Locked switch blamed in fatal Amtrak crash

Emergency responders are at the scene after an Amtrak passenger train collided with a freight train and derailed in Cayce, South Carolina, U.S., February 4, 2018.

(Reuters) – A locked switch is being blamed for the collision between an Amtrak passenger train and a freight train that killed two people and injured more than 100 others in South Carolina early on Sunday.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said a switch on the tracks, which the freight hauler CSX Corp. owns and operates, was padlocked in a position that steered the Amtrak train onto a siding near Columbia, S.C., where it crashed into a parked, unoccupied CSX train.

“Key to this investigation is learning why the switch was lined that way,” Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the NTSB, told reporters at a news conference on Sunday. NTSB officials were not immediately available to elaborate.

Amtrak President and Chief Executive Richard Anderson told reporters Sunday that CSX was responsible for the wreck because of the locked switch. CSX officials were not available for comment.

Officials from both companies expressed condolences to the families of the two people killed, an Amtrak engineer and a conductor.

Two of the 116 people injured remained in critical condition overnight, officials said. Specifics were not available.

A team from the NTSB is expected to be on the scene for five to seven days. No probable cause will be issued at that time, the agency told media outlets.

 

(Reporting by Rich McKay, editing by Larry King)

Storms slam U.S. Southeast as bitter cold drags on

A woman stops to photograph the frozen Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain in New York, U.S., January 3, 2018.

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Winter storms swept up the U.S Southeast toward New England on Wednesday as snow, freezing rain and strong winds added to record-shattering cold that had much of the eastern United States in its grip.

The wintry mix and low wind chills could cause widespread power outages and leave roads icy, making commuting treacherous for millions of Americans from northern Florida to southern Virginia, the National Weather Service said in a series of warnings.

Some schools and universities in those states were closed on Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. Many flights out of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia and Tallahassee Airport in Florida were canceled.

The weather service said its Tallahassee office measured a snow and sleet accumulation of 0.1 inch (2.5mm) on its roof early in the day, the first time Florida’s capital has had snow in nearly 30 years.

The service said travel in northeastern Florida was likely to be difficult and dangerous.

Two to 3 inches of snow was expected in northeastern Florida, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, according to early morning forecasts, said weather service meteorologist Bob Oravec.

Some Florida and Georgia residents shared images on social media of light snow accumulating.

“So a #SnowDay in #Florida. We know hurricanes. Snow? Not sure what to do here. How do you luge?,” wrote one Twitter user, @thejalexkelly.

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott urged residents in the north of the state to brace themselves for the cold. He said cold weather shelters have either opened or would be opened in 22 of the state’s 67 counties.

Some coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia could ultimately receive up to 6 inches (15 cm) of snow, along with an accumulation of ice, while parts of New England could see 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) of snow and wind gusts of 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) by the end of week, the weather service said.

Late on Tuesday, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 28 of the state’s 159 counties.

As the storm bears down, an arctic air mass will remain entrenched over the eastern two-thirds of the country through the end of the week, forecasters said. The record-low temperatures were to blame for at least eight deaths in Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan over the past several days, officials said.

A large swath of the Midwest was under a wind chill warning on Wednesday as places like Cleveland and Indianapolis had temperatures in the wind of 5 to 20 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit (minus 20 to minus 29 degrees Celsius), while the Deep South faced deep-freeze temperatures that threatened crops and pipes, the weather service warned.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Jonathan Oatis)

South Carolina capital could be first U.S. city to ban gun bump stocks

An example of a bump stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S. on October 4, 2017.

By Harriet McLeod

(Reuters) – South Carolina’s capital on Tuesday could become the first U.S. city to ban the use of bump stocks, a gun accessory that has drawn national scrutiny after being found among the Las Vegas mass shooter’s arsenal of weapons in the October rampage.

Last month, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law that explicitly bans bump stocks.

Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, the South Carolina capital, said the city council was expected in a vote on Tuesday night to approve an ordinance barring the devices, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds a minute like fully automatic machine guns.

