Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

July 30 2014 10:17 AM

Many Civilians Killed (Again) at U.N. Shelter in Gaza

At least 20 people were killed in a Gaza shelter today in what the U.N. says was at least the fifth time one of its facilities for Palestinian refugees has been hit by explosives in recent weeks. From the New York Times:

The strikes came in rapid succession. At around 5 a.m. Wednesday at a United Nations school at the Jabaliya refugee camp, where 3,300 Palestinians had taken refuge from the fierce fighting in their Gaza neighborhoods, what appeared to be four Israeli artillery shells hit the compound.
One hit the street in front of the entrance, according to several witnesses. Two others hit classrooms where people were sleeping.

The Israeli military—which continues to deny responsibility for the deaths of 16 in a similar incident last week—acknowledged that it shot toward the "vicinity" of the Abu Hussein school, which is being used as a shelter, in response to militant fire.

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July 29 2014 8:55 PM

The Last Abortion Clinic in Mississippi Survives, Court Rules Abortion Law Unconstitutional

A federal appeals court on Tuesday spared Mississippi’s lone surviving abortion clinic that was facing closure due to a strict state law regulating the performance of abortions. The three-judge panel ruled 2-to-1 that the law’s effective closure of the Jackson Women's Health Organization is unconstitutional because eliminating abortion services altogether in the state placed an undue burden on a woman’s right to seek an abortion.

A 2012 Mississippi law requires physicians performing abortions at a clinic to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Attorneys for the state argued, in support of the law, if the clinic closed down, women could go to neighboring states to have abortions. “Mississippi may not shift its obligation to respect the established constitutional rights of its citizens to another state,” Judge Grady Jolly wrote. The panel blocked the implementation of the law until a legal challenge can be heard in court. “The ruling isn’t the final word on the law, and the appeals panel narrowed the scope of the injunction to apply only to the parties in the case,” Bloomberg reports. “As a result, any new Mississippi abortion clinics would have to file their own lawsuit.”


Texas and Ohio have laws similar to Mississippi’s that have forced the closure of a large number of clinics in those states and a federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that Texas’ restrictions were legally valid. With Tuesday’s ruling on Mississippi’s law, however, “the judges signaled that while closing many clinics is OK, a law that forces the closure of a state's very last clinic is not,” according to NPR.

July 29 2014 7:05 PM

Jury Awards Jesse Ventura Nearly $2 Million in Defamation Case Against Author

A jury awarded former Minnesota governor, and pro wrestler, Jesse Ventura $1.8 million for defamation on Tuesday for author Chris Kyle’s portrayal of Ventura in his 2012 book American Sniper. The case revolved around Kyle’s description in the memoir of a 2006 California bar fight with a man referred to in the book as “Scruff Face.” “Kyle, regarded as the deadliest military sniper in U.S. history, wrote that he decked a man whom he later identified as Ventura after the man allegedly said the Navy SEALs ‘deserve to lose a few,’” according to the Associated Press. Kyle died last year after Ventura had filed suit and the former governor continued the case against Kyle’s estate. Here’s how both sides portrayed the night in question via the New York Times:

Mr. Ventura, who served years ago on a Navy underwater demolition team, acknowledged that he was inside the bar – a place frequented by special Navy units like the SEALs - on the night Mr. Kyle described in his book. But Mr. Ventura vehemently denied claims in the book that he had made derogatory statements about fellow members of the military while in the bar, or had said at one point during the evening that the SEALs deserved “to lose a few.”
In his deposition, Mr. Kyle said Mr. Ventura had indeed made such comments, and that Mr. Kyle had ended the conversation by punching Mr. Ventura as he described in the book. Several witnesses for Mr. Kyle said that they had overheard the former governor’s negative comments or had seen him on the ground following an altercation, while witnesses for Mr. Ventura said they saw no such confrontation that night.
Mr. Ventura said his reputation among military members had been harmed and that his income had been affected as entertainment offers dropped off after the release of the book. Jurors were shown a graph of Mr. Ventura and his wife’s gross income, which ranged from more than $3 million some years to less than $200,000 in 2012.

“Legal experts had said Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, had to clear a high legal bar to win, since as a public figure he had to prove actual malice,” the AP reports. “According to the jury instructions, Ventura had to prove with ‘clear and convincing evidence’ that Kyle either knew or believed what he wrote was untrue, or that he harbored serious doubts about its truth.” "One-point-five million people have bought the book," Ventura’s lawyer said in his closing argument. "Millions more heard Fox TV trash Jesse Ventura because of it. And the story went viral on the Internet and will be there forever." The jury agreed, awarding Ventura $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million for “unjust enrichment” from Kyle’s estate.

