work to revise gun laws.

“Justice for Jordan will be ultimately really when we change the laws, because that will be not just for Jordan and justice for Trayvon, and for all the children of Sandy Hook, and justice for Aurora, [Colo.], and justice for Virginia Tech and the [Washington] Navy Yard, it will be justice for everyone that has suffered because of these laws and continues to suffer,” McBath said.

While much of the public scrutiny of the case has revolved around the race of the victim and perpetrator (Davis was black and Dunn is white), Valerie said race was not the focus of the jury’s discussion.

However, the family attorney suggested that race is always an undercurrent in such cases, and typically, “the white businessman gets the benefit of the doubt.” While he felt that prosecutors presented the case well, he wished that they had included a more rounded picture of Davis to help counter inherent racial biases. 

Nuclear protesters Michael Walli, Sister Megan Rice, and Greg Boertje-Obed, arrive for trial for in Knoxville, Tenn., May 6, 2013. (J. Miles Cary/Knoxville News Sentinel/AP Photo)

Nun sentenced to 35-months in prison for antinuclear peace protest (+video)

By Staff Writer / 02.18.14

Megan Rice, an octogenarian nun and seasoned peace activist, was sentenced to 35 months in prison after breaking into the grounds of a nuclear weapons complex once considered the "Fort Knox" of weapons-grade uranium.

Federal District Judge Amul Thapar sentenced the Catholic nun to 35 months in prison Tuesday for sabotage at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on July 28, 2012. Fellow protesters Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli each received sentences of 62 months in prison, less than the federal guidelines of six-to-nine years.

The three have been awaiting sentencing since being convicted of sabotaging the plant and damaging federal property last year. Three weeks ago, Judge Thapar ordered the three to pay $52,953 in fines but had to postpone sentencing due to a snowstorm.

"Please have no leniency with me," Sister Rice told the judge in her closing statement. "To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me."

The nun and her two accomplices broke into the facility grounds by cutting through three fences with bolt cutters and sneaking past dogs and armed guards and a sign warning that trespassers risk becoming subject to deadly force. Once inside, the protesters splattered human blood on the wall of a $548 million storage bunker containing much of the nation’s bomb-grade uranium, spray painted Biblical slogans of peace, and defaced the exterior of the complex with a hammer.

"The protesters put themselves at a high risk of losing their life in performing this act," a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman has said. "We are thankful that did not occur."

The three activists managed to spend more than two hours inside the restricted area before guards found them singing and hanging banners. The three reportedly invited the guards to break bread with them and offered the guards a Bible, candles, and flowers.

“We believe Christians have a duty of public witness against nuclear weapons,” Mr. Boertje-Obed of Duluth, Minn., wrote in a letter from the Ocilla, Ga., jail where he and his co-conspirators have been held since May, Religion & Politics reports.

Peace activists in the United States and around the world have engaged in nuclear weapons protests since the 1940s and '50s. The June 12, 1982, march and rally for peace and disarmament drew nearly 1 million protesters to New York City’s Central Park in one of the nation’s largest political demonstrations in history.

Religious groups have played a major role in many antinuclear weapons protests over the years. In the early 1980s, American Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis all issued public statements denouncing the use of nuclear weapons.

“American faith communities’ track record on opposing nuclear weapons is so far reaching and strong that it’s fair to say faith-based rejection of the development, deployment, targeting, and use of nuclear weapons is one of the most widely shared convictions across faith traditions,” writes the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite in a 2010 article for the Center for American Progress.

Such protests include:

• In March 2013, 37 antinuclear weapons protesters were arrested during an annual Good Friday, antinuclear weapons demonstration outside the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif, according to a joint report from CBS and the Associated Press.

• In July 2013, 23 people, including Carl Kabat, a 79-year-old Catholic priest who has spent 17 years in jail for antinuclear weapons protests, were arrested after crossing the property line into a new nuclear weapons complex, according to National Catholic Reporter.

• In 2003, three Roman Catholic nuns were sentenced to two-to-three years in prison for defacing a Colorado nuclear missile silo with their own blood.

