Saturday, June 10, 2017

Fraternity brothers due in court in pledge's fatal fall

Members of a Penn State fraternity facing charges related to the death earlier this year of a pledge after a night of heavy drinking are due in court Monday for a hearing about whether there's enough evidence to head to trial.

Prosecutors in the case against the now-shuttered Beta Theta Pi chapter and 18 of its members are leaning heavily on video surveillance recordings made the night 19-year-old sophomore engineering student Tim Piazza was injured in a series of falls at the fraternity after a pledge acceptance ceremony that included heavy drinking.

The defendants face a variety of charges, with eight accused of dozens of crimes, including involuntary manslaughter and felony aggravated assault, while five others are accused only of a single count of evidence tampering.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller says prosecutors will play video in court, and she expects the hearing to last all or most of the day.

Authorities have said members of the fraternity resisted summoning help until well into the next morning.

A grand jury report described how members of the fraternity carried Piazza's limp body upstairs, poured liquid on him and even slapped him on the face. When one of them argued to call for medical help, he was confronted and shoved into a wall, the grand jury said.

Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey, died at a hospital Feb. 4 from traumatic brain injury and had suffered severe abdominal bleeding. His blood-alcohol measured at a dangerous level.

"I believe this is a case where the defendants have been overcharged by the district attorney's office," said defense attorney Michael Engle, whose client Gary DiBileo, 21, faces 56 counts, including involuntary manslaughter. "We hope to develop more information during the preliminary hearing process, and beyond, that will demonstrate that many of the charges in this case are just not applicable to the conduct."

Engle said DiBileo, a junior from Scranton who recently withdrew from Penn State, was said by a witness to have advocated for calling an ambulance at some point.

Roman Polanski sex victim to appear in court for first time

The victim of Roman Polanski's sex assault 40 years ago is going to appeal directly to a judge to end the long-running case against the fugitive director, his lawyer said Thursday.

Samantha Geimer, 13 at the time of the crime, has long supported Polanski's efforts to end the legal saga that limits his freedom, but Friday will be the first time she's appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court on his behalf, attorney Harland Braun said.

"She's tired of this case," Braun said. "The judge is just playing games with him."

The Oscar-winner has been a fugitive since he fled to France in 1978 on the eve of sentencing for the crime of having unlawful sex with a minor. Prosecutors dropped charges that he drugged, raped and sodomized the girl.

Polanski feared the judge was going to renege on a plea agreement and send him away for more time than the six weeks he served in prison during a psychiatric evaluation prior to sentencing.

His lawyers have been fighting for years to end the case and lift an international arrest warrant that confined him to his native France, Switzerland and Poland, where he fled the Holocaust.

With court victory, hand of Brazil's president strengthened

Fighting to save his job, Brazilian President Michel Temer has received a huge boost from a decision by the country's top electoral court to reject allegations of illegal campaign finance and keep him in office.

The Superior Electoral Tribunal's 4-3 vote late Friday gave Temer a lifeline amid widespread calls that he resign in the face of a corruption scandal.

Last month, a recording emerged that apparently captured Temer endorsing hush money to ex-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a former Temer ally serving 15 years in prison for corruption and money laundering. Soon after, details of another bombshell emerged: that Temer was being investigated for taking bribes.

Temer has denied wrongdoing and vowed to stay in office.

However, the fallout from the scandals was so great that many observers expected that the electoral court judges would be swayed to remove Temer from office over unrelated campaign finance allegations. While in theory Brazilian justices are impartial, in reality they are often highly political. Indeed, two of judges who voted in Temer's favor were his appointees.

"While Temer is hard for many people to digest, he will likely remain in office," said Alexandre Barros, a political risk consultant with the Brasilia-based firm Early Warning. "Instability is bad for everybody. So many will say at this point, 'If we have to pay the price for sticking with Temer, let's do it.'"

While Temer has crossed a huge hurdle to staying in power, he is still facing threats on many fronts. The attorney general is considering pressing charges against him for allegedly receiving bribes, over the audio recording and for allegedly trying to obstruct a colossal investigation into billions of dollars in inflated contracts and kickbacks to politicians. Temer's approval rating is hovering around 9 percent and he has a tenuous hold on his ruling coalition.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Alabama asks US Supreme Court to let execution proceed

Alabama’s attorney general on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let an execution proceed this week, arguing that questions about a lethal injection drug have been settled by the courts.

Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office asked the justices to let the state proceed with Thursday’s scheduled execution of Robert Melson who was convicted of killing three Gadsden restaurant employees during a 1994 robbery.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week granted a stay as it considers appeals from Melson and other inmates who contend that a sedative used by Alabama called midazolam will not render them unconscious before other drugs stop their lungs and heart. The state argues there was no reason to grant the stay since midazolam’s use in lethal injections has been upheld by the high court, and the court has let executions proceed using midazolam in Alabama and Arkansas.

