U.S. to carry out fifth federal execution after 17-year pause

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – The U.S. government was due to execute Keith Nelson, a convicted child murderer, on Friday afternoon in what would be its fifth execution since it resumed carrying out capital punishment this summer after a 17-year hiatus.

The execution was scheduled to take place at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT) at the U.S. Department of Justice’s execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, using lethal injections of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate.

On Thursday, a federal judge overseeing legal challenges to the execution protocol by Nelson and other death row inmates ruled that the Justice Department’s protocol violated drug safety laws.

Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court in Washington ordered Nelson’s execution be delayed until the Justice Department revised its protocol to comply with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, including a requirement that a drug can only be issued on a clinician’s prescription.

The Justice Department challenged the injunction delaying the execution in the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit. The appeals court overturned the injunction on Thursday evening, ruling that Chutkan had not established that violations of the act constituted “irreparable harm.”

Chutkan spoke with lawyers representing Nelson and the Justice Department in a telephone conference on Friday as she considered a request by Nelson’s lawyers to revise her order or issue a new one blocking Friday’s execution.

Nelson, who was convicted of raping and murdering 10-year-old Pamela Butler in Kansas in 1999, is one of more than a dozen inmates on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, who sued the Justice Department over its lethal injection protocol, which was announced in 2019, replacing the old three-drug protocol last used in 2003.

Three of those plaintiffs have since been executed by the Justice Department after the U.S. Supreme Court swiftly dismissed earlier injunctions issued by Chutkan delaying the executions to allow the litigation to proceed.

U.S. to execute only Native American on federal death row

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – The United States is set to execute Lezmond Mitchell, a convicted murderer and the only Native American on federal death row, on Wednesday, despite opposition from the Navajo Nation, which says the government is infringing tribal sovereignty.

Mitchell, a Navajo, is set to be killed with lethal injections of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, at 6 p.m. in the Department of Justice’s execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.

His lawyers and Jonathan Nez, the Navajo Nation president, have asked U.S. President Donald Trump for clemency, and Mitchell has asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to delay the execution while this is considered.

On Tuesday night, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his bid for a stay based on his lawyers’ argument that racial bias may have tainted the jury at his trial.

Absent intervention, Mitchell, 38, will become the fourth man to be executed by the U.S. government this summer after an informal 17-year hiatus, which was caused in part by legal challenges to lethal injection protocols and difficulties obtaining deadly drugs.

Mitchell and an accomplice, Johnny Oslinger, were convicted of murdering a 9-year-old Navajo girl, Tiffany Lee, and her grandmother Alyce Slim in 2001 on the tribe’s territory, which spans four states in the U.S. Southwest.

According to prosecutors, the men stabbed Slim more than 30 times, put the body in the backseat of her car alongside the granddaughter as they drove elsewhere before killing the girl later and decapitating both bodies.

Mitchell was sentenced to death in an Arizona federal court over the objection of Navajo officials, who said the tribe’s cultural values prohibited taking human life “for vengeance.” At least 13 other tribes joined the Navajo Nation in urging Trump this month to commute Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison.

Oslinger was a teenager at the time and ineligible for the death sentence.

Under the Major Crimes Act, the federal government has jurisdiction over certain major crimes occurring on Indian territory, including murder but usually cannot pursue capital punishment for a Native American for a crime on tribal land without the tribe’s consent.

Navajo officials, along with other leaders of other tribes, have opposed the death penalty, including in Mitchell’s case. But John Ashcroft, attorney general under then-President George W. Bush, overrode federal prosecutors in Arizona who said they would defer to the tribe’s position against pursuing a capital case.

In what Mitchell’s lawyers deride as a legal loophole, federal prosecutors successfully pursued a capital case against Mitchell for carjacking, a capital crime that is not among those listed in the Major Crimes Act.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

COVID-19 outbreak in hard-hit U.S. states may be peaking, Fauci says

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coronavirus surge in Florida, California and a handful of other hard-hit states could be peaking while other parts of the country may be on the cusp of growing outbreaks, the top U.S. infectious diseases official said on Tuesday.

A spike in cases in Florida, along with Texas, Arizona and California this month has overwhelmed hospitals, forced a U-turn on steps to reopen economies and stoked fears that U.S. efforts to control the outbreak are sputtering.

“They may be cresting and coming back down,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program regarding the state of the outbreak in several Sunbelt states.

Fauci said there was a “very early indication” that the percentage of coronavirus tests that were positive was starting to rise in other states, such as Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

“That’s a surefire sign that you’ve got to be careful.”

He urged the states with rising positivity rates to act quickly now to prevent a surge and other states to reopen carefully following guidelines established by U.S. officials and health experts.