“One of the common refrains that you hear, whether it was in Texas or Vegas or Sandy Hook, is that a good guy with a gun could have stopped the carnage,” Benjamin, a Democrat, said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s time for the good guys with guns to begin to pass some really good policy.”

Authorities said Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had 12 rifles outfitted with bump stocks in the hotel room where he launched his attack on an outdoor concert, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Since then several states and cities have proposed measures outlawing or restricting the attachments, and the U.S. Justice Department said earlier this month it was considering a ban on certain bump stocks.

California and New York do not prohibit bump stocks outright, but the devices fall under the definition of an automatic weapon, which are illegal in those states, according to Anne Teigen, who covers firearm legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some other states and the District of Columbia have assault weapons bans that could include bump stocks.

“We are not aware of any cities that have passed ordinancesbanning bump stocks,” said Tom Martin, a spokesman for the National League of Cities.

In Columbia, four of the council’s six members approved the city’s proposed ordinance on a first reading earlier this month.

The measure also would ban the use of other gun attachments that allow rifles to fire faster. Owners would be required to keep them stored separately from any weapon.

Trigger-enhancing devices are not gun parts, gun components, weapons or ammunition, which state law prohibits cities from regulating, Benjamin said.

The mayor, who has a background in law enforcement and said he owns guns, said the measure had drawn support from local police and council members who support the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting gun ownership rights.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)

South Carolina capital poised to be first U.S. city to ban gun bump stocks

South Carolina capital poised to be first U.S. city to ban gun bump stocks

By Harriet McLeod

(Reuters) – South Carolina’s capital on Tuesday could become the first U.S. city to ban the use of bump stocks, a gun accessory that has drawn national scrutiny after being found among the Las Vegas mass shooter’s arsenal of weapons in October.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the city council was expected in a vote on Tuesday night to approve an ordinance barring the devices, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds a minute like fully automatic machine guns.

“One of the common refrains that you hear whether it was in Texas or Vegas or Sandy Hook is that a good guy with a gun could have stopped the carnage,” Benjamin, a Democrat, said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s time for the good guys with guns to begin to pass some really good policy.”

Authorities said Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had 12 rifles outfitted with bump stocks in the hotel room where he launched his attack on an outdoor concert, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Since the shooting, several states and cities have proposedmeasures outlawing or restricting the attachments, and the U.S. Justice Department said earlier this month it was considering a ban on certain bump stocks.

California and New York already ban them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five other states prohibit devices that allow automatic fire, and seven states and the District of Columbia have assault weapons bans that could include bump stocks, the organization said.

“We are not aware of any cities that have passed ordinancesbanning bump stocks,” said Tom Martin, a spokesman for the National League of Cities in Washington.

In Columbia, four of the council’s six members approved the city’s proposed ordinance on a first reading earlier this month.

The measure also would ban the use of other gun attachments that allow rifles to fire faster. Owners would be required to keep them stored separately from any weapon.

Trigger-enhancing devices are not gun parts, gun components, weapons or ammunition, which state law prohibits cities from regulating, Benjamin said.

The mayor, who has a background in law enforcement and said he owns guns, said the measure had drawn support from local police and council members who support the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting gun ownership rights.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)

South Carolina governor bans abortion funding, hits healthcare

FILE PHOTO: Governor of South Carolina Henry McMaster speaks at 2017 SelectUSA Investment Summit in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S., June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Ian Simpson

(Reuters) – South Carolina’s governor has ordered a ban on all state funding for abortion providers in a move Planned Parenthood on Friday called “political” and an attack on patients’ access to preventive healthcare.

Republican Governor Henry McMaster’s executive order bars state agencies from providing funds to any doctor or medical practice affiliated with an abortion clinic and operating with a clinic in the same site, his office said in a statement.

McMaster said there were a variety of taxpayer-funded medical agencies that provided women’s health and family planning services without performing abortions.

