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Susan Smith-Harmon

Susan Smith-Harmon

Prosecutors help set record number of exonerations

Tuesday, 04 February 2014 03:28 Published in National News
ST. LOUIS (AP) — A nationwide push by prosecutors and police to re-examine possible wrongful convictions contributed to a record number of exonerations in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday.
 
The National Registry of Exonerations says 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year, four more than in 2009, the year with the next highest total. The joint effort by the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools has documented more than 1,300 such cases in the U.S. since 1989 while also identifying another 1,100 "group exonerations" involving widespread police misconduct, primarily related to planted drug and gun evidence.
 
The new report shows that nearly 40 percent of exonerations recorded in 2013 were either initiated by law enforcement or included police and prosecutors' cooperation. One year earlier, nearly half of the exonerations involved such reviews.
 
"Police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction," said registry editor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor. "We are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago, and we are catching more of them."
 
Texas topped the state-by-state breakdown with 13 exonerations in 2013, followed by Illinois, New York, Washington, California, Michigan and Missouri.
 
District attorneys in the counties containing Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Santa Clara, Calif., are among those to recently create "conviction integrity" units. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also is pushing to reduce wrongful convictions, joined by the U.S. Justice Department and The Innocence Project, an advocacy group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. The association's recommendations to local departments include new guidelines for conducting photo lineups and witness interviews to reduce false confessions.
 
Fifteen of the 87 documented cases in 2013 involved convictions obtained after a defendant pleaded guilty, typically to avoid a longer prison sentence. Forty of the cases involved murder convictions, with another 18 overturned convictions for rape or sexual assault.
 
The number of exonerations based on DNA testing continued to decline, accounting for about one-fifth of the year's total.
 
"It's extremely valuable to use," Gross said. "But most crimes don't involve DNA evidence. ... DNA has taught us a huge amount about the criminal justice system. Biological evidence has forced all of us to realize that we've made a lot of mistakes. But most exonerations involve shoe-leather, not DNA."
 
In Illinois, Nicole Harris and Daniel Taylor each received certificates of innocence from a Cook County judge in January after their respective murder convictions were tossed out in 2013 — a designation that allows both to receive financial compensation from the state. Harris had been convicted in 2005 of strangling her 4-year-old son, who had an elastic band wrapped around his neck. Taylor was released after spending more than 20 years in prison for a fatal robbery that occurred while he was in police custody for an unrelated incident.
 
In Missouri, former death row inmate Reginald Griffin went free in October 2013 after a small-town prosecutor declined to refile murder charges in connection with a 1983 prison stabbing for which Griffin spent nearly three decades behind bars. Griffin denied his involvement but was convicted after two inmates claimed to have seen him stab the prisoner. One of those inmates later recanted, saying he had not seen the attack. An appellate attorney also discovered that prosecutors had withheld a report that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate as he was attempting to leave the area where the attack took place.
 
Ryan Ferguson, convicted in 2005 in the beating death of a Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune sports editor, was freed in November 2013 after a state appeals court panel ruled prosecutors had withheld evidence from his attorneys and that he didn't get a fair trial. The state attorney general's office decided not to retry Ferguson, who had received a 25-year prison sentence.
 
Like their counterparts across the country, Missouri prosecutors are reviewing not just questionable individual convictions but also the broader issues that lead to exonerations, from coerced confessions to contaminated crime labs.
 
"It's the duty of police and prosecutors to protect everyone in the community, including victims and defendants," said Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight. "We want the process to be as fair and transparent as possible."
 
___
 
Online: National Registry of Exonerations: http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx

Cabin fever sets in amid relentless cold, snow

Tuesday, 04 February 2014 03:23 Published in National News
   ST. LOUIS (AP) — T.J. Rutherford loves to golf, even in the winter. Just not this winter.
   With single-digit temperatures and sub-zero wind chills becoming the norm from the Midwest to the East Coast, often combined with snow or ice, the 59-year-old and his Illinois golfing buddies are no longer just bundling up. They're staying inside.
   "I'm on my third 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle," said Rutherford, who lives in Carterville, about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis. "I haven't done that in a long time."
  Cabin fever is setting in for countless Americans as bitter cold, heavy snowfall and paralyzing ice storms keep pounding a large swath of the country. School districts across two-thirds of the U.S. are reporting higher than normal numbers of snow days, while social service agencies are trying to work around the forecasts to get to people in need.
   Heavy snow was falling — again — in New York on Monday, and up to 8 inches of snow was expected Tuesday in Kansas City, Mo. Later this week, snow was forecast from the Plains to the East Coast, with no break in the cold.
   Some records have been broken — Detroit, for example, recorded 39.1 inches of snow in January, a record for the month — but the weather isn't especially unusual, said Alex Sosnowski, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather. He said this winter seems worse because so many recent winters have been mild.
   "A lot of people probably are going a little stir crazy," he said. "But if you look at the broad picture, this is probably a once in 10- to 20-year winter. We were probably due for it a little bit."
   That isn't welcome news for those holed up at home, especially parents whose children keep racking up snow days.
   In Indiana, where some schools were closed for a full week in January because of the weather and road conditions, Joanne Kehoe has to entertain her four children, ages 2 through 8, when classes get cancelled in Indianapolis. She said it can be especially trying because her oldest is autistic and has a "tendency to bolt" if he is off his routine, so that limits where the family can go.
   It helps that her husband, an attorney, can often take time off work.
   "We usually divide and conquer," Kehoe said, acknowledging that shoveling snow while listening to e-books provides her "a little quiet time."
   Amy Murnan has been homebound with her four children — ages 8, 10, 12 and 13 — in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina on four snow days, an unusually large number for a region well-accustomed to tough winters. But she welcomes the break.
   "We're really busy and we spend most of the time running around to games and practices and lessons," Murnan said. "So it was actually kind of great for me to have nowhere to be and nothing to do. We don't get that very often."
   In suburban St. Louis, students in the Rockwood School District have already missed more than a week of school because of snow or ice. One snow day was called because it was too cold for the buses to start.
   "After the eighth snow day, even the kids were like, 'We're happy to be in school,'" district spokeswoman Cathy Orta said. "But safety is our first priority."
   The weather also has taxed communities' pocketbooks.
   St. Louis has already opened the city's main emergency homeless shelter more days than budgeted. In Kansas, county officials keep lists of people who live in areas that tend to become isolated in winter storms, and can enlist the National Guard to help if needed, said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the state adjutant general.
   Programs that provide in-home services, such as Meals on Wheels, have had to plan around the forecasts. Sarah McKinney, who runs the program in Athens, Ga., said last week's ice storm forced the program to shut down for two days. Volunteers, aware of the forecast, provided boxed meals in advance, so the seniors had plenty to eat.
   The bigger concern, McKinney said, is that the volunteers weren't able to check on their clients.
   "We check on these people five to seven days a week and we're seeing them face-to-face," McKinney said. "We don't like to let two full business days pass."
   Snow plow crews in the City of St. Louis are changing their strategy for clearing the roads during this storm.
   One of the chief complaints with the last big winter storm was that plows clearing main thoroughfares had created snow mounds that blocked the streets leading into residential areas.  
   Not this time.  City Streets Director Todd Waelterman tells Fox 2 News that after the plows pass by, a second crew will hit the area.  "We'll go in with a two-man crew and we'll actually scoop those out and push that snow to the side to try to eliminate the extra snow we've created there," he said.
   As to whether the side streets themselves will be plowed, Waelterman says he's still reviewing his department's overall policies for handling residential streets.

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