Fauci has become a lightning rod for some supporters of President Donald Trump who accuse the 79-year-old health official of exaggerating the extent and severity of the U.S. outbreak and playing down possible treatments.

Trump, who is seeking a second term in the White House in the Nov. 3 election, retweeted a post accusing Fauci and Democrats of suppressing the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus. The post included a link to a video of a group discounting the need for face masks.

A Twitter spokesman confirmed that tweets with the video were in violation of the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy, and the tweets shared by Trump were deleted.

In his interview with ABC, Fauci defended his work to protect Americans’ health.

“I have not been misleading the American public under any circumstances,” he said.

RISING TOLL

The number of people in the United States who have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, rose to 148,446 on Monday, with more than 4.3 million confirmed cases, according to the latest Reuters tally.

Florida had 191 coronavirus deaths in the last 24 hours, the highest single-day increase since the start of the epidemic, its state health department reported on Tuesday.

Texas became the fourth state with more than 400,000 total cases, joining California, Florida and New York in the grim club. But in a glimmer of hope, Texas’ current hospitalizations due to COVID-19 fell on Monday, according to its state health department.

The rise in deaths and infections has dampened early hopes that the country was past the worst of the economic fallout in March and April when lockdowns brought business activity to a near standstill and put millions out of work.

The U.S. Congress on Tuesday was locked in difficult talks over another coronavirus aid package to help American families and businesses recover from the crisis.

In late March, as the economy was beginning to crater, Congress passed a $2.3 trillion stimulus package that included enhanced unemployment benefits to blunt the pain of lockdowns that were being adopted to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Senate Republicans announced on Monday a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell touted as a “tailored and targeted” plan to reopen schools and businesses, while protecting companies from lawsuits.

But the proposal sparked immediate opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats decried it as too limited compared with their $3 trillion proposal that passed the House of Representatives in May. Some Republicans called that one too expensive.

The Republican proposal would give many Americans direct payments of $1,200 each, provide billions in loans to small businesses and help schools reopen. But it would slash the current expanded unemployment benefit from $600 per week in addition to state unemployment to $200 per week. The enhanced unemployment benefit expires on Friday.

The supplemental benefit has been a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Daniel Trotta, Patricia Zengerle and Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)

Ten more states added to New York quarantine order: Cuomo

(Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered those arriving in New York from an additional 10 states to quarantine for 14 days to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus as cases flare up across the country.

Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington were added to the travel order which was first issued in June. Minnesota was removed.

Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 31 U.S. states are now required to quarantine upon arrival in New York, according to the travel advisory.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

FBI investigates reported July 4 lynching attempt in Indiana

By Steve Gorman and Mark Hosenball

(Reuters) – The FBI is investigating a hate-crime report lodged by a Black civil rights activist in Indiana who said he was assaulted by several white men threatening to lynch him before a group of bystanders and friends intervened to stop the attack.

The federal inquiry into the July 4 confrontation at Lake Monroe, near Bloomington, Indiana, was confirmed to Reuters on Thursday by FBI and U.S. Justice Department officials in Washington and Indianapolis.

Vauhxx Booker, a member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission, said he and some friends were at a public park on the lake on Saturday when a man wearing a cap emblazoned with a Confederate flag accused them of trespassing on private property.

The conflict escalated when five white men who appeared to be drunk grabbed Booker, dragged him to the ground and pinned him against a tree while punching him as one of his assailants yelled, “get a noose,” according to his account of the incident on Facebook.

A group of onlookers and Booker’s acquaintances, all of whom were also white, began filming the confrontation with cellphones and demanding the attackers release him, as one of the mob shouted back, “You get out of here, leave the boy with us.”

The attackers finally released Booker, and he and his friends retreated to call 911. Video of the incident has gone viral on social media, fueling U.S. racial tensions following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white policeman in Minneapolis.

Booker, also a Black Lives Matters organizer, said he suffered a concussion, as well as cuts and bruises and patches of hair ripped from his head, but was grateful to those who came to his defense.

“I had friends and strangers who were willing to put their lives and their bodies on the line to make sure that a man they didn’t know, who looked different than them was able to survive the situation,” Booker said at a news conference this week.

A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, whose officers responded to the incident and were criticized for failing to make arrests at the time, said the agency is cooperating with the FBI while continuing its own investigation with local prosecutors.

“Our officers arrived that evening, talked to witnesses at the time from both parties and have continued to conduct interviews as part of the ongoing investigation,” DNR spokesman James Brindle told Reuters on Thursday.

