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General's court-martial is thrown into jeopardy; judge sees undue influence in sex case
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — The sexual assault case against an Army general was thrown into jeopardy Monday when the judge said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with a trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct.
Judge Col. James Pohl refused to dismiss the charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair but offered the defense another chance to plea-bargain the case down with a different set of military officials.
The twist comes with the Pentagon under heavy pressure from Congress and beyond to combat what the military says is an epidemic of rape and other sex crimes. On Monday, in fact, the Senate was expected to approve legislation cracking down on misconduct.
Pohl reviewed newly disclosed emails in Sinclair's case and said he found evidence of unlawful command influence in Fort Bragg officials' decision to reject a plea deal before the trial began late last week.
Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.
Senate vote: Bill would eliminate 'good soldier' defense to combat sexual assault in military
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate headed toward an overwhelming vote Monday in favor of big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault, including scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a "good soldier defense" to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.
A bipartisan plan crafted by three female senators — Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska — would impose a half-dozen changes as Congress tries to combat the pervasive problem of rape and sexual offenses that Pentagon leaders have likened to a cancer within the ranks.
In a rare show of unanimity, the Senate voted 100-0 last Thursday to move ahead on the bill, and easy passage was expected. The House could act on the legislation as a stand-alone measure or incorporate it into the massive defense policy bill that it pulls together in the spring.
The support is in sharp contrast to last week, when military leaders vigorously opposed a measure by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have stripped commanders of their authority to prosecute cases and given it to seasoned military lawyers outside the chain of command. The Senate voted 55-45 for that farther-reaching bill, but that was five votes short of the necessary 60.
The new legislation would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as an element of his defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime. The "good soldier defense" could encompass a defendant's military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
Crimean Tatars fear return of Russian rule in historical homeland now part of Ukraine
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — The arrival of Russian troops in Crimea has opened old wounds among the Crimean Tatars, who were deported during World War II. Fearing that once again they will be unwelcome in their homeland, some are organizing community-watch patrols to protect their families and homes in a place they strongly feel should remain part of Ukraine.
Tensions have grown with preparations to hold a referendum on Sunday on whether Crimea should stay in Ukraine or join Russia.
"It turned out that there's a sudden sense of danger," said Dilyaver Reshetov, who heads the watch group in Simferopol's Akmechet neighborhood.
While Crimea's ethnic Russian majority may be in favor of joining Russia, Muslim Tatars have rallied to support the new Ukrainian leaders in Kiev. This, they fear, will make them a target of rising Russian nationalism on the Black Sea peninsula.
Shortly after pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine two weeks ago, about 20,000 Tatars turned out for a rally in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, in support of the new pro-Western government in Kiev. They were confronted by a smaller pro-Russia rally, and at least 20 people were injured in clashes.
Colorado officials report roughly $2M in recreational pot taxes in January, 1st month of sales
DENVER (AP) — Colorado made roughly $2 million in marijuana taxes in January, state revenue officials reported Monday in the world's first accounting of the recreational pot business.
The tax total reported by the state Department of Revenue indicates $14.02 million worth of recreational pot was sold. The state collected roughly $2.01 million in taxes.
Colorado legalized pot in 2012, but the commercial sale of marijuana didn't begin until January. Washington state sales begin in coming months.
The pot taxes come from 12.9 percent sales taxes and 15 percent excise taxes. Voters approved the pot taxes last year. They declared that the first $40 million of the excise tax must go to school construction; the rest will be spent by state lawmakers.
Colorado has about 160 state-licensed recreational marijuana stores, though local licensing kept some from opening in January. Local governments also have the ability to levy additional pot sales taxes if they wish.
How can jet disappear? It's happened repeatedly at sea, where finding any trace can take days
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — In an age when people assume that any bit of information is just a click away, the thought that a jetliner could simply disappear over the ocean for more than two days is staggering. But Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is hardly the first reminder of how big the seas are, and of how agonizing it can be to try to find something lost in them.
It took two years to find the main wreckage of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Closer to the area between Malaysia and Vietnam where Saturday's flight vanished, it took a week for debris from an Indonesian jet to be spotted in 2007. Today, the mostly intact fuselage still sits on the bottom of the ocean.
"The world is a big place," said Michael Smart, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Queensland in Australia. "If it happens to come down in the middle of the ocean and it's not near a shipping lane or something, who knows how long it could take them to find?"
Amid the confusion, officials involved in the search say the Malaysian jet may have made a U-turn, adding one more level of uncertainty to the effort to find it. They even suggest that the plane could be hundreds of kilometers from where it was last detected.
Aviation experts say the plane will be found — eventually. Since the start of the jet age in 1958, only a handful of jets have gone missing and not been found.
China's Communist Party abuses officials into confessions as part of anti-corruption efforts
LILING, China (AP) — The local Chinese official remembers the panic he felt in Room 109. He had refused to confess to bribery he says he didn't commit, and his Communist Party interrogators were forcing his legs apart.
Zhou Wangyan heard his left thigh bone snap, with a loud "ka-cha." The sound nearly drowned out his howls of pain.
