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American Scene

- - Friday, January 8, 2010

ARKANSAS

Death sentence for killer tossed

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court has ordered a new sentencing for a death-row inmate convicted of killing his girlfriend and her two young children around the holidays in 2006.

Justices on Thursday upheld James Aaron Miller's murder conviction but ordered that he be resentenced.

Miller was convicted of killing Bridgette Barr, 5-year-old Sydney Barr and 2-year-old Garrett Barr while the children visited their mother in Fort Smith for Christmas. The children lived with their father in Oklahoma.

Justices ruled that two witnesses should not have been allowed to recommend that the jury impose the death penalty during the sentencing phase.

Justices rejected Miller's argument that the bodies were discovered during a warrantless search of his apartment.

CALIFORNIA

Governor signs school reforms

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed into law sweeping education reforms that will let California compete for up to $700 million in federal money.

Mr. Schwarzenegger signed the bills Thursday at a middle school in Los Angeles. He praised them as landmark reforms that once seemed politically impossible.

Many of the steps were opposed by teachers unions and other education groups.

Among other changes, the reforms will link teacher evaluations to student performance and allow parents with children in the worst-performing schools to send them elsewhere.

State officials will be allowed to close failing schools, convert them to charter schools or fire the principal and half the staff.

CONNECTICUT

Police: Mom left kids in car

ENFIELD — A 28-year-old mother is charged with leaving her two young children in her car in freezing temperatures while she went tanning in a salon, police said.

Candy Ann Rock of Enfield was charged Monday with reckless endangerment and risk of injury to children.

Enfield Police Chief Carl Sferrazza told the Journal Inquirer that Mrs. Rock left her two children, ages 3 and just under 1 year, in the parked car, which was not running, for 18 minutes during her tanning session at about 9 a.m. Monday. He said weather reports showed the wind chill was 19 degrees at the time. The children were not injured.

Mrs. Rock posted $5,000 bail and is due in court Feb. 9.

NEVADA

Ford adding tweets to service

LAS VEGAS — Ford Motor Co. is adding Twitter messages and Internet radio to its in-car entertainment and communication service, known as Sync.

Ford hopes to entice consumers who are adept at using mobile applications on their cell phones. But CEO Alan Mulally told an audience at the International Consumer Electronics Show that because Sync is voice-activated, it's safer for drivers than using their phones in the car.

Ford executives said Thursday that Sync will begin working with Internet radio services Pandora and Stitcher. It also will connect to OpenBeak, which can read your or your friends' Twitter posts out loud.

Executives said Ford is talking with Google Inc. about bringing its services to cars as well. Ford Sync was developed by Microsoft in 2007.

NEW JERSEY

Gay marriage bill defeated

TRENTON — New Jersey's state Senate defeated a bill Thursday that would have legalized same-sex marriage, a move that likely stalls the measure for several years.

The Senate, after an afternoon of debate, voted 20 to 14 against the bill. Backers had hoped to get it approved and signed into law before Gov. Jon Corzine, a supporter, leaves office Jan. 19.

Incoming Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who defeated Mr. Corzine in November, had said he would veto the measure.

With failure of the bill in the Senate, the proposal now could lie dormant for years while Mr. Christie is in office.

Political observers have said Mr. Christie's victory made some lawmakers wary of supporting the controversial measure.

New Jersey has a same-sex civil union law, designed to give gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. But advocates of gay marriage say civil unions are inadequate.

NEW YORK

Sales show signs of life

NEW YORK — A firm stand on prices and a surge of last-minute holiday shoppers gave retailers a big present: modest December sales gains and healthy profits, a big improvement from last year's Christmas catastrophe.

Many retailers raised their fourth-quarter outlooks Thursday. A big reason why: Stores never had to resort to drastic price-cutting after keeping inventories lean.

The solid finish capped a rough year that saw the biggest sales decline in at least four decades, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

December sales rose 2.8 percent compared with a year ago, according to the ICSC sales index; sales for the year fell 2 percent from all of 2008. For November and December combined, the index rose 1.8 percent, better than the group's estimate for a 1 percent gain.

Last year, holiday sales fell 5.8 percent, the biggest sales decline for the key period in at least four decades.

NORTH CAROLINA

Ex-guards charged with murder

RALEIGH — Two former Blackwater contractors have been arrested on murder charges in the killings of two Afghans last year.

An indictment obtained by the Associated Press charges Justin Cannon, 27, and Chris Drotleff, 29, with second-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. Both of them are in custody.

Both Mr. Cannon, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Mr. Drotleff, of Virginia Beach, have said in recent interviews with the AP that they were justified when they opened fire on a threatening vehicle last year. Blackwater, now known as Xe, fired both men after the shooting for failing to comply with the terms of their contract.

The indictment said the shooting at a Kabul intersection killed two men.

Meanwhile, Blackwater has reached a settlement in a series of federal lawsuits accusing the company of excessive force against Iraqis.

Plaintiffs' attorney Susan Burke filed a motion in federal court late Wednesday requesting the cases be dismissed. The seven lawsuits accused the company of a pattern of recklessness and illegal activity, citing several killings including a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.

Blackwater released a statement saying the settlement allows the company's new management to move forward without the costs and distractions of the litigation while providing some compensation to Iraqi families.

VIRGINIA

Civil War dispute ends in stalemate

STANARDSVILLE — A judge in Virginia said it's a draw between two Union and Confederate Civil War re-enactors who got into a tussle on the battlefield.

A judge found each man not guilty of assault on Wednesday after they pressed charges against each other over the dispute last September.

The men were playing cavalry officers in a re-enactment of the Battle of Stanardsville. The Confederate re-enactor claims his Union counterpart knocked his hat off.

The Confederate was accused of responding by firing a blank round from his revolver. There was no bullet, but the powder charge injured the Union re-enactor.

Both men were on horseback and both said their actions were accidental. The judge concluded he could not find either man guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."

WYOMING

Magnifying glass starts fire

RIVERTON — A magnifying glass set on a stand in a sunny room started a small blaze in a Wyoming home, officials said.

UPS worker Buddy Armstrong was delivering a package to 84-year-old Thomas Guthrie's Dubois home on Tuesday when he heard an alarm inside. Mr. Armstrong, also a volunteer firefighter, called emergency workers and went inside the home, along with a sheriff's deputy.

Sgt. Jerry Evagelatos said they found a lot of smoke, but couldn't find the source until firefighters arrived. Sgt. Evagelatos said the sun was shining at just the right angle to hit a magnifying glass on a stand. The glass magnified the sunbeam, which set a nearby pile of mail on fire.

Sgt. Evagelatos said the fire was extinguished before it damaged the home. Mr. Guthrie was not at home during the fire.

From wire dispatches and staff reports