Booker’s lawyer, Katharine Liell, told reporters on Wednesday the attack was “clearly racially motivated,” and that her client survived only because witnesses came to his aid.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Steve Gorman in Eureka, Calif.; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

U.S. Supreme Court tosses rulings blocking Indiana abortion curbs

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday gave Indiana a second chance to revive two restrictive abortion laws – one imposing an ultrasound requirement and the other expanding parental notification when minors seek abortions – by throwing out a lower court’s rulings blocking them.

The justices directed the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider both cases in light of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on Monday invalidating a Louisiana law that imposed restrictions on doctors who perform abortions.

Indiana will now get another shot at arguing for the legality of its two Republican-backed laws that the 7th Circuit had prevented from going into effect.

The ultrasound measure would require women to undergo an ultrasound procedure at least 18 hours before terminating a pregnancy. The second law would require that parents be notified when a girl under 18 is seeking an abortion even in situations in which she has asked a court to provide consent instead of her parents, as was allowed under existing law.

The ultrasound measure was passed by the state legislature in 2016 and signed by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor before Donald Trump selected him as his running mate.

Abortion rights proponents have said that for most women seeking an abortion, an ultrasound is not medically necessary, and that the requirement is an attempt by anti-abortion politicians to make obtaining an abortion more difficult.

Republicans at the state level have pursued a variety of abortion restrictions.

In a third Indiana case on Thursday, the court left in place a ruling in favor of an abortion clinic seeking a license to open a clinic in South Bend. The state appealed when the 7th Circuit ruled in 2019 that abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health could get a provisional license while the litigation over the matter continued.

The Supreme Court on Thursday in two other abortion-related cases left in place policies in Chicago and Pennsylvania’s capital Harrisburg that place limits on anti-abortion activists gathered outside clinics.

The Chicago policy bars activists from coming within eight feet (2.4 meters) of someone within 50 feet (15 meters) of any healthcare facility without their consent if they intend to protest, offer counseling or hand out leaflets. The Harrisburg measure bars people from congregating or demonstrating within 20 feet (6 meters) of a healthcare facility’s entrance or exit.

In Monday’s ruling on Louisiana’s law, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the four liberal justices in the majority on the basis that the law was almost identical to a measure from Texas that the court struck down in 2016.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Will Dunham)

Indiana teachers use their ‘outside voices’ to demand higher wages

Indiana teachers use their ‘outside voices’ to demand higher wages
By Bryan Woolston and Brendan O’Brien

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) – Thousands of red-clad Indiana teachers swarmed the state capitol building on Tuesday, chanting loudly to protest low salaries and evaluation policies and forcing half the state’s school districts to cancel classes for the day.

“Indiana legislators drew first blood against public education,” read one of the signs hoisted by Indiana State Teachers Association demonstrators wearing red hats and sweaters as they stood at the steps of the capitol.

The “Red for Ed” protest was the latest in a wave of work stoppages by U.S. educators. In 2018, teachers in Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma staged largely successful days-long strikes to demand higher salaries.

Teachers in Chicago and Los Angeles also went on strike this year and secured more resources, especially for underfunded schools.

Indiana teachers make an average of $51,000 a year, in the bottom third of U.S. states for teachers’ pay, according to the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union. The state school system has about 1.2 million students.

Teachers in the Midwestern state are asking the Republican-controlled state legislature to commit $700 million this year to boost the average salary statewide to $60,000, near the national average.

Amid frigid temperatures, chanting protesters waved placards reading “I can’t stay for the day, I have to go to my second job,” and “It’s time to use our ‘outside voices.'”

The teachers’ union expected some 15,000 teachers to use personal days to walk off the job as Indiana’s state law blocks them from striking. The state’s department of education could not confirm the number of teachers who were expected to attend.

Still, so many teachers had signed up for the protest that half the state’s 289 school districts have canceled classes, the union said.

“It all comes back to one word, which is respect,” said union Vice President Jennifer Smith-Margraf. “Teaching and education in general are not respected the way they used to be.”

State teachers are asking lawmakers to prevent new standardized testing scores from counting against teacher and school evaluations for this school year. They are also seeking to repeal a new law that requires them to take private-sector jobs for a time to renew their teaching licenses.

Republican Governor Eric Holcomb set up a commission to provide recommendations on teachers’ salaries before the 2021 legislative session.

“Governor Holcomb has made finding long-term sustainable solutions to improve teacher compensation a top priority,” a spokeswoman said on Monday.

(Reporting by Bryan Woolston in Indianapolis and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Bernadette Baum)

Supreme Court upholds Indiana fetal burial law, spurns abortion measure

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld Indiana’s Republican-backed requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated, dealing a setback to abortion provider Planned Parenthood, which had challenged the provision.