“Alabama has already carried out three executions using this protocol, including one less than two weeks ago in which this court, and the Eleventh Circuit, denied a stay,” lawyers with the attorney general’s office wrote in the motion

“If the stay is allowed to stand, Melson’s execution will be delayed many months, if not years. The State, the victims’ families, and the surviving victim in this case have waited long enough for justice to be delivered. This Court should vacate the lower court’s stay,” attorneys for the state wrote.

Melson is one of several inmates who filed lawsuits, which were consolidated, arguing that the state’s execution method is unconstitutional. A federal judge in March dismissed the lawsuits, and the inmates appealed to the 11th Circuit saying the judge dismissed their claims prematurely.

A three-judge panel of 11th Circuit judges did not indicate whether they thought the inmates would succeed in their appeals. Rather, the judges wrote Friday that they were staying Melson’s execution to avoid the “untenable” prejudging of the inmates’ cases.

Midazolam is supposed to prevent an inmate from feeling pain, but several executions in which inmates lurched or moved have raised questions about its use. An Arkansas inmate in April lurched about 20 times during a lethal injection. Melson’s lawyers wrote in a Friday motion that Alabama “botched” a December execution in which inmate Ronald Bert Smith coughed and moved for the first 13 minutes.

“Mr. Smith’s botched execution supports the argument that midazolam is a vastly different drug than pentobarbital. It does not anesthetize the condemned inmate, and because it does not anesthetize, defendants’ use of potassium chloride is unconstitutional,” Melson’s attorneys wrote last week.

Court to hear challenge to speed up California executions

The California Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday over a ballot initiative designed to speed up executions that could fundamentally change the way the court handles death penalty appeals.

Death penalty opponents are challenging a ballot measure passed by a slim majority of voters in November that aimed to reform a dysfunctional system that hasn't executed a condemned killer in more than a decade.

Foes of capital punishment argue that Proposition 66 was unconstitutional because it would take power away from the state's high court to decide how it handles cases and it would disrupt the court system, cost the state more money and undermine the appeals process.

If allowed to take effect, the measure would require more lawyers to take death penalty appellate cases, some trial court judges would be assigned appeals and all state appeals would have to be completed in five years, which is about a third of the time it typically takes.

With a backlog of 380 death penalty appeals, there's concern judges would be overwhelmed trying to speed through appeals, said Elisabeth Semel, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, who consulted for death penalty opponents on the case.

"There's an enormous ripple effect to that," said Semel, who directs the school's death penalty clinic. "The attention the justices can pay to each individual case is significantly diminished. When you're talking about life and death, that's important."

The ballot initiative supported by 51 percent of voters was designed to "mend not end" capital punishment in California, where nearly 750 inmates are on Death Row and only 13 have been executed since 1978.

A competing measure to repeal capital punishment lost by a slightly wider margin. Both sides acknowledged the current system is broken.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

U.S. high court ruling deals blow to patent trolls

The Supreme Court is making it easier for companies to defend themselves against patent infringement lawsuits.

The justices ruled unanimously on Monday that such lawsuits can be filed only in states where defendants are incorporated. The issue is important to many companies that complained about patent owners choosing more favorable courts in other parts of the country to file lawsuits.

The case involved an appeal from TC Heartland, an Indiana-based food sweetener company sued by Kraft Foods in Delaware. Lower courts refused to transfer the case to Indiana.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling will have the biggest impact on federal courts in eastern Texas, where more than 40 percent of patent lawsuits are now filed. Local rules there favor quick trials and juries tend to be more sympathetic to plaintiffs.

The ruling will have a major effect on lawsuits from so-called patent trolls — companies that buy up patents and force businesses to pay license fees or face expensive litigation. Many of those cases now may have a tougher time getting to trial or result in jury verdicts that are less generous.

Companies including eBay, Kickstarter and online crafts site Etsy had urged the high court to restrict where such cases can be filed, saying they have been sued repeatedly in courts hundreds or thousands of miles away from corporate headquarters. Even Texas Attorney General Scott Keller led a coalition of 17 states calling for an end to so-called “forum shopping” in patent cases.

Groups representing inventors and patent owners said new restrictions would place burdens on patent holders and encourage infringing behavior and piracy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Man arrested near UK Parliament in court on terror charges

Prosecutors say a British man arrested with several knives near Parliament last month is also accused of being an al-Qaida bomb-maker in Afghanistan.

Khalid Mohamed Omar Ali appeared in court Wednesday to face one charge of preparing terrorist acts and two of making or having explosives.

The 27-year-old Londoner was arrested at gunpoint in the street near Parliament on April 27 as part of what police called an ongoing counterterrorism operation. They said he had been under surveillance.

Prosecutors say Ali's fingerprints were allegedly found on parts for improvised explosive devices recovered by the U.S. in Afghanistan in 2012.

Ali refused to enter pleas during the hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court.

Not-guilty pleas were entered on his behalf and he was ordered detained until his next court appearance May 19.