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Man Pleads Guilty After Verdict Tossed
Court Center | 2008/03/20 15:59
A man who was on death row for nearly 20 years until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his verdict because of racial discrimination has pleaded guilty to the 1985 slaying for which he was originally sentenced to die.

Thomas Miller-El accepted a deal with prosecutors Wednesday that spares the 56-year-old from heading to death row for a second time but virtually assures he will never leave prison.

A judge sentenced Miller-El to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to capital murder and aggravated robbery in the killing of a hotel clerk. He waived his right to appeal in exchange for prosecutors not seeking the death penalty, reported Thursday.

The plea appeared to end a two decades-old saga in which Miller-El, who is black, had his original conviction tossed in 2005 by the high court on the grounds of racial discrimination in jury selection.

"The attitude currently in the DA's office is not conducive to the tone that existed back when Mr. Miller-El's case was tried," said Doug Parks, Miller-El's attorney.

The Supreme Court cited a manual, written in 1969 and used until at least 1980, that instructed prosecutors on how to exclude minorities from Texas juries. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter called racial discrimination in Dallas County's jury selection process unquestionable.

Miller-El was sentenced to death row in 1986 by a 12-member jury that included one black. Prosecutors struck 10 of the 11 blacks eligible to serve.

Miller-El pleaded guilty to killing Holiday Inn clerk Douglas Walker during a robbery. Walker and co-worker Donald Ray Hall were bound, gagged and shot. Hall, who was paralyzed in the shooting, identified Miller-El as the triggerman.



Court Rules in Favor of Wash. Primary
Court Center | 2008/03/18 18:07
The Supreme Court has upheld the state of Washington's open primary election system.

By a 7-2 vote, the court says the state may use a primary system that allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election, even if they are from the same party.

Washington never held a primary under the new system because of legal challenges.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that overturning Washington's plan would have been an "extraordinary and precipitous nullification of the will of the people."

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said Washington's system would cause a political party to be associated with candidates who may not represent its views. Scalia was joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Lawyers for the political parties said David Duke has identified himself as a Republican, despite GOP repudiation of his racial views, while perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche has called himself a Democrat, despite wide disagreement with Democratic leaders.

Under Washington's system, all candidates for a particular office may list their political party preference after their names.

The top-two plan was created after state voters approved a law in 2004 allowing them to pick their favorite candidate for each office. The top two vote-getters would advance to the November general election, even if they are from the same party.

The major parties challenged the law in federal court, asserting a First Amendment right to select their own nominees without outside interference.

A federal judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down the election plan.

Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna argued there was no evidence that the parties would be harmed, since they can publicize through advertising and other means which candidates they support.

Tuesday's decision is the second of two this year on the rights of political parties. In New York, the justices said the state's method of electing trial judges, which gives party bosses effective control of the process, does not violate the Constitution.



Miami appraiser pleads guilty to fraud scheme
Court Center | 2008/03/11 16:58

A Miami real estate appraiser has pleaded guilty to wire fraud for her involvement in the Southwest Ranches-area fraud scheme in Broward County, the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida said.

Martine Yanisse Castrillon is one of 15 defendants charged with buying homes through straw buyers at an inflated price, and then getting cash back at the closings. So far, nine defendants have pleaded guilty to various federal charges in the indictment.

Castrillon admitted that she did fraudulent appraisals -- valuing the properties at the amount requested by another defendant, not the true market price -- and forged the name of the certified appraiser who was to review her work.

According to the indictment, co-defendants Lazara Villalba and Henry Quintero-Lopez would offer the owner's full asking price and then inflate the contract purchase price to allow their companies, New World International and D&H Investments of South Florida, to receive a finder's fee, assignment fee or additional funds to allegedly construct improvements to the properties. They would then recruit individuals, who, for a fee, acted as straw buyers of the properties. Villalba and a co-defendant would obtain fraudulent pay stubs, IRS documents, verification of employment and verification of deposit forms; documents would be submitted to cooperating mortgage brokers and the loans were approved to purchase the properties.

Castrillon faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the wire fraud counts and a fine of up to $250,000 on each count. Sentencing is scheduled for May 22.



US court dismisses suit on Barr's Plan B pill
Court Center | 2008/03/07 10:57
A U.S. court dismissed on Tuesday a lawsuit against U.S. health regulators over their decision to allow the sale of Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc Plan B contraceptive without a prescription.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Barr were sued by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and other groups that sought to overturn the FDA's decision.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted FDA's and Barr's motion to dismiss the suit.

