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U.S. Judge Delays Criminal Sentencing Of Duke Energy

By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (TNS)

RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal judge took the opportunity to share what he described as a “light moment” on Tuesday after agreeing to delay by one month the criminal sentencing of Duke Energy related to coal-ash pollution.

U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm J. Howard had read sealed documents provided by Duke Energy, in which attorneys laid out concerns that could arise out of an expected plea agreement in which the utility would be placed on probation for five years related to nine criminal charges stemming from illegal coal ash discharges.

Once convicted of a crime under the Clean Water Act, the utility would be disqualified from entering into new or modified contracts with the federal government.

That could mean trouble, Duke officials say, for military bases in Duke Energy territory — Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, were mentioned in court — as well as federal courthouses, post offices, and large office complexes scattered through North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and elsewhere.

Duke officials had asked for the delay of a sentencing hearing that had been set for later this week in Greenville so they could try to work out a waiver with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Howard, the federal judge who presided over the 20-minute hearing, asked about the possibility of the lights going out in Fort Bragg, whose contract with Duke Energy expires in September.

Banumathi Rangarajan, the assistant U.S. attorney whose investigation into Duke led to nine misdemeanor charges against the utility for polluting four of the state’s rivers with coal ash, told Howard she did not expect the worst.

“No power will be shut off, your honor,” she said.

Howard granted the delay, not for the reasons requested by Duke, which were filed under seal with the federal court. Instead, the judge said figuring out the logistics for keeping a company on probation for five years had been a difficult task that needed more thought.

The sentencing was rescheduled for May 14 in Greenville. Then the judge brought out lyrics for a song that he had been reminded of while reading documents in preparation for the Tuesday hearing.

One of his aides had taken a minute “to consult Mr. Google,” then produced the lyrics for “The Nights the Lights Went Out In Georgia,” a so-called “Southern Gothic” song written in 1972 by songwriter Bobby Russell and sung by Vicki Lawrence.

The judge singled out one line and recited it.

“Don’t trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer;

“Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hand,” Howard said, with a touch of song in his voice.

Then with a smile, he looked down from the bench at the attorneys in his courtroom and added: “I don’t think that applies to any of my Southern lawyers’ friends.”

Then he pointed them to the copies of the song he had printed for them and recessed the hearing for a month.

Photo: Duke Energy via Flickr

Grand Jury Indicts Man Accused In Chapel Hill Shooting That Killed 3

By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (TNS)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A Durham County grand jury handed up indictments Monday, charging Craig Stephen Hicks with three counts of murder and one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling in the fatal shooting last week that left two families and two university communities struggling for answers.

The charges come six days after fatal shootings in the Finley Forest condominium complex.

Hicks, 46, turned himself in to two deputies outside the Chatham County sheriff’s office after the violence that police contend is rooted in a long-running parking dispute.

Deah Shaddy Barakat, a 23-year-old University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, dental student, was found dead at the threshold of the condominium front door with blood around his head, according to search warrant documents released last week.

Barakat’s 21-year-old wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, a recent North Carolina State University graduate, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, a 19-year-old NCSU design student, were found inside the condo with fatal gunshot wounds to the head, according to warrants and family members. One sister was in the kitchen doorway. The other was in the kitchen.

Within hours of the shooting, police had Hicks under arrest and conducted a search of his home that turned up at least a dozen shotguns, handguns and rifles.

A search of his vehicle outisde the Chatham County sheriff’s office turned up the weapon that police say was used in the killings.

Neighbors, a tow truck driver and others have said Hicks often complained about residents and visitors at Finley Forest parking in his reserved space. He called one tow truck company so often they stopped responding to his calls.

Though many have questioned whether the victims were targeted because they were Muslim, no hate-crime charges have been brought against the man accused.

Federal investigators opened an inquiry last week to determine, in part, whether religious bias was a motive. For a federal hate-crime charge to be brought and successfully prosecuted, legal analysts say, religious bias must be the predominant motivating factor, not one of many.