Sister Rice has been arrested between three and four dozen times for acts of civil disobedience, The New York Times reports.

This incident sparked particular ire among federal officials because it shed a glaring spotlight on major security failures at a facility that is supposed to be the “Fort Knox of uranium.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Law Enforcement cars fill the front yard of a rural home in Lebanon, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. A package bomb killed a couple outside their home, in what police say appears to be an isolated attack. (Larry McCormack/The Tennessean/AP)

Package bomb in Tennessee claims second victim; reward offered for leads

By Staff writer / 02.13.14

The death toll from a mail bomb left at the home of a retired Tennessee lawyer has climbed to two, as Marion Setzer, like her husband earlier, died of injuries sustained in the blast.

Mrs. Setzer died on Wednesday evening, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told news outlets. Two days before, her husband, John Setzer, died at the scene when a package he was carrying exploded just outside their rural home in Lebanon, Tenn.

Officials said Mr. Setzer retrieved the package on Monday at about 5 p.m. from his mailbox, according to The Tennessean. As he carried it to the front door, it exploded, killing him and injuring his wife.

State and local authorities, the FBI, the US Postal Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are all investigating the case, CNN reports. Still, few details in the case were available on Thursday.

Investigators have yet to identify any suspects or indicate a motive for the crime, news outlets reported. A friend of the couple, Ken Caldwell, told a local CNN affiliate that the bombing “doesn't make sense at all,” and Mr. Setzer’s former law partner, George Cate Jr., told the outlet that he knew of nothing in his colleague’s past that would have motivated a targeted killing. Setzer had handled bankruptcy cases during his law career, CNN reported.

Investigators told news outlets that a note had been recovered the scene that could have been attached to the bomb, but they have not made public its contents. It was also not clear if the package was delivered via postal service or if someone had put it in the mailbox.

Police have offered an $8,000 reward for information in the case, a local Fox News affiliate reported.

A mail bomb is “an extremely rare occurrence,” with about 16 mail bombs per year during the past few years, out of 170 billion pieces of mail processed in each of those years, according to the US Postal Service.

Possible warning signs for mail bombs include excessive postage – because would-be bombers tend to avoid engaging with a window clerk to send it over the counter – and a fake or absent return address, the USPS says. Package or letter bombs might also bear the words “personal,” private,” “Rush – Do Not Delay,” or “fragile – handle with care,” according to the postal service.

In recent years, mail bombs have largely been the grim purview of political terrorists. In October, four letter bombs were mailed to top British officials in restive Northern Ireland in just one week. None detonated. One of the most high-profile mail bombing cases in the US was that of anarchist Ted Kaczynski – later called “the Unibomber,” after the FBI’s ID for the case – who sent a series of mail bombs to addresses across the US from 1978 to 1995.

But apparently isolated incidents, like the one in Tennessee this week, are not unheard of, and not all of them have been solved. Local media outlets have revisited several of those cold cases in recent reports, including a 1998 mail bombing that killed a local businessman in Arkansas and one in 1994 that killed a lawn-mower repairman in Colorado. 

Traders work at the kiosk that trades Time Warner Cable on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday. Comcast Corp said it would buy Time Warner Cable Inc for $45.2 billion, in a mammoth deal that combines the two largest US cable operators. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Would Comcast purchase of Time Warner make it too powerful? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 02.13.14

Cable giant Comcast said Thursday it had agreed to purchase Time Warner Cable for $45 billion in stock, a deal that would merge the two biggest US cable companies into a titanic conglomerate. But would it be too big?

The enormous deal – if it passes regulators’ inspections – would produce an Internet and cable service empire, spanning some 30 million subscribers and folding in some of the biggest US markets, from New York to Los Angeles.

“This merger is unprecedented,” says Seth Bloom, a former general counsel of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee and current president of Bloom Strategic Counsel. “There has never been a cable merger of this size – we’re talking here about the number one and number two cable companies in the US.”

