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Headlines: Thursday, February 27, 6:25 PM
A Texas appeals court this week denied a DNA test request for a death row inmate and lifted an earlier court's stay on his execution. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday that Ruben Gutierrez didn't meet the requirements for obtaining a post-conviction DNA test. Gutierrez, convicted of murder for the 1998 slaying of trailer park owner Escolastica Harrison, sought the testing of nail scrapings and loose hairs taken from the victim, a shirt belonging to a family member of Harrison and other clothing items. He says the testing would prove his innocence. The appeals court said that even if Gutierrez did meet the conditions for DNA testing, it wouldn't be enough to exonerate him. The court also lifted a temporary stay put in place in August by a federal judge. Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said he planned to request a new execution date for Gutierrez on Thursday. "According to this schedule, Gutierrez will see a new potential execution date as early as June," his office said in a statement. "We hope to see justice is done for the Harrison family, including Escolastica's sister, whose anguish has spanned the 22 years since her death." U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle in August 2018 granted Gutierrez a stay after his lawyer asked to be removed from his case. Margaret Schmucker filed a motion to be removed saying she didn't have the experience to represent him at that stage in his appeals process. Tagle also noted Schmucker was no longer allowed to practice in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals due to "rude and unprofessional communications with court staff." Gutierrez's new attorneys put in a motion to stay his execution, stating Schmucker never disclosed these conditions to her client. Authorities said Gutierrez knew Harrison through her nephew and worked together with accomplices Pedro Garcia and Rene Garcia to rob her of about $600,000 in cash she had stashed in her home. An autopsy showed Harrison had been beaten and stabbed 13 times with two different screwdrivers. Gutierrez said he helped organized the robbery, but didn't take part in the murder and DNA testing would absolve him. Daniel Uria contributed to this report.
A federal appeals court said Thursday that former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's 2017 criminal contempt verdict, tied to defying a judge's ruling to halt racial and ethnic profiling, will stand despite a presidential pardon, but has "no legal consequences." President Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio, now 87, in August 2017, with the White House citing over 50 years of "admirable service," before a district court could sentence him. The district court had found the former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff guilty of ignoring a judge's order to stop racial and ethnic profiling in immigration enforcement weeks before the pardon. The Department of Justice asked for the criminal conviction to be vacated and the case dismissed, along with asking that Arpaio not face any legal consequences. The Justice Department and the ex-sheriff's attorneys also asked to have Judge Susan Ritchie Bolton's ruling vacated from the court in light of Trump's pardon, but she refused, saying the pardon did not "revise the historical facts" of the case. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Arpaio is not entitled to have the verdict vacated, but the district court's finding of guilt on criminal misdemeanor contempt-of-court charge "has no legal consequences" since the pardon occurred before sentencing and there was no final judgment of conviction. Circuit Judge Jay Bybee, in the 15-page opinion, joined by Circuit Judges Randy Smith and Daniel Collin, noted that although informally guilty verdicts often are referred to as convictions, they do not have the "final judgment of conviction," which attaches at sentencing. "The final judgment in this case was a dismissal with prejudice, and the district court's findings of fact and conclusions of law played no role in that dismissal," Bybee wrote. Arpaio's lawyer declared victory because the criminal contempt finding has "no legal consequences." "The court gave us exactly what we asked for, which is a finding that the judge's guilty verdict is legally meaningless," Arpaio lawyer Jack Wilenchik said in a statement. "The judge had found the opposite in her final order; she said that the guilty verdict may, or even should, be considered in future proceedings."