July 29 2014 5:27 PM

McDonnell Trial: Defense Argues Wife Had Crush on Key Witness, Was “Collateral Damage”

On Tuesday, the corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen took an interesting turn when Maureen's defense attorney suggested that the former first lady had developed romantic feelings for the man at the heart of trial— businessman Jonnie R. Williams.

During his opening statements, Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer William Burck said the couple’s marriage had “broken down” and that she had had a crush on Williams. Burck tagged Maureen's embroilment in the scandal as nothing more than a matter of "collateral damage." Here's more from the Washington Post:

Burck told jurors Maureen McDonnell was not a wife scheming with her governor husband so they could enrich themselves; she was instead a woman craving attention as her own marriage soured.

It appears that the defense is playing what Slate's Dahlia Lithwick described as the "Blame Maureen Game." This time it's not greed that the first lady is being accused of, but lust. Burck portrays Maureen as a gullible lover and said that Williams "duped" her into believing that he cared for her. A former federal prosecutor unaffiliated with the case told the AP that the couple's recent portrayal of a broken marriage is designed to evoke public sympathy.

The McDonnells are dealing with a 14-count public corruption indictment that charges them with taking more than $165,000 in loans and gifts from Williams in exchange for promoting his vitamin supplements company. The trial is expected to take place over the course of five weeks and the jury was selected on Monday.

July 29 2014 1:29 PM

European Union Set to Slap New Sanctions on Russia

Following the downing of commercial flight MH17 and allegations of Moscow backing separatists in eastern Ukraine, the European Union on Tuesday reportedly adopted tough new economic sanctions against Russia.

Two EU diplomats told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that the sanctions will include: "an arms embargo, a ban on the sale of dual use and sensitive technologies, and a ban on the sale of bonds and equities by state-owned Russian banks in European capital markets." 


The new measures, which were decided at a meeting of all EU ambassadors, also target Russia’s oil industry by restricting sales of some of the equipment it uses. Furthermore, eight more Russian officials—including four close to President Vladimir Putin—will face asset freezes and travel bans within the EU.

This report comes only a day after the U.S. accused the Kremlin of violating the 1987 nuclear missile treaty. At a news conference in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry also mentioned that the U.S. plans to impose more sanctions against Russia.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied providing weapons to rebels in Ukraine.

July 29 2014 12:59 PM

Today in NYPD Chokehold News, a Pregnant Woman Grilling on Her Sidewalk

The NYPD is facing more cries of police abuse after an advocacy group released photos on Monday of a police officer appearing to place a seven-month pregnant woman in an illicit chokehold

The same procedure, which is banned under NYPD rules, was used on 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner by a police officer shortly before Garner’s death. The abuse allegations in the Garner case led to a national outrcry and the officer in question being stripped of his gun and badge pending an investigation.


The advocacy group People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect released the photos of 27-year-old Rosan Miller being restrained by police while she was being arrested for disorderly conduct on Saturday.

“[She was] grilling, BBQ, in front of her home,” said former city councilman and current assembly candidate Charles Barron. “Not committing any crimes.”

Barron pointed out that the woman was arrested in front of her 7-year-old daughter. He also blamed New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and the city’s “broken windows” policing policy of rigorously enforcing minor offenses for the latest incidents. Garner died after an arrest for illegally selling cigarettes.

On Monday, Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio defended those “broken windows” policing practices while discussing other reforms they plan to implement in the wake of Garner’s death. 

"I can understand why any New Yorker may say, that's not such a big offense," de Blasio said of policing of minor offenses. "But a violation of the law is a violation of the law."

The New York Times reported on Monday that arrests of subway performers had more than quadrupled this year as part of an NYPD campaign to clamp down on these smaller violations.

Councilwoman Inez Barron called for reforms to the chokehold regulations that would result in firings if those policies are violated. As the New York Observer reports, Barron says that of 1,000 such complaints against officers submitted to the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, only nine had been confirmed. The harshest punishment, Barron says, was a loss of vacation time.

July 29 2014 11:25 AM

Israeli Airstrikes Destroy Gaza's Main Power Plant and Home of Top Hamas Leader

Israeli airstrikes have destroyed Gaza’s main power plant and leveled the home of a top Hamas political leader, according to the Associated Press.

Israel has stepped up its military campaign, and the AP describes Tuesday’s attacks as the “heaviest” so far, with the Gaza bombardment having entered its 22nd day. Israel hit 150 targets over 24 hours, including the home of Ismail Haniyeh, deputy chief of the Hamas movement. No one was hurt at the refugee-camp home, which had been empty for days.


The destruction of the plant, however, has left Gaza without power, reports the New York Times. The plant had been Gaza’s main power source in recent days following the damage of eight of 10 lines coming from Israel. It powers water, sewage systems, and hospitals. Here’s more from AP about the state of the power plant:

The scene at the Gaza power plant after two tank shells hit one of three fuel tanks was daunting. "We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room," said Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza Energy Authority. "Everything was burned."