And it’s that jumbo size that could trouble regulators reviewing the merger for adherence to antitrust laws, analysts say. The deal, before it can close, will have to be reviewed by federal antitrust inspectors at the Department of Justice for whether it gathers up an unfair expanse of the Internet/cable market, disadvantaging consumers and putting other media companies on the slip and slide. Then, in a separate process, the merger will also have to clear the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which will investigate if the deal is in the public’s interest.

Seeking to head off possible antitrust concerns, Comcast said in its announcement of the deal that it planned to drop about 3 million subscribers before taking aboard about 8 million more after the merger, putting its total subscriber count at about 30 million.

That means that the provider would hold just under 30 percent of the US market for pay television subscribers, an unofficial threshold for mitigating media antitrust concerns, Comcast said, in the release. The FCC used to have a formal 30 percent ownership limit on the cable industry, but a D.C. court tossed out that cap in 2009.

Comcast also noted that its current market overlaps little with Time Warner’s purview and that the two are not direct competitors.

"Significantly, it will not reduce competition in any relevant market ... because our companies do not overlap or compete with each other," Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said of the deal, in a conference call with financial analysts, according to Reuters. "In fact, we do not operate in any of the same zip code."

Mr. Roberts called the deal “pro-consumer” and “pro-competitive,” according to CNBC (Comcast owns CNBC).

Still, the deal is sure to attract concerns about the considerable leverage a Brobdingnagian cable provider could have over programmers. Of particular concern is Comcast’s ownership of NBCUniversal: Comcast purchased the media behemoth in 2011 for $17 billion, becoming the umbrella organization to that company’s rolodex of enterprises, from NBC broadcast network, to Universal Studios, to cable channels like MSNBC. That might raise concerns among regulators about how the relationship could bias a colossal, more powerful Comcast against NBC’s competitor programmers.

“The question is, what does this deal mean for programmers that aren’t affiliated with NBC Universal,” says Mr. Bloom.

The deal could also be noteworthy to regulators for the amount of power it might give one cable company to influence the fate of the still fledgling online television programming market, he says. Cable providers, including Time Warner, have in recent years been accused of negotiating contracts with networks that limit when and if their shows can be provided to online distributors – like Netflix – in an effort to hit back against online companies’ burgeoning edge against them in millennials’ mobile/laptop world.

The Obama administration’s record on antitrust cases offers few clues to how the DOJ might handle the Comcast-Time Warner deal.

In his first campaign, President Obama said that aggressively blocking uncouth corporate mergers would be among his administration’s top priorities, a revision from the outgoing Bush administration’s light regulation of the matter.

In one of the highest-profile cases since then, the DOJ rejected AT&T’s proposed union with T-Mobile in 2011, saying that the deal would monopolize markets in cities across the US. In a speech in New York on Jan. 30, Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer highlighted the cancellation of the deal as spurring a highly-competitive mobile service market that has advantaged consumers.

Still, just a few months ago, in a reversal of its original opinion, the DOJ cleared a mega-merger between United Airways and American Airlines, an industry that has in recent years been whittled of competitors as more airlines coalesce.

On the whole, the DOJ appears to be interested in working with companies to fine-tune their deals, rather than outright blocking the mergers, says Bloom. In the 2011 Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, the DOJ agreed to terminate its investigation into the deal by issuing a consent decree, which introduced into the deal measures assuaging concerns that the takeover would disadvantage NBC’s network competitors.

Concerns over the latest deal, including those about biases against non-NBC programmers and attacks on online media providers, could also be resolved in the DOJ with consent decrees, says Bloom.

He said that the FCC is somewhat of a “wild card,” since its chairman, Tom Wheeler, has been in the post for just over three months. He added, though, that the FCC is unlikely to strike down the deal if it passes federal antitrust regulators’ review. 