Photo: Namee Barakat (center, bottom) watches as his son Deah Shaddy Barakat is buried Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 at the Islamic Association of Raleigh’s cemetery in Wendell, N.C. Barakat and his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were killed in a shooting Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Deah Barakat’s sister Suzanne is at right. (Chuck Liddy/News & Observer/TNS)

U.S. Appeals Court Blocks Two Provisions Of North Carolina Elections Overhaul Bill

By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. _ The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that two provisions of North Carolina’s 2013 election law overhaul cannot be enforced during the November election.

The three-judge panel’s ruling reinstates same-day registration and restores out-of-precinct provisional voting.

The judges did not reinstate the seven days of early voting that were eliminated by the law adopted last year when the Republicans gained control of both General Assembly chambers and the governor’s office.

The ruling came days after the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals held oral arguments on the pros and cons of an emergency appeal filed in late August by the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, registered Democrats in North Carolina and others.

The hearing was in Charlotte nearly a month after U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder rejected a similar request from the organizations and Democrats challenging the election law overhaul.

Schroeder ruled the challengers had failed to make the case that voters would suffer “irreparable damages” if elections were held under the 2013 rules.

But the appeals court judges disagreed with Schroeder on the two provisions targeting same-day registration and the ability of voters to cast provisional ballots outside their precincts.

The ruling brought quick praise from voting rights advocates and challengers of the overhaul bill.

“The court’s order safeguards the vote for tens of thousands of North Carolinians. It means they will continue to be able to use same-day registration, just as they have during the last three federal elections,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Southern Coalition for Social Justice staff attorney Allison Riggs added: “This is a victory for voters in the state of North Carolina. The court has rebuked attempts to undermine voter participation.”

The challengers of the 2013 election law overhaul contend that the changes discriminate against African-Americans, Latinos and voters younger than 25.

They asked the court to block provisions that end same-day registration, curb the number of days on which people can vote early, prohibit people from casting ballots out of their assigned precincts and end a popular teen preregistration program.

Republican leaders who shepherded the changes through the General Assembly to the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory argue that they are trying to ward off the potential for voter fraud, though few cases have been brought forward.

The provision of the 2013 election law overhaul that requires voters to present a photo ID at the polls does not go into effect until 2016, when presidential races will be on the ballot.

North Carolina voters go to the polls Nov. 4 to decide a U.S. Senate race of national interest _ the contest between Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, and Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker from Mecklenburg County. Libertarian Sean Haugh also is seeking the seat.

There also are statewide races that have the potential to shift the political balance in the North Carolina Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit challenging the new election law is not scheduled to be heard in full until a federal court trial set for July 15.

Photo: hjl via Flickr

Damage But No Casualties As Arthur Hit Some, Missed Some NC Beaches

By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — The day after Hurricane Arthur roared ashore at Shackleford Banks with 100-mph winds whipping, the season’s first hurricane left dramatically different legacies on opposite ends of the North Carolina coast.

Along the southern beaches, hotel clerks were as sunny as the clear, blue skies — busily checking in vacationers whose Fourth of July plans were salvaged from a storm that had threatened to wreak more havoc than it actually did.

On the northern barrier islands, already fragile from decades of beach erosion, a string of spring nor’easters and damage from hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the mood was darker.

Residents and business owners were relieved that the fast-moving storm blew through without leaving any reports of serious injury or extensive damage in its wake. But N.C. 12, a fragile transportation artery for the Outer Banks, was closed because of a pavement buckling near a temporary Pea Island bridge. Bonner Bridge, a heavily traveled link to Hatteras Island, remained closed until sonar safety scans could be conducted to determine the integrity of the 2.7-mile structure across Oregon Inlet.

“We have no vacancies,” Sarah Bailey, a busy hotel clerk at Atlantis Lodge on Atlantic Beach, reported late Friday afternoon. “We had some people cancel, but as soon as they did, somebody else called and booked the room.”

About 100 miles away, Jane Metacarpa, owner of the Sand Bar and Grille in Buxton, was not planning to open up her restaurant Friday. She lost sleep as the hurricane winds battered outside her Hatteras Island home, whipping up worries about lost business from factors beyond her control.

“Once somebody called me this morning and told me the restaurant was OK, I went back to sleep,” Metacarpa said Friday afternoon. “Overall, we dodged a bullet. We have to be glad. It could have been so much worse. We’re extremely fortunate. But business-wise, this is about the worst time this could have happened.”