Palestinian health workers report that at least 100 Palestinians were killed on Tuesday, raising the death toll since the crisis started on July 8 to an estimated 1,156. On the Israeli front, 53 soldiers and three civilians have reportedly been killed in the fighting.

July 29 2014 11:10 AM

NCAA Settles Lawsuit, Institutes New Concussion Rules

The NCAA has agreed to a new set of rules for how to deal with athletes suffering from concussions as part of a preliminary settlement in a lawsuit brought by former college athletes.

The new rules would demand that student athletes who have suffered concussions be kept out of games or practices for at least that day. The rules would apply to contact sports such as football, hockey, soccer, basketball, wrestling, field hockey, and lacrosse. Medical staff will now be required to be on hand during all such sports. 


The settlement also includes a $70 million fund to pay for neurological testing for student athletes who qualify after having completed a questionnaire designed by medical experts. The settlement does not preclude future lawsuits for specific damage claims stemming from head injuries.

Earlier this month, a federal judge gave preliminary approval to a settlement between the NFL and former players for the league to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to ex-players with neurological symptoms. As the New York Times noted, assessing the costs of damages is more difficult for the NCAA:

While there are about 4,500 former N.F.L. players, there are close to four million former college athletes, and 1.4 million in contact sports. Their experiences vary drastically, [lead plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steve] Berman said, making monetary damages difficult to address.
“It’s hard to create one class that includes swimmers and football players, given how different their athletic careers are,” said Berman, who added that the N.C.A.A., too, wanted only to discuss policy changes rather than financial rewards. “We felt individuals remain best off bringing individual suits, which they can still do.”

A report by the NCAA Injury Surveillance System put the total number of concussions between 2004 and 2009 at more than 29,000, with more than 16,000 having happened to football players.

July 28 2014 9:21 PM

U.S. Says Russia Violated Nuclear Missile Treaty

On Monday, the U.S. added a new point of contention to its already adversarial relationship with the Kremlin, accusing Russia of violating the 1987 nuclear missile treaty. The Cold War era treaty, the New York Times notes, “bans medium-range missiles, which are defined as ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles capable of flying 300 to 3,400 miles…and has been regarded as a cornerstone of American-Russian arms control efforts.” The U.S. says Russia tested a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the treaty and President Obama sent a letter notifying President Putin of the findings on Monday.

Here’s more on the alleged infractions from the Times:

Russia first began testing the cruise missiles as early as 2008, according to American officials, and the Obama administration concluded by the end of 2011 that they were a compliance concern. In May 2013, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s senior arms control official, first raised the possibility of a violation with Russian officials. The State Department said at the time that the issue was under review and that the Obama administration was not yet ready to formally declare it to be a treaty violation. In recent months, however, the issue has been taken up by top-level officials, including a meeting early this month of the Principals’ Committee, a cabinet-level body that includes Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Senior officials said the president’s most senior advisers unanimously agreed that the test was a serious violation, and the allegation will be made public soon in the State Department’s annual report on international compliance with arms control agreements.

“In raising the issue now, the U.S. appears to be placing increased pressure on Russia and trying to further isolate it from the international community,” according to the Associated Press. On Monday, Obama and European leaders agreed to increase sanctions on Russia, targeting critical sectors of its economy, as punishment for the Kremlin’s support of pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine.

July 28 2014 7:45 PM

Feeling Left Out of Global Turmoil, North Korea Threatens Nuclear Strike on White House

As if the world needed another theatre of global conflict, North Korea, as if on cue, threatened a nuclear strike on the White House and Pentagon on Sunday. The threat came from Hwang Pyong-So, director of the military's General Political Bureau, who was presumably playing to the audience by dishing out some serious red meat to what Agence France Presse described as “a large military rally in Pyongyang.” "If the US imperialists threaten our sovereignty and survival... our troops will fire our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and the Pentagon -- the sources of all evil," Hwang said in his speech broadcast Monday on state television, according to AFP.

The over-the-top rhetoric came after North Korea test fired a short-range ballistic missile into the sea over the weekend and analysts "say Kim Jong-Un won't order troops to stop testing weapons unless rival South Korea and the U.S. make a major concession such as downsizing their regular joint military drills or conducting them in a low-key manner,” according to the Associated Press. Simultaneously, according to the AP, “North Korea is seen by foreign observers as pushing for better ties with South Korea and other countries as a way to lure international investment and aid to revive the country's stagnant economy.” North Korea’s people skills may need some work. This is not the first time North Korea has threatened to stage a nuclear attack on the U.S., but AFP reports, “most experts believe it is still a long way from developing a viable intercontinental ballistic missile with the required range.”