Eric Holder, attorney general of the United States, speaks at a reception earlier this month in Washington. At a conference Feb. 11 at Georgetown Law School, Mr. Holder called for the reinstatement of ex-felons' voting rights upon their release from prison. (Nick Wass/AP)

Eric Holder: Barring ex-felons from voting is unfair, counterproductive (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.11.14

Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday called upon states to repeal laws that bar ex-felons from voting after they complete their sentences, saying such laws are "unjust” and “counterproductive,” as well as disproportionately excluding black Americans from the polls.

Mr. Holder can't force states that withhold voting rights from ex-felons to amend their laws, but his remarks, made at a criminal justice conference at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, could help prompt reconsideration of such laws. 

“Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system,” said Holder, in his speech.

Holder’s comments join a chorus of calls from his Justice Department, human rights activists, and – in a reversal – some Republican lawmakers that the disenfranchisement of ex-felons disproportionally bars racial minorities from voting. Most such laws date from the late 1800s, when lawmakers across the US were pushing for legislation that would keep African-Americans, newly enfranchised, from voting nonetheless, Holder said.

"At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America's past – a time of post-Civil War discrimination," he said. “And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear."

Eleven states restrict a felon’s voting rights after prison and either probation or parole, Holder said, in his speech. Those states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming.

In total, about 5.8 million people nationwide are barred from voting because of current or past convictions for serious crimes, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group in Washington. Some 2.2 million of those people are black, or about 1 in 13 African-American adults nationwide, according to the group. In Florida, that ratio is much higher, with 1 in 5 black state residents banned from the polls, Holder said Tuesday.

It’s unclear how an effort to restore voting rights to ex-felons and bring millions of additional people to the polls might be received in the states with such laws. Studies show that felons are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than for Republicans: A 2002 report from two universities reported that the 2000 presidential election “would almost certainly have been reversed” had felons nationwide been allowed to vote, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, tea party-backed Sens. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and Mike Lee (R) of Utah, both of whom were at the conference, echoed Holder's call that felons be reenfranchised on the grounds that current laws unfairly affect black men. Senator Paul said he considered it a miscarriage of justice that 1 in 3 black men in his state, which has one of the harshest disenfranchisement policies, is banned from voting.

"People think conservative Republicans just want to put people in jail,'' he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "There are Republicans on our side who will work with Democrats who will do the right thing on this.”

Some GOP-controlled state governments recently reformed their voting laws to restore ex-felons' voting rights. Holden offered particular praise in his speech to former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R), who amended his state’s policies last year to return voting rights to people with nonviolent felony convictions, although those convicted of violent felonies still lose the right to vote for life.

(Holder’s encouraging shout-out to the ex-Virginia governor was somewhat curious, since Holder last month indicted Mr. McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges.)

Laws on disenfranchisement after conviction of a serious crime vary among states. In three states – Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky – ex-felons are disenfranchised for life, unless they receive clemency from the governor. Other states, including Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming, restore voting rights to certain kinds of felons, but not to others.

Vermont and Maine are the only states that do not practice any kind of disenfranchisement of convicted criminals, letting felons vote by absentee ballot while incarcerated. Other states restore voting rights after completion of the prison sentence or after completion of probation or parole.

The US is not unique in the developed world in restricting voting rights of ex-felons: Finland bans felons from recouping their voting rights for seven years after their release.

Most developed countries, though, have either no restrictions or selective restrictions on felons voting while in prison, or allow felons to reclaim those rights upon completion of sentences.

Holder’s calls for the repeal of disenfranchisement laws come amid his broader push for reforms of the US criminal justice system, including leading a fight to restore federal oversight of state voting laws, following a US Supreme Court decision last summer striking down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He has also made pushing for ways to legally encode marriage equality for gays and lesbians a priority during his time in office. 

The HMS Bounty, seen sailing in Lake Erie off Cleveland in July 2010, was lost during superstorm Sandy in 2012, killing the captain and a deckman, as well as injuring three others. (Mark Duncan/AP)

The Bounty finding: Captain's bid to sail into superstorm was 'reckless'

By Staff writer / 02.11.14

On Oct. 29, 2012, as superstorm Sandy spun hard and fast over the Atlantic Ocean, the crew members of a ship that looked curiously like one from 300 years ago – and that was, even more curiously, heading straight toward a hurricane – lobbied their captain to make for shore. He told them no, and he plowed the ship onward. That decision was a fatal one.