The Fourth of July weekend, according to Carol Dawson, the owner of two motels, a deli and a clothing store on Hatteras Island, is the one that helps islanders “get their bills paid.”

She estimates that a loss of business on Thursday, Friday and Saturday could cost her at least $30,000.

Dawson has been lobbying for years for beach replenishment on Hatteras Island and for a new bridge to be built across Oregon Inlet — two politically charged issues that have put environmentalists and some of the islanders at odds.

“It’s beautiful here now,” Dawson said Friday afternoon. “It’s in the 80s and there are no winds. People would be loving it here, but it’s a ghost town. The business community here — we’re crippled. We’re suffering from economic injury.”

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who met with reporters Friday morning, was more optimistic, relieved that the Category 2 hurricane had left no casualties or serious injuries in its wake.

“That puts a smile on all our faces,” McCrory said.

There were reports of some beach erosion and debris from artificial reefs, minor damage to coastal homes and docks, and some downed trees inland.

With plans to celebrate the Fourth of July in Southport, McCrory said he had pulled off the green emergency management shirt he sported before Hurricane Arthur’s landfall at 11:15 p.m. EDT Thursday and put on his “beach shirt.” The eye of the storm moved offshore by 4:30 a.m. Friday.

“North Carolina beaches are open for business,” he declared.

“Hurricane Arthur produced heavy rains and strong winds, but we are fortunate to have seen minimal impact to our North Carolina’s coastal communities and beaches,” McCrory said.

About 83,400 Duke Energy customers were without power at some point during the storm with the largest number in Carteret County.

Rainfall was moderately heavy in some areas. Parts of Brunswick, New Hanover and Onslow counties got more than 4 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

The American Red Cross reported Friday that it was closing all of its shelters along the state’s coast.

“The Red Cross will work to determine where help is needed and begin mobile feeding, distribution of relief supplies, and emotional support to those affected by the storm,” Barry Porter, chief executive for central and Eastern North Carolina, said in a news release.

The outer bands of Arthur’s rain were east of I-95 at 7:30 a.m., and on the southern coast, the sun was out in Brunswick and New Hanover counties and up the shore on the Crystal Coast. By noon, there was no precipitation in any part of North Carolina.

McCrory cautioned beachgoers, however, about rip currents and urged all to heed the instructions of lifeguards and look at their warning flags.

“We do want people to enjoy the beach, but if the local authorities say don’t get in the water, don’t get in the water,” he said.

Justin Waterfield, an employee at Frisco Rod and Gun in Frisco, a small Hatteras Island community, said he hoped things would get back to normal soon on the barrier islands, too. Typically, the store would be packed on the Fourth of July with customers getting fishing and hunting supplies to take across the street to the beach access area. Though he lamented the loss of business, he celebrated the larger losses avoided from the first hurricane of the season.

“I stayed up the whole night,” Waterfield said. “It was a lot of wind, but it was nothing like what we were expecting.”

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson

North Carolina Demonstrators’ Sit-In Tests New Legislative Building Rules

By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Demonstrators ratcheted up the volume at the North Carolina Legislative Building on Tuesday, singing, raising their voices and staging a sit-in at the office of House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Fifteen were supplied with sleeping bags and pizza, prepared to stay the night if allowed.

The protest came eight days after a mass demonstration on May 19, when protesters put tape over their mouths and walked quietly outside legislators’ offices to highlight their dissatisfaction with new building rules.

The building decorum rules, adopted behind closed doors two weeks ago by a legislative commission, give law enforcement officers the authority to arrest people inside who “act in a manner that will imminently disturb the General Assembly.”

Attorneys who have worked with the NAACP plan to challenge the new rules, but it was unclear Tuesday what legal avenue they would pursue.

The Tuesday sit-in was part of the so-called “Moral Monday movement” that resulted in 945 arrests outside legislative chambers last year and led to similar rallies and protests in other Southern states fighting Republican agendas.

