American Scene: Worst year ever for West Nile; 40 dead

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DALLAS — Health officials say it’s the worst year ever for West Nile in Texas, which has seen more than half of the country’s deaths from the virus this year.

Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner David Lakey said Wednesday that at least 40 people have died from the virus in Texas. The state has recorded at least 495 cases of neuroinvasive West Nile, the most serious form of the illness.

That’s already worse than in all of 2003, when Texas had 439 neuroinvasive cases and 40 deaths.

Federal officials say there have been at least 87 deaths nationwide this year.

Dr. Lakey said numbers are expected to increase through mid-October, but that there are indications August marked the peak, especially in the hard-hit North Texas area that includes Dallas and Fort Worth.

FLORIDA

Padilla to be resentenced Dec. 3 in terror case

MIAMI — Convicted terrorism plotter Jose Padilla will be resentenced in December after an appeals court concluded that his current 17-year prison term was far too lenient for a trained al Qaeda soldier and former violent gang member.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke on Wednesday set a Dec. 3 date for resentencing. Prosecutors previously sought the maximum life sentence for Padilla but declined to say whether they would do so again.

Padilla, a 41-year-old U.S. citizen and Muslim convert, was convicted in 2007 along with two others of terrorism support and conspiracy charges. Prior to his indictment in Miami, Padilla was held at a Navy brig for more than three years without charge as an enemy combatant.

When Judge Cooke sentenced Padilla in 2008, she gave him credit for his time in the brig and allowed other sentencing discounts totaling about 12 years below the 30-year minimum for his convictions. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Justice Department in concluding Judge Cooke committed several errors in not adding years for Padilla’s training at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and accounting for his 17 prior arrests.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Padilla’s appeal of that ruling.

COLORADO

Girl, 7, recovers from bubonic plague

DENVER — The parents of 7-year-old Sierra Jane Downing thought she had the flu when she felt sick days after camping in southwest Colorado.

An emergency room doctor who saw her for a seizure and 107-degree fever wasn’t sure what was wrong either.

The girl was then flown to Denver, where a pediatric doctor at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children got the first inkling that she had bubonic plague. The doctor figured it out using Sierra Jane’s symptoms, a history of where she’d been and an online journal search.

The bubonic plague hasn’t been confirmed in a human in Colorado since 2006. Federal health officials say an average of seven cases are reported in the U.S. each year.

Doctors said Wednesday Sierra Jane is recovering and could go home within a week.

Darcy Downing says her daughter may have been infected by insects near a dead squirrel she wanted to bury.

OHIO

Suspects plead guilty in bridge bomb plot

AKRON — Three men accused of plotting to bomb a highway bridge in Ohio have admitted their roles in the scheme.

The FBI says the public was never in danger even though the target was a highway bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron.

Connor Stevens, 20, and Brandon Baxter, 20, both of suburban Cleveland, and Douglas Wright, 26, of Indianapolis, pleaded guilty to all three counts against them Wednesday in Akron before a federal judge.

They face 30 years to life in prison, though defense attorneys have asked for leniency. Sentencing was tentatively scheduled for early November.

The three were charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, knowingly attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to damage property with explosives.

CALIFORNIA

NASA Dawn spacecraft traveling to dwarf planet

LOS ANGELES — Next and final stop: The biggest object in the asteroid belt.

After spending a year gazing at a giant asteroid, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Wednesday began the cruise toward an even bigger target — a voyage that will take nearly three years.

Ground controllers received a signal from Dawn that it successfully spiraled away from the asteroid Vesta and was headed toward the dwarf planet Ceres.

The departure was considered ho-hum compared with other recent missions — think Curiosity’s white-knuckle “seven minutes of terror” dive into Mars’ atmosphere. Firing its ion propulsion thrusters, Dawn gently freed itself from Vesta’s gravitational hold Tuesday night. Since its antenna was pointed away from Earth during the maneuver, NASA did not get confirmation until the next day.

It was “smooth and elegant and graceful,” said chief engineer Marc Rayman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $466 million mission.

Launched in 2007, Dawn is on track to become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with two celestial bodies in a bid to learn about the solar system’s evolution.

Dawn slipped into orbit last year around Vesta — about the size of Arizona — and beamed back stunning close-ups of the lumpy surface. Its next destination is the Texas-size Ceres.

ARIZONA

Tribe boosts jail time for reservation crime

FLAGSTAFF — The Hopi Tribe will be one of the earliest tribes to increase criminal sentences under a landmark federal law meant to improve public safety on American Indian reservations.

The Hopi has updated its criminal code for the first time since 1972 with changes that comply with provisions of the Tribal Law and Order Act. Regardless of whether the crime was murder or something far less severe on the Northern Arizona reservation, all were misdemeanors with a maximum punishment of a year in jail under the tribe’s long-standing system.

The changes go into effect later this month. They create a class of felonies that could send convicted offenders to jail for up to three years for a single crime or nine years with stacked sentences.

A U.S. Department of Justice official says that puts the Hopi in a position of leadership.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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