This is the finding of the National Transportation Safety Board’s inquiry into the sinking of The Bounty, a replica of an 18th-century British sailing ship, which killed the captain and one of his deckhands, as well as wounded three other crew members. In a 16-page report, the board pinned blame for the loss of life and ship on The Bounty’s captain, Robin Walbridge, who the report said made a "reckless" decision to plunge the ship into the path of a monster hurricane, a move that “compromised the safety of everyone on board."

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the sinking of tall ship Bounty was the captain’s reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy,” the report said, “which subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover.”

The report, based in part on the testimony of surviving crew members at a US Coast Guard hearing last February in Portsmouth, Va., also attributed some fault to the boat’s owner, Robert Hansen, and his company, The HMS Bounty Organization. It found that Mr. Hansen had not intervened in the captain’s plans to take the ship out, despite well-publicized warnings of extreme weather, and had maintained inadequate oversight of the ship’s upkeep.

The Bounty, a three-masted, 108-foot ship, was built for MGM Studio’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1962, and had since been moored as a tourist attraction at ports along the East Coast. It did not do much traveling, except for brief trips to appear as a prop in celebrations.

And it was moored for good reason: Its wooden hull was rotting, and the blight had been badly sealed with a household sealer. Its pumps, not properly inspected, were not in prime working condition, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

On Oct. 25, 2012, alarm bells were ringing up and down the East Coast that a major hurricane was due to whirl along the coastline. That evening, Captain Walbridge called The Bounty’s crew to a meeting and announced plans to sail the ship from its then-port at New London, Conn., to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a Nov. 10 appearance at an event there.

He told his crew that anyone could opt out of the trip but also said that an opt-outer would have to pay his or her own way to meet the ship in Florida and would be leaving his or her colleagues in a lurch, with a bigger workload. He also said the trip was safe, the report said. Crew members later testified that Walbridge believed that a ship was safer at sea in a storm than in port, according to The Associated Press.

No one opted out; the ship sailed at 5 p.m., the report said. All went well for a day and a half. But on Oct. 27, for reasons to which crew members said they were not privy, Walbridge turned the ship southwest, despite forecasts that the storm was to the west. The NTSB said the captain might have misjudged the width of the storm – more than 1,000 miles in diameter – or might have believed that the aging, ailing ship “could outrace the storm.”

By the time the captain sent out a belated distress call to the Coast Guard at about 9 p.m. on Oct. 28, the ship’s high masts had been ripped up and the engine room was flooded in water four feet deep; winds had also reached highs of 90 knots, and seas were between 25 and 30 feet, the report said. At about 4 a.m., some 110 nautical miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., the ship tipped on its side, spilling its crew into the water.

Walbridge went down with the ship, and his body was never found. Claudene Christian, a deckman, was also killed, and her body was found 10 hours after the ship sank. Coast Guard helicopters picked up the 14 surviving crew members.

Hansen’s HMS Bounty Organization faces a $70 million negligence lawsuit from the mother of Ms. Christian, according to AP. The Bounty’s former engineer, Christopher Barksdale, who sustained injuries in the disaster, is also suing Mr. Hansen and HMS for an unspecified amount, the AP reports. 

Georgia Emergency Management Director Charley English, left, speaks as Gov. Nathan Deal looks on during a press conference Monday in Atlanta. Deal issued a state of emergency Monday morning in advance of winter weather that is forecast for the area. (Brant Sanderlin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

Georgia governor gears up to avoid another stormy fiasco in Atlanta

By Staff writer / 02.10.14

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) announced on Monday a state of emergency for 45 counties ahead of a winter storm projected to surge into the state on Tuesday evening. The measure appeared to be the governor’s response to the blistering criticism he weathered last month over lackluster preparation for a snowstorm that produced epic scenes of gridlocked traffic across Atlanta.