City and state health departments have asked hundreds of Americans to "self-quarantine" to protect against community spread of the novel coronavirus, as fears of the potential pandemic reaching the United States continue to grow. In New York state, health officials acknowledged that more than 700 residents have been asked to remain in isolation, either because they have traveled to China since the start of the outbreak there, or because they have had close contact with someone who has. Many already were released from quarantine, which typically lasts for 14 days, provided they remained symptom free and didn't test positive for the virus. As many as 8,400 people in California also have been asked to take similar measures, while health officials in Ohio have confirmed that 175 state residents have done so. Many of those on self-quarantine in California arrived on domestic flights, although their travel itineraries may have included China or they may have been exposed to other passengers who traveled there. In California, the self-quarantine measures have been complicated by the shortage of test kits capable of confirming COVID-19, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. He said Thursday that the state has 200 test kits, a number he called "inadequate" to assess all the suspected cases. The governor added that state public health officials have been in "constant contact with federal agencies" and new kits should arrive by early next week. Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the test kits it shipped out to states were flawed and needed to be replaced. So far, 33 people in California have tested positive for the virus, but five have since left the state. On Wednesday, health officials there reported the first known case of the virus in the United States of unknown origin -- meaning the person had no history of travel to an area with a reported outbreak and was not exposed to another known infected person. On Monday, health officials in Massachusetts indicated that they were monitoring 231 people in self-quarantine. "When we look at this current COVID-19 situation, we don't speculate on how or when it will spread, so the most important thing I can tell people today is that we at the Department of Public Health are prepared," State Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel told WBUR radio. "We are prepared to address what comes our way. People should live their lives normally and go about their normal activities." Several other states, including Illinois and Wisconsin have asked residents to self-isolate, but are not releasing figures to protect their privacy and limit potential panic. The self-quarantine measures are in accordance with policy recommendations by the CDC and the State Department. Both agencies have overseen quarantines for Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China -- epicenter for the outbreak -- and the Diamond Prince cruise ship, where an outbreak occurred. In fact, COVID-19 marks the first time the United States has had to implement quarantines in more than 50 years -- since smallpox in the 1960s. According to the CDC's guidance, updated Thursday, agency teams are working with the Department of Homeland Security at 11 airports across the country to which all flights from China are being directed so that travelers returning to the United States can be screened. Passengers with suspected COVID-19 are referred to their local health departments for oversight of self-monitoring. CDC also has been working with other U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services and the State Department, to "safely evacuate" U.S. citizens, residents and their families from international locations where there is "substantial, sustained transmission of COVID-19," including roughly 600 from Wuhan and more than 300 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. All of these evacuees have been housed on military bases and monitored for symptoms of the virus for the recommended 14-day quarantine period.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels took control of a key town in northwest Idlib province from the Assad regime Thursday as fighting in the region threatens the lives of civilians, U.N. officials said. Opposition fighters captured the town of Saraqib, which is strategically located at the crossroads of two major highways in Syria. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took control of the town in January in the last province still held by rebels. Assad sought to reopen the M5 highway, which connects Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus before continuing on to the Jordanian border in the south. Turkey launched a military offensive in the province last week, targeting government forces and with the aim of recapturing Saraqib. Sources told the Daily Sabah that the opposition forces continued their advance to retake territory using artillery cover fire. The Guardian reported it could be difficult for rebels to hold Saraqib amid an assault by Russian airpower to take territory in Idlib. Regime forces took control of more than 20 villages in the southern part of the province Thursday. The United Nations said more than 400 civilians have died and another 1 million people have fled north toward the Turkish border amid increasing fighting in Idlib since December. Of those who have fled are nearly 180,000 families and 560,000 children. The recent surge in fighting has led 14 European foreign ministers to call on the regimes in Syria and Russia to stop the hostilities. The U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that international humanitarian law is largely being ignored in the Idlib province. "Hospitals, schools, camps and other sites where displaced families have sought shelter are not being spared. In the last 10 days, a camp hosting more than 800 people was hit by shelling in Dana, which is now the most crowded of the sub-districts of Idlib governorate. Idlib Central Hospital was among several facilities struck this week, with multiple casualties," she said. Mueller added that violence against women has also become "routine."
The three major U.S. markets entered correction territory on Thursday as concerns about COVID-19 grew. The markets dropped 10 percent below their record closes with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling 1,190 points, or 4.42 percent. The S&P 500 also fell 4.42 percent and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 4.61 percent as new cases of the coronavirus disease emerged worldwide including the first community transmission in the United States. Apple, Intel and Exxon Mobil each dropped at least 6 percent, while AMD fell 7.3 percent and Nvidia slid 5.6 percent, dragging the Dow to one of its largest single-day points drop in history. The Nasdaq also posted its largest one-day loss since August 2011. Companies including Microsoft and Paypal warned that COVID-19 will negatively impact their earnings and revenue. Microsoft stock fell 7.1 percent after saying its supply chain was "returning to normal operations at a slower pace than anticipated." The U.S. Department of Commerce also said Thursday that the domestic economy grew 2.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2.3 percent for the year, the second straight year in which economic growth failed to reach the Trump administration's 3 percent target. The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield also fell below 1.25 percent Thursday. Internationally, Japan's Nikkei dropped 2 percent, while the Pan-European Stoxx 600 fell 4 percent and Britain's FTSE slid 3.5 percent.
An Australian snake catcher shared video of an unusual callout for a highly venomous snake found hiding behind the toaster in a family's kitchen. Stuart McKenzie of Sunshine Coast Snake Catchers 24/7 said in a Facebook post that he responded to a home Wednesday in Rosemount, Queensland, where a family spotted a snake behind the toaster on their kitchen counter. McKenzie identified the serpent as an eastern brown snake, one of the most venomous species in the world. "He was pretty comfortable up there curled up and minding his own business. He nearly got tangled in the toaster cord but I was able to bag him up safely," McKenzie wrote.