The court said it agreed with defendants that plaintiffs failed had "to identify a single individual who has been harmed by Plan B's OTC (over-the-counter) availability," according to the ruling.

Plan B was approved in 1999 and the FDA broadened the approval in 2006 to allow sale to adults without a prescription. The pills must be kept behind pharmacy counters and only sold to girls younger than 18 years old with a doctor's order.

Separately, on Monday, another U.S. court found the patent for Bayer AG's Yasmin contraceptive drug to be invalid, paving the way for Barr to sell a generic version.

"It's a big win for Barr," Natixis Bleichroeder analyst Corey Davis said of the Bayer ruling. "This could be one of those nice generic products with a long tail on it," he said.


Judge Rejects Murtha Deposition Request
Court Center | 2008/03/06 11:01
Attorneys for a Marine officer facing court-martial on charges he mishandled the aftermath of the deaths of 24 Iraqis may not force a Pennsylvania congressman to testify in the case, a military judge ruled.

Attorneys for Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani want to question Rep. John Murtha over his public statement that the Marines killed "in cold blood" during the attack in Haditha. Murtha said he had been briefed by the highest levels of the military about the case and that officers covered it up.

Chessani's attorneys, who released the ruling Wednesday, said they will appeal if the judge doesn't reconsider.

Chessani is the highest-ranking U.S. serviceman to face a combat-related court-martial since the Vietnam War.

"When the congressman said he was briefed by the highest levels, we need to know who they are," said Brian Rooney, Chessani's civilian defense attorney.

Rooney said Murtha's deposition would "confirm what he said to the press is accurate."

Murtha's spokesman, Matthew Mazonkey, said the congressman had no comment. A telephone call to a Marine Corps spokesman was not immediately returned.

Chessani has been charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order on allegations that he mishandled the aftermath of the Nov. 19, 2005, shooting deaths in Haditha.

He faces court-martial on April 28. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to three years in prison.

Four enlisted Marines were initially charged with murder in the case and four officers were charged with failing to investigate the deaths. Charges against several of the men have been dropped, and none will face murder charges.



District judge given probation in gun incident
Court Center | 2008/03/05 22:19

A former district judge pleaded no contest yesterday to carrying a concealed firearm without a license following an altercation with his father-in-law.

Senior District Judge Donald H. Presutti, 60, of Kilbuck, was given nine months' probation for the misdemeanor violation. Allegheny County Judge Randal B. Todd ordered him to complete 120 hours of community service and anger management classes. The judge also prohibited him from contact with his father-in-law.

Raymond Billotte, district court administrator for Common Pleas Court, said Mr. Presutti is not currently on call for arraignment judges' roster. He said President Judge Joseph James would be seeking counsel from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts as to how to proceed with Mr. Presutti's status since his plea.

The former judge admitted to police he had a 9 mm pistol tucked in his suit pocket when he was arrested Nov. 29, 2006, at West View Auto Body on Perry Highway.

He told officials he had the gun loaded, cocked and concealed because he was afraid of his father-in-law, Earl Quillen, whom he said had swung at him and grabbed him by the neck earlier at the auto body shop.



Supreme Court to Release Same-Day Tapes
Court Center | 2008/03/05 20:29

The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will take the special step of releasing audiotapes of oral arguments on the same day that it hears a case challenging the District's gun law.

Every argument before the justices is recorded, but the tapes normally are not available until well after the court's term has ended. But beginning in 2000, with the arguments in Bush v. Gore, the court has released same-day audiotapes in high-profile cases when there is substantial media interest.

Because the court is not open to cameras, the audiotapes are the only recordings of the proceedings.

The case of District of Columbia v. Heller, to be heard March 18, will be the court's first consideration of the meaning of the Second Amendment in nearly 70 years. Last year, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 2 to 1 that the District's ban on private handgun possession violated the amendment.

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the amendment protects an individual's right to own a firearm, and if so, what restrictions government may place on that right. It is one of the most prominent cases of the court's term. More than 60 organizations and individuals have filed amicus briefs to support the city or those challenging what is acknowledged as the nation's strictest gun control law.

This term, the court released same-day audiotapes in two other important cases, one involving the rights of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison and the other involving the constitutionality of lethal injections.

The arguments in the gun control case are scheduled for 10 a.m. March 18. Each side will receive 30 minutes to present its case, and U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement has been granted 15 minutes for the federal government's views. The tapes will be released soon after the proceedings.

Clement's brief agrees with the law's challengers that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to bear arms, but it argues that the appeals court too broadly decided the case against the District. It recommends that the case be returned to lower courts.



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