“Taxpayer dollars must not directly or indirectly subsidize abortion providers like Planned Parenthood,” he said in the statement.

Planned Parenthood has long been a target of those opposed to its abortion services, which it provides along with cancer screenings, birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

In his order signed on Thursday, McMaster also directed the state agency for Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled, to seek permission from the federal government to bar abortion clinics from the state’s Medicaid provider network.

Under McMaster’s order, abortion providers are excluded from state family planning funds. Indiana and Arizona tried to enact similar restrictions but they were overturned in court, said Elizabeth Nash, an analyst with the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion policy.

Thirteen states have some restrictions on how family planning funds are used, Nash said. Federal law has long banned the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.

“South Carolina is among a handful of states that is trying something this broad,” she said in an interview.

In a statement, Planned Parenthood called the order from McMaster, who is seeking re-election next year, “politically motivated.” Planned Parenthood provides healthcare services to almost 4,000 people a year in South Carolina, it said.

“We will not stop fighting to protect our patients’ access to health care,” Jenny Black, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in the statement.

There were seven facilities in South Carolina providing abortions in 2014, according to the most recent available figures on the Guttmacher Institute’s website. They include one clinic operated by Planned Parenthood in Columbia.

 

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sandra Maler)

 

Gunman shot at Charleston, S.C., restaurant; hostage rescued

Gunman shot at Charleston, S.C., restaurant; hostage rescued

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – A disgruntled employee who fatally shot one person and held another hostage on Thursday at a restaurant in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, was shot by police, the city’s mayor said.

Witnesses said the gunman brandished a pistol and said “There’s a new boss in town” as he entered Virginia’s On King in the heart of the city’s commercial district, while about 15 to 20 people were having lunch. Many of them fled.

The gunman was transported to a local hospital in critical condition and the hostage was rescued, said Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg.

“A disgruntled employee came back to his place of employment… with a gun and killed an individual in the restaurant, held another hostage for some time,” Tecklenburg told reporters at the scene.

“This was not a terrorist act. This was not a hate crime. This was a tragic case of a disgruntled individual, I think with a history of some mental health challenges, who took his anger into his own hands,” he said.

Executive Chef Anthony Shane Whiddon, 37, of Goose Creek, South Carolina, was shot and killed during the incident.

Local television station WCSC-TV quoted a representative of the group that owns the restaurant as saying that the gunman was a former dishwasher.

Police helicopters had buzzed overhead and police SWAT team members had closed several blocks of King Street, which is home to many restaurants, bars and boutiques and is popular with residents and tourists.

Virginia’s On King is an upscale restaurant serving traditional Southern comfort food.

The local Post and Courier newspaper quoted a couple, Tom and Patsy Plant, who said they were eating lunch with their daughter Laura when the gunman walked in from the kitchen, the newspaper reported.

The Plants, who said they fled with other customers through a back door, described him as a black man in his late 50s. Patsy Plant told the paper he looked like “an ordinary grandpa, but he had a crazy look.”

The restaurant is just a block and a half from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where on June 17, 2015, a white supremacist fatally shot nine members of a Bible study group in what officials called a racially motivated hate crime.

The church shooter, Dylann Roof, has been sentenced to death in federal court for the massacre. He pleaded guilty in April to separate state murder charges.

(Additional reporting and writing by Gina Cherelus in New York and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Dan Grebler and Christian Schmollinger)

South Carolina church shooter’s friend to serve time for lying, silence

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – The South Carolina man who suspected his friend Dylann Roof was to blame for the June 2015 massacre at a historic black church but did not immediately call police and told others to stay silent was sentenced on Tuesday to more than two years in prison.

Joey Meek, 22, told authorities Roof revealed his plot during a cocaine and vodka-fueled night about a week before the shooting, which was one of several racially charged shootings in recent years that reopened debate about race relations and gun control laws in the United States.

Roof, who is white, told Meek he wanted to start a race war by killing black people at a church, court records show.

But after Roof opened fire during a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, slaying nine parishioners, Meek, who is also white, did not promptly report what he knew, prosecutors said.