"My leg is broken," Zhou told the interrogators. According to Zhou, they ignored his pleas.
China's government is under strong pressure to fight rampant corruption in its ranks, faced with the anger of an increasingly prosperous, well-educated and Internet-savvy public. However, the party's methods for extracting confessions expose its 85 million members and their families to the risk of abuse. Experts estimate at least several thousand people are secretly detained every year for weeks or months under an internal system that is separate from state justice.
In a rare display of public defiance, Zhou and three other party members in Hunan described to The Associated Press the months of abuse they endured less than two years ago, in separate cases, while in detention. Zhou, land bureau director for the city of Liling, said he was deprived of sleep and food, nearly drowned, whipped with wires and forced to eat excrement. The others reported being turned into human punching bags, strung up by the wrists from high windows, or dragged along the floor, face down, by their feet.
Graphic testimony about wounds to girlfriend leaves Pistorius vomiting, retching in court
PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Hunched over, vomiting into a bucket by his feet and retching loudly, Oscar Pistorius was vividly reminded at his murder trial Monday of the gruesome injuries he inflicted on his girlfriend when a pathologist described how the Olympian fatally shot her multiple times with bullets designed to cause maximum damage.
The testimony by Prof. Gert Saayman, who performed the autopsy on Reeva Steenkamp's body, was so graphic that it was not broadcast or reported live on social media by journalists under an order from Judge Thokozile Masipa.
Saayman methodically listed the extent of the three main gunshot wounds Steenkamp suffered on Valentine's Day last year when she was shot by the double-amputee runner in the right side of the head, the right hip and the right arm through a toilet cubicle door.
The pathologist said Steenkamp, 29, was hit by special Black Talon bullets and that the head shot from Pistorius' 9 mm pistol was probably almost instantly fatal, causing brain damage and multiple fractures to her skull.
Bent over while sitting on a wooden bench, Pistorius vomited when Saayman reached his right hand up toward the right side of his own head to show the entrance and exit wounds in Steenkamp's skull.
More choices, more rides: Americans take greater advantage of renaissance in public transit
LOS ANGELES (AP) — With more trains and buses to take, and the appeal of using travel time for pursuits other than dodging traffic, Americans are taking greater advantage of a renaissance in public transit, according to a report released Monday.
The number of rides taken on public buses, trains and subways has fully recovered from a dip during the Great Recession. And with services restored following economy-driven cutbacks, ridership appears set to resume what had been a steady increase.
In 2013, the number of trips stood at nearly 10.7 billion, the highest since 1956, according to data compiled by the American Public Transportation Association.
Of course, the nation's population has been expanding, so there are more people to ride the rails and buses. The association's numbers don't mean that the average U.S. resident is taking public transit more often than the 1950s, when investments in highways and a growth in car ownership began enticing Americans to move away from cities and heralded a decline in mass transit.
But even accounting for population growth, the transportation association argues, a wider segment of Americans are using mass transit. And they have more options to choose from.
#This! Black Twitter coming out as force both on and offline
WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael Dunn's conviction of attempted murder — but not actual murder — in the shooting death of black teenager Jordan Davis prompted the creation of hashtag (hash)dangerousblackkids on Twitter. Users posted photos of black babies and toddlers, spoofing the fear that Dunn testified he felt before opening fire on a car full of teens at a convenience store.
That was the calling card of Black Twitter, a small corner of the social media giant where an unabashedly black spin on life gets served up 140 characters at a time.
Black Twitter holds court on pretty much everything from President Barack Obama to the latest TV reality show antics. But Black Twitter can also turn activist quickly. When it does, things happen — like the cancellation of a book deal for a juror in the George Zimmerman trial, or the demise of Zimmerman's subsequent attempt to star at celebrity boxing.
Catchy hashtags give clues that the tweeting in question is a Black Twitter thing.
"It's kind of like the black table in the lunchroom, sort of, where people with like interests and experiences, and ways of talking and communication, lump together and talk among themselves," said Tracy Clayton, a blogger and editor at Buzzfeed known on Twitter as (at)brokeymcpoverty.
Senate Dems aim campaign fire at rich, obscure brothers who fund withering anti-Obamacare ads
WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Senate candidates, facing withering criticism on the national health care law, are gambling they can turn voters against two billionaire brothers funding the attacks — even if few Americans would recognize the pair on the street.
In an accelerating counteroffensive stretching from the Senate chamber to Alaska, Democrats are denouncing Charles and David Koch, the key figures behind millions of dollars in conservative TV ads hammering Democratic candidates and their ties to President Barack Obama.
Democrats depict the Kansas-based Koch (pronounced "Coke") brothers as self-serving oil barons who pay huge sums to try to "buy" elections and advance their agenda of low taxes and less regulation. And they're using unusually harsh language in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the Koch-financed ads against Democrats and the health care law contain lies "made up from whole cloth."
"I guess if you make that much money, you can make these immoral decisions," Reid, D-Nev., said in a recent Senate speech. "The Koch brothers are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine."
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