"The ice-age-zombie-doomsday apocalypse has come to Atlanta," quipped late-night comedian Jon Stewart. For a governor facing voters in November, Mr. Deal would no doubt want to avoid another run as the brunt of late-night-TV jokes.

Deal’s announcement comes after the National Weather Service issued a winter weather warning from Monday evening through Tuesday evening for northern Georgia, as well as a winter weather watch for the both northern Georgia and the metro Atlanta area from Tuesday evening until Thursday morning. The storm is projected to begin with about 1 to 2 inches of snow and then follow up with a mix of sleet and rain, making travel dangerous, the service said.  

Parts of the Carolinas and Virginia are also under the same watch, and a winter weather advisory has been issued for a long sliver of the South, from Alabama to Texas.

After hearing the weather alerts, the governor met Monday morning with Operations Command, which includes emergency preparedness, transportation, health, and electrical officials, to draft a strategy for handling Georgia’s coming showdown with snow and for ensuring that the state comes out of it less bruised and battered than last time.

“I have directed the State Patrol, Department of Transportation, and Department of Natural Resources to begin moving assets toward areas where the snow and ice are expected,” Deal said, in a statement.

The governor also called upon all residents to stay off the roads after early Monday evening. He said he had reached out to health-care facilities to clarify backup plans in the event of power failures and asked the National Guard to be prepared for a possible call-up to Georgia, according to the statement. 

Atlanta Public Schools also announced that schools would be closed on both Tuesday and Wednesday, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.

The governor’s promise that the state will be prepared to meet the coming storm, and the flurry of activity to ready the state for what would count as mere flurries in Minnesota or Michigan, are a departure from the state’s last brush with winter weather, when Deal’s administration appeared to wing it – an approach that did not go well.

Last month, what began as a light dusting of snow on a Tuesday morning throughout the Southern states escalated when a lacquering of ice slicked up the region’s roads just as commuters were throttling for home and school bells were ringing the end of the day.

Cities in six Southern states were stymied, but Atlanta smarted the most as the storm blustered through it. There, in what drew darkly comic comparisons to “The Walking Dead,” commuters were trapped in standstill traffic on the state’s interstates for upwards of 12 hours. Cars were abandoned as drivers and passengers set off in search of food and warmth. At least two babies were born in cars stopped in the huge traffic jam.

As the city began to thaw out, officials came under fire from residents who said the disaster could have been prevented but that leaders failed to prepare. State and city officials in snow-stung Georgia defended their choices to minimize advanced preparation, saying that some forecasts had predicted a storm of much smaller proportions and that hastening to close down the Atlanta area seemed a wasteful gamble of time and resources.

“We don’t want to be accused of crying wolf,” Deal told reporters, at the time.

But many doubted that officials did all that they could, or should, have done. The National Weather Service had issued a major winter storm warning for the entire Atlanta metro area at 3 a.m. on the morning of the storm.

Nine hours after that warning was issued, though, Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) were at a champagne awards brunch, the Monitor reported. Schools were still open, and a state of emergency had yet to be declared.

Deal’s administration did not issue a state of emergency until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, long after the state’s interstates had clogged with immobile traffic and the scale of the drama had become apparent.

Weeks after the storm, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) spokesman Ken Davis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that GEMA had a mass alert system in place – the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System – that could have been used to issue a mass weather and traffic alert, but had never tested or configured it.

The governor later amended his tone, saying his state should have been better prepared – and that it would be, next time.

"I'm not going to look for a scapegoat," Deal told reporters. "I am the governor. The buck stops with me. I accept the responsibility for it, but I also accept the responsibility of being able to make corrective actions as they come into the future."

Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam speaks to the media during an NCAA football news conference in Irving, Texas. Mr. Sam told the media that he is gay on Sunday. If drafted into the NFL, he could become the first openly gay player in the league. (Brandon Wade/AP)

NFL hopeful Michael Sam comes out: Is football ready for an openly gay player? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.10.14

The announcement by Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, that he is gay comes just as drafting season begins for the National Football League and as a national conversation about intolerance in professional sports is heating up.