With Roof on the run, Meek also instructed others not to contact police and later denied to federal agents that he had knowledge of Roof’s plans.

“He knew who it was,” U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston said before sentencing Meek to 27 months in prison. “He put his own interests ahead of the known dangers to the community.”

Prosecutors had sought a stiffer penalty than the 27 to 33 months federal sentencing guidelines called for. Meek was the only other person charged in the shooting. He pleaded guilty in April 2016 to charges of concealing knowledge of the crime and lying to investigators. He agreed to cooperate.

Meek was not called to testify at his childhood friend’s trial. Roof was sentenced to death in January after being convicted of 33 charges, including hate crimes and obstruction of religion resulting in death.

The government argued law enforcement could have tried to prevent Roof’s attack had Meek alerted them.

Meek’s lawyer Deborah Barbier said in court papers that her client, who had a ninth-grade education and history of mental health and substance abuse problems, should not be treated as though he was guilty of Roof’s crimes.

Gergel, who oversaw Roof’s trial, said Meek’s criminal behavior did not begin until after the shooting.

With about a dozen members of the victims’ families in court, Meek read a statement expressing his remorse for not taking Roof more seriously.

“I didn’t believe he could do something so awful and cruel,” he said.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Andrew Hay and Grant McCool)

Jury condemns Dylann Roof to death for South Carolina church massacre

family members of the victims of the Charleston massacre waiting outside courthouse

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – White supremacist Dylann Roof deserves to die for the hate-fueled killings of nine black churchgoers at a Bible study meeting in a Charleston, South Carolina, a U.S. jury said on Tuesday after deliberating for less than three hours.

The same jury last month found Roof, 22, guilty of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes resulting in death, for the shocking mass shooting at the landmark Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015.

Roof, who represented himself and did not argue against the death penalty, showed no emotion as the verdict was read.

Prosecutors said he planned the shooting for months, intending to incite racial violence by targeting the oldest African-American congregation in the U.S. South.

“He decided the day, the hour and the moment that my sister was going to die, and now someone is going to do the same for him,” Melvin Graham, brother of shooting victim Cynthia Hurd, 54, said outside the federal courthouse in the heart of historic Charleston’s downtown district.

Roof will be formally sentenced on Wednesday. He also faces the death penalty if convicted of murder charges in a pending state trial.

Whether he was competent to serve as his own attorney will be a fundamental issue in the appeals process, Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said in a telephone interview.

Roof did not present any evidence during the penalty phase that began last week or allow jurors to hear details about his mental health. Dunham said defense lawyers likely will use the trial to show appellate judges that mental illness prevented him from adequately representing himself.

“We are sorry that, despite our best efforts, the legal proceedings have shed so little light on the reasons for this tragedy,” Roof’s lawyers, who represented him for the guilt phase, said in a statement.

Roof was unrepentant during his short closing argument, telling jurors he still felt the massacre was something he had to do.

“Anyone who hates anything has good reason for it,” he said. “I have a right to ask you to give me a life sentence, but I’m not sure what good that will do anyone.”

On June 17, 2015, Roof sat for 40 minutes with parishioners gathered for a Bible study meeting before opening fire as they closed their eyes to pray, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said in his final statement to jurors.

Roof pulled the trigger 75 times as he methodically killed Hurd; Clementa Pinckney, 41, the church’s pastor and a state senator; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Myra Thompson, 59; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; and Tywanza Sanders, 26.

Jurors heard four days of heartrending testimony from more than 20 of the victims’ loved ones, who described their legacies of faith and the devastation wrought by Roof’s brutality.

“What’s wrong here is the calculated racism, the choice to target a church, particularly the people in a church,” Richardson told jurors. “What’s wrong here is precisely why this is a case that justifies the death penalty.”