The Rev. William Barber II, the head of the state NAACP and the architect of the demonstrations, said the protests are not about one political party or another. He and his followers decry what they describe as “extremist” policies that they say have an increasingly negative impact on the state’s poor and struggling residents.

The theme for the demonstrations this year is “The Case for Repealing and Reversing 2013’s Regressive Laws.”

The Republican leadership largely has cast aside the complaints of the protesters, arguing that lawmakers carried out the will of their voters with the 2013 agenda. The political program gained national attention for taking North Carolina on a sharp swing to the political right after a longstanding reputation as a moderate state.

On Tuesday, 15 demonstrators walked into Tillis’ front office holding placards against the large-scale cutback of unemployment benefits, the refusal to expand Medicaid, and new election laws that curb early voting days and require an ID at the polls, among other things.

It was about 3:30 p.m.

Tillis, the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina this fall, was not in his front office when the protesters arrived.

Minutes later, he was on the House floor, where the topics of discussion were two gubernatorial appointments, a resolution honoring fallen soldiers and a measure to allow Clay County to drop an opossum on New Year’s Eve, a measure approved by voice vote.

Tillis banged the gavel to open the day’s business.

He did not engage with the protesters and left the building to chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Thom Tillis, where’d you go?”

Barber stayed in the legislative halls as fast-food workers and additional ministers prayed, sang and aired grievances in the speaker’s office. He called it a “travesty” that Tillis would not come speak with the people engaged in the sit-in.

It was unclear by 9 p.m. whether the General Assembly police planned to arrest anyone.

Jeff Weaver, chief of the force that made the 945 arrests last year, was in the hallways, talking with attorneys for the NAACP, but not providing details of the police strategy.

By 9:15 p.m., police asked everybody to leave the building.

The 15 protesters remained. William Morales, Tillis’ executive assistant, sat at the desk in the speaker’s front office, as the demonstrators spread out in sleeping bags on the floor around him.

The protesters appeared to be in for a long night.

Sleeping bags with tags still on were delivered to the group as were pizzas, with a special request for vegetarian pie.

The protest last week resulted in no arrests, and some critics of the “Moral Monday movement” have urged the lawmakers to ignore the demonstrators and any acts of civil disobedience with hopes of tamping down national attention.

The cases of the 945 protesters arrested last year are still going through the courts in protracted trials that keep the chief and his key staffers on the witness stand for several days every other week.

“Speaker Thom Tillis and his aides have refused to engage in a serious discussion over the deep and weighty issues, and now they are playing a waiting game in hopes that we will lose heart, pack up and go home,” Barber said in a statement several hours after the sit-in began. “But we are not here to play games. These are serious, life-and-death questions.

“Where can the unemployed go for help? Where can those hardworking North Carolinians without health care access? Where can those who have been disenfranchised? We shall not be moved. We are settling in for a long night at the General Assembly.”

Photo by Mr T in DC/Flickr

Durham Settles Lawsuit With Former Duke Lacrosse Players

By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

DURHAM, N.C. — Eight years after three Duke lacrosse players were wrongfully accused of rape in a case that put Durham and its police department under a harsh spotlight, a long-running lawsuit has been settled.

Under terms of the settlement, the three players — Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans — will receive no money. At their request, the city will make a $50,000 grant to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.

The settlement was outlined in federal court documents this week and at a hearing Friday.

Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann were charged in 2006 with sexually assaulting Crystal Mangum, a stripper hired to perform at a team party on March 13, 2006.

Mike Nifong, Durham’s district attorney at the time, proceeded with prosecuting a case that fell apart as Mangum changed her story many times.

A special prosecutor was assigned to the case, and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper later declared the players innocent of the accusations against them.

Nifong was forced to resign as district attorney and later stripped of his law license because of his actions in the case.

The players sued the city, the police department and other officers, pursuing federal civil rights claims.

The city issued a statement Friday:

“As the City has maintained throughout, it believes that its police officers had an obligation to investigate the allegations made by Crystal Mangum in 2006 and that no police officer nor any other City employee engaged in improper conduct. The former District Attorney, Mike Nifong, was not a City employee, and Mr. Nifong was subsequently convicted of criminal contempt and disbarred for his actions.”

Photo: weike via Flickr