The unsigned ruling, with two of the court’s liberals dissenting, said an appeals court was wrong to conclude that the law had a illegitimate purpose.

But the court also turned away the state’s separate attempt to reinstate its Republican-backed ban on abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus, which was also struck down by lower courts.

Both provisions were part of a 2016 law signed by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor.

The ruling stated that the court has previously said that states have a legitimate interest in the disposal of fetal remains. The court noted that in challenging the law, Planned Parenthood did not allege that the provision implicated the right of women to obtain an abortion.

“This case, as litigated, therefore does not implicate our cases applying the undue burden test to abortion regulations,” the ruling said.

Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor both said they disagreed with the court’s decision to reinstate the fetal remains provision.

Indiana’s law was one of many passed by Republicans at the state level putting restrictions on abortion, which was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2017 permanent injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt against the Indiana law. She found the measure violated the constitutional privacy rights recognized in the 1973 abortion ruling.

Indiana required that abortion providers bury or cremate fetal remains after an abortion.

The law also forbade women from obtaining an abortion if the decision to terminate the pregnancy was based on a diagnosis or “potential diagnosis” of fetal abnormality such as Down syndrome or “any other disability” or due to the race, color, national origin ancestry or sex of the fetus. Indiana said the state has an interest in barring discrimination against fetuses and in protecting the “dignity of fetal remains.”

A similar fetal burial law from Minnesota was upheld by a federal appeals court in 1990 but the Indiana law and another like it in Texas, enacted in 2016, have been struck down by the courts.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the court said its decision not to review the second provision of Indiana’s law “expresses no view on the merits.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court takes no action in Indiana abortion cases

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday took no action on appeals seeking to revive two restrictive Republican-backed abortion laws from Indiana, even as debate rages over a new measure in Alabama that would prohibit the procedure almost entirely.

Neither Indiana case was on the list of appeals on which the court acted on Monday morning. The court could next announce whether or not it will hear the cases on May 28.

If the nine-justice court takes up either case, it would give the conservative majority an opportunity to chip away at the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and recognized a right under the U.S. Constitution for women to terminate pregnancies.

One of the Indiana laws requires fetal remains to be buried or cremated and bans abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus. The other law requires women to undergo an ultrasound examination at least 18 hours before they undergo an abortion.

Both Indiana measures were signed into law in 2016 by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor and were struck down by federal judges the following year. The state of Indiana is appealing to the Supreme Court.

The Alabama law was signed by Republican Governor Kay Ivey last week but is not set to go into effect for six months. It would outlaw almost all abortions, including in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Exceptions would be allowed only to protect the mother’s health. Doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison.

The Alabama law was written with the assumption that it would face legal challenges and could ultimately end up at the high court.

Conservative activists have long denounced the Roe v. Wade decision and hope that the conservative Supreme Court justices, who hold a 5-4 majority, will undermine or even overturn it.

Their chances of success were given a boost last year by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had backed abortion rights in two key cases. Kennedy was replaced by President Donald Trump’s conservative appointee Brett Kavanaugh, who has a thin record on abortion.

Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states. Four governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts, who has voted against abortion rights in previous cases, are seen by legal experts as the key votes to watch.

The high court has two other abortion cases on its docket that it will also act on in the coming months – attempts by Alabama and Louisiana to revive other previously blocked abortion restrictions.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Bill Berkrot and Will Dunham)

Some 156 people in 10 states infected with E. coli from ground beef: CDC

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A total of 156 people in 10 states have been infected with E. coli after eating tainted ground beef at home and in restaurants since the beginning of March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

No deaths have been reported but 20 people have been hospitalized after they were infected with the strain E. coli O103 since March 1, the CDC said on its website.

The agency said an investigation is ongoing to determine the source of the contaminated ground beef that was supplied to grocery stores and restaurants.

“At this time, no common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef has been identified,” the CDC said.

The investigation began on March 28, when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified the CDC of the outbreak. Since then, some 65 cases have been reported in Kentucky, 41 in Tennessee and another 33 in Georgia.

E. coli cases have also been reported in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia.

The CDC said that illnesses after March 26 may not have been reported yet because the lead time is two to three weeks.

People infected with the bacteria get sick two to eight days after swallowing the germ, and may sometimes develop a type of kidney failure.

Many of the infected people had bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti sauce and Sloppy Joes, the agency said.

The regulator said it is not recommending that consumers avoid eating ground beef at this time, but said that consumers and restaurants should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illnesses.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Matthew Lewis)