(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein and Jon Herskovitz; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Alan Crosby and Jonathan Oatis)

Judge closes hearing on South Carolina church gunman’s competency

South Carolina church massacre shooting suspect Dylann Roof is seen in U.S. District Court of South Carolina evidence photo which was originally taken from Roof's website. Courtesy U.S. District Court of South Carolina

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – A judge on Monday barred the public and press from a hearing to determine if Dylann Roof is mentally fit to serve as his own lawyer in the penalty phase of his trial, when the jury will decide whether to give him the death penalty for the 2015 massacre at a South Carolina church.Roof, 22, an avowed white supremacist, shot dead nine people at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The same jury found Roof guilty last month of 33 counts of federal hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations.

The jury will be seated again to determine whether to put Roof to death but first the judge must decide whether Roof can serve as his own attorney or whether he will be represented by court-appointed lawyers.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, whose decision was expected on Monday, said he was keeping the proceedings closed in order to avoid sequestering the jury.

Gergel said he was concerned jurors would inadvertently hear potentially prejudicial information from the hearing if reporters were allowed to cover it, ruling that protecting Roof’s right to a fair trial outweighed the media’s right to view the hearing.

The judge rejected arguments from press attorney Jay Bender and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson, who wanted an open hearing. Gergel also banned relatives of the victims from attending.

The judge previously found Roof competent to stand trial after a hearing held in November ahead of the guilt phase but on Monday was due to hear new testimony from forensic psychiatrist James Ballenger, who examined Roof for five hours over the weekend, Gergel said.

Roof’s standby lawyers filed a motion arguing that Roof was not competent to stand trial or represent himself after he revealed at a hearing last week that he would present no evidence or witnesses during the sentencing phase.

His announcement raised “in especially stark fashion the question of whether the defendant is actually unable to defend himself,” the lawyers said in a court filing.

A team led by prominent capital defense lawyer David Bruck represented Roof during the guilt phase of the trial.

Roof has opted to represent himself for the sentencing phase, due to begin on Tuesday, and has sought to keep jurors from hearing evidence about his competency and mental health.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrea Ricci)

‘I had to do it,’ accused gunman Dylann Roof says of SC church attack

Emanuel African Methodist Church

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Jurors in the federal hate crimes trial of Dylann Roof watched a video on Friday of the avowed white supremacist confessing to killing nine parishioners at a historic black church in South Carolina and saying he felt he “had to do it.”

Roof told investigators after his arrest for the June 17, 2015, massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that he estimated he had killed five people as retribution for perceived racial grievances. He sounded surprised to learn nine parishioners died.

“I had to do it because somebody had to do it,” Roof said in the taped confession.

Asked if he had regrets, Roof said, “I’d say so, yes … I regret that I did it, a little bit.”
Roof’s lawyers have not disputed his guilt but hope to spare him from being executed on charges of hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations.

Roof, 22, also faces a death sentence if found guilty of murder charges in state court.

Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina,

Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina, U.S., June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Miczek/File Photo

The videotaped confession, presented on the third day of his federal trial in Charleston, gave jurors a chance to hear the defendant explain why he carried out the attack on a Bible study meeting.

He appeared both animated and at ease as he spoke to investigators, laughing at times as he answered their questions.

Roof spoke with investigators in Shelby, North Carolina, where he was arrested about 13 hours after security video showed him leaving the church.

Inside his car, police said they found a journal where Roof wrote of his dreams for a race war and notes he wrote to his parents.

“Dear Mom, I love you,” read one note presented to jurors. “I’m sorry for what I did. I know this will have repercussions.”

In the video, Roof said white people needed to take a stand against crimes by African Americans.

“I don’t like what black people do,” Roof said, adding he was in favor of reinstating segregation.

He chose the Charleston church for the shooting because he knew “at least a small amount of black people” would be gathered there. Two adults and a child at the Bible study survived.

“It’s like this,” Roof said. “I’m not in a position, by myself, to go into a black neighborhood and shoot drug dealers.”

Nobody ran when he opened fire, he said, and he recalled pausing between shots.

“I was thinking about what I should do,” he said.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott and Andrew Hay)