If Mr. Sam is drafted into the NFL this May, his announcement – made in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN – could make him the first openly gay player in the league, a sporting giant that has so far shown little interest, if not outright resistance, to bringing openly gay players into its ranks but might now be prepared to change, some experts say.

Sam’s teammates and coaches had known he was gay since August, when he told them during a preseason training session. His teammates, who by all accounts had no problem with Sam’s sexual orientation, had kept quiet. But he decided to go public as he became aware that rumors about his sexuality were floating in NFL drafting circles, according to Outsports.

“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told The New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”

Sam, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior, has had a strong 2013-14 season: He helped his team, the Tigers, to finish 12-2 and win the Cotton Bowl, was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, was honored as a first-team All-American, and was voted, by his teammates, as Missouri’s most valuable player.

He is, in other words, widely considered to be a likely candidate for the NFL, for which he will be eligible this spring. Analysts have said that he might be drafted as early as the third round. He'll participate in the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 19-24 in Indianapolis, during which NFL prospects run a gauntlet of tests to gauge their readiness for the league.

But it is now unknown if Sam’s unprecedented announcement might mar his otherwise good chances of making the NFL.

There are no openly gay players in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB – though that does not mean the leagues have never had, or do not currently have, gay athletes. Professional athletes have instead waited to announce their sexual orientation until leaving the sports scene.

Former NFL player Dave Kopay came out as gay in 1975, three years after he had retired from football. Jason Collins, who played in the NBA for 12 years, announced his sexual orientation in a first-person narrative for Sports Illustrated last year, only to not be signed by any team this season.

Robbie Rogers, a midfielder for MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy, also came out after announcing his retirement, but returned to soccer in May 2013 to become the first openly gay male athlete to be signed to a team in a major US sports league.

The NFL, the hard-beating pulse of American sports, has in particular been beset with allegations that it has remained a stalwart of anti-gay culture, even as the gay rights movement has sped onward, with more states approving gay marriage and with unprecedented changes taking place in the military, another longtime bastion of hetero-normative culture.

Those allegations include reports that recruiters have in multiple instances asked prospective players if they liked women, despite the league’s official policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Chris Kluwe, ex-punter for the Minnesota Vikings, alleged last month that his team had let him go over his vocal support for same-sex marriage in California; the Vikings’ coach, he said, has built a team culture around homophobia. And last week Jonathan Vilma, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, said he would not welcome a gay player onto his team.

Indeed, in a Sports Illustrated article published after Sam’s statement, eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches said that – in no uncertain terms – Sam’s NFL stock is projected to plummet, possibly ousting him from the draft boards altogether. 

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," an NFL player personnel assistant said in the article. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game."

On the whole, the officials quoted said that an openly gay athlete would be a “distraction,” upsetting a team’s uniformly macho culture.

"There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” one official said. “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction.

“That's the reality,” the official said. “It shouldn't be, but it will be."

One official said he estimated that about "90 percent of teams" – there are 32 NFL franchises – had been aware before the public announcement that Sam was gay and had scrubbed him from their draft boards.

Still, there were high notes of optimism after Sam's announcement Sunday that the NFL might indeed be ready to bring an openly gay player into its fold.

In a statement released Sunday night, the NFL said Sam’s sexual orientation would have no bearing on his chances with the league.

“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the statement read. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL.”

“We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014,” it said.

Twitter was also flush with support for Sam, with gay rights activists, US government officials, fans, and Missouri teammates all expressing hope that change in the sports industry could be imminent. A number of current NFL players also reacted positively on Twitter, saying they would be more than willing to have a gay player on their team.

“I could care less about a man's sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!” tweeted DeAngelo Williams, a running back for the Carolina Panthers.

“There is no room for bigotry in American sports,” tweeted Malcolm Smith, Super Bowl MVP and linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. “It takes courage to change the culture.”

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