Until now, scientists knew of only four biofluorescent amphibians, one salamander and three frog species. According to a new study, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, biofluorescence appears to be fairly common among amphibians. For the study, Jennifer Lamb and Matthew Davis, biologists at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, exposed a handful of specimens from 32 different amphibian species to ultra-violet light. Researchers used a spectrometer to measure the wavelengths of the light emitted by the amphibians. All of the tested species proved to be biofluorescent, but each species boasted remarkably distinct patterns of fluorescence. Some featured a few splotches, while others boasted fluorescent bones. Some specimens had fluorescent patterns across their entire body. The eyes of amphibians feature rod cells capable of detecting green and blue light. Biofluorescent patterns may help amphibians locate one another in low-light environs. It's possible the feature could do the opposite, as well, helping frogs and salamanders blend in and camouflage themselves under certain light conditions. According to the study, the fluorescence observed in the amphibians could have a variety of causes. It's possible many amphibians rely on fluorescent pigments in their dermal cells. Some species likely utilize fluorescent proteins. Previous studies have found tree frogs fluoresce by exuding biofluorescent, mucous-like secretions. "For other vertebrates, ossified elements immediately beneath the skin are responsible for biofluorescent patterns ... under ultra-violet excitation," researchers wrote in their paper. "Here we found that the bones in the digits of the marbled salamander fluoresced in response to blue light." The new study suggests that ancestors of modern amphibians likely also featured biofluorescence, which would explain the phenomenon being widespread among frogs and salamanders living today. Scientists hope their discovery will inspire further investigation of the source and purpose of biofluorescence among specific amphibian species. "Our results provide a roadmap for future studies on the characterization of molecular mechanisms of biofluorescence in amphibians, as well as directions for investigations into the potential impact of biofluorescence on the visual ecology and behavior of biofluorescent amphibians," scientists wrote.
Planetary scientists agree that Mars once hosted significant amounts of water on its surface. But how the planet held onto to its water and whether or not its water could have supported life remain open questions. For clues as to what a watery Mars would have looked like, scientists turned to a crater on Earth, the Nordlinger Ries crater in southern Germany. "Ries is an impact structure, analogous to many of the impact features on Mars that held water in the past," Tim Lyons, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of California Riverside, told UPI in an email. "While there are differences, the impact breccia layer on Reis is very similar to features seen on Mars." By studying the composition of Ries and the ancient weathering processes that made its breccia look the way it does, scientists were able to get a sense of how Martian crater samples might offer clues to the composition of the Red Planet's ancient atmosphere. The concentration of nitrogen isotopes and other minerals measured in Ries rock samples suggest the ancient crater site was exposed to water with high alkalinity and a high pH. Mars receives significantly less thermal energy from the sun than Earth. For the cold, distant planet to have hosted ocean-like bodies of water some 4 billion years ago, scientists estimate the Mars' atmosphere would have had to contain large amounts of greenhouse gases -- specifically, CO2. Their analysis of Ries crater rock samples -- detailed this week in the journal Science Advances -- suggest weathering by an atmosphere rich in CO2 would likely produce Martian crater rock samples featuring the chemical signatures of high alkalinity and a low or neutral pH. "Under extreme CO2 conditions, as might have been required on Mars, the alkalinity production is driven by very high rates of weathering linked to the high CO2," Lyons said. "But the high CO2 would also interact with the lake waters, keeping the pH comparatively lower." By gaining a better understanding of the relationship between nitrogen isotopes in rock samples and the pH levels in ancient water, scientists will have a better idea of what to look for in Martian crater samples when the Mars 2020 rover touches down on the Red Planet next year. When those crater samples are returned to Earth in a decade, scientists will be able to measure nitrogen isotope ratios and determine whether there were indeed high levels of carbon dioxide in Mars' ancient atmosphere.
The death toll from violence in Delhi's northeast district climbed to 38 Thursday, though officials there said rioting began to subside. Religious clashes began Sunday over India's controversial citizenship law, which offers amnesty to refugees from multiple neighboring nations as long as they aren't Muslim. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have consistently supported the law, but opponents say it violates the secular principles of the Indian Constitution. Opponents rallied against the measure and demanded its withdrawal, but government officials say they won't pull it or amend it. Some activists have clashed with swords, stones and other weapons and homes, vehicles and other property have been burned across the capital. A senior Delhi Health Department official told the Press Trust of India that 11 more deaths were reported Thursday. Some 200 people have been injured in the violence. It's unclear how many people have been arrested amid the arson, looting and bloodshed. Some witnesses told The New York Times that police forces loyal to Bharatiya Janata Party have declined to intervene as Hindu mobs kill Muslim civilians. Special Commissioner S N Shrivastava said, though, the violence has subsided in some areas. "The situation is returning to normal. We are here to reassure people that we are with them," he said.
A cat spotted stranded atop a Toronto utility pole after a winter storm was rescued by a utility crew with a bucket truck. Chris Ball and his partner, Kristine, said they spotted the cat stranded atop the Toronto Hydro utility pole near their home early Thursday morning. They contacted Toronto Fire and Toronto Animal Services, but an animal services officer who responded to the scene said the cat was likely to come down on its own. The couple said the cat appeared too frightened to climb down and would meow in distress when it spotted people near the pole. The cat remained atop the pole for a few hours, until a Toronto Hydro crew arrived with a bucket truck and a worker was able to grab the feline just before noon. Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a Facebook post that the rescue was "a purr-fect ending to this story."