Court Digest

Judge: City must overturn 3,000-home project

SANTEE, Calif. (AP) — A judge has ordered the Southern California city of Santee to throw out approval of a long-planned housing project, ruling that developers hadn’t adequately considered how new homes could affect potential wildfire evacuations.

The Santee City Council in late 2020 approved the Fanita Ranch project, giving the green light to 3,000 new homes in hills northeast of San Diego.

In her decision, Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal wrote that eight resolutions and ordinances giving approval must be overturned, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Monday.

The newspaper said the judge expressed concern that the plan didn’t fully address whether thousands of new residents would have time to flee during an emergency like a wildfire.

The project, overseen by HomeFed Fanita Rancho, is not dead, and developers said they would revise the environmental impact report to address the judge’s concerns.

Messages left by the Union-Tribune with the city’s manager and attorney were not immediately returned.

The decision was celebrated by environmental groups that sued to stop the project, arguing that more homes would only increase the risk of fire.

Federal judges to decide next steps in U.S. House races

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A federal judicial panel in Ohio says it will decide by Tuesday whether to temporarily block the results of U.S. House races in Ohio that have gone foward under an unresolved congressional map.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio announced the timeline during a hearing Monday.

Side parties in a federal lawsuit over the state’s unresolved maps of legislative districts have raised issues with Black representation under the congressional map that was used to formulate May 3 ballots. They hope to stop the results of those races from being certified while court challenges at the state and federal levels proceed.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose last month ordered county election boards to use districts indicated on that map to create spring primary ballots. His position was that the map was the most recent approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission and remained valid until a court determined otherwise.

The map is the second U.S. House plan okayed by the commission. Its first proposal was invalidated as an unconstitutional gerrymander unduly favoring Republicans.

The Ohio Supreme Court has pushed the briefing schedule in the legal challenge to the commission’s second congressional map well past the primary, effectively leaving questions of the 2022 election to the federal court.

Spring ballots do not include Ohio House and Ohio Senate races, because those maps are still in limbo.

Man walks out of prison after conviction set aside

LICKING, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri man whose murder conviction was overturned walked out of prison Monday after serving 18 years.

Keith Carnes was released from the South Central Correctional Facility in Licking after prosecutors announced Friday they would not retry him in the 2003 shooting death of 24-year-old Larry White, a rival drug dealer in Kansas City.

The Missouri Supreme Court last week set aside Carnes’ conviction, saying the state did not disclose some evidence, including a police report from a confidential informant that might have led to his exoneration.

After his release, Carnes thanked God and his supporters, KSHB-TV reported. He said he remained optimistic during his incarceration because he knew he was innocent.

“You don’t just sit around and hope that this is going to happen for you — you put in the work,” he said. “Together we were able to put it all together and make it happen.”

Prison officials said Carnes was not released until Monday because they were waiting to receive official paperwork acknowledging the charges were dismissed.

Carnes was convicted in 2006 of first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Some witnesses have since said they were pressured by police or prosecutors to implicate Carnes in White’s death. But at least one woman who recanted her original testimony said she did so because of threats from Carnes’ supporters.

When announcing it would not retry Carnes, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office said the evidence was “tainted from all directions.” It said its review did not establish Carnes’ innocence but that there was insufficient evidence he committed the crime.

Rhode Island
4th person pleads guilty in counterfeit check scheme

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A fourth person pleaded guilty Monday to his role in a scheme that recruited homeless people from Rhode Island to cash counterfeit business checks in several New England states in exchange for a small payment, federal prosecutors said.

Cortavious Benford, 28, of Atlanta, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Rhode Island.

Benford and his accomplices cheated banks in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine out of almost $500,000, authorities said.

The men created counterfeit checks in the amount of about $2,000 made payable to a homeless or transient person they had recruited, then drove that person to a bank. In exchange, the recruited person was paid from $100 to $200, prosecutors said.

The scheme collapsed in February 2021 when a person recruited by Benford and an accomplice entered a Providence bank and pointed out their car to bank employees, who contacted police.

A search of a Providence home used by the suspects resulted in the seizure of a computer loaded with a program used to design and print checks, a printer, and blank check stock, prosecutors said.

Physical therapist on trial for murder of 4 family members

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — A physical therapist from Connecticut suffocated his 4-year-old daughter by rolling on top of her and also killed his two sons and wife, a prosecutor told a Florida jury on Monday.

Anthony Todt told detectives he and his wife, Megan, had an agreement to kill their family so they could “pass over” since the apocalypse was coming, Assistant State Attorney Danielle Pinnell said during opening statements in Todt’s murder trial in Kissimmee, Florida.

Todt, 46, is charged with first-degree murder for the deaths of his 42-year-old wife, his daughter, Zoe, and his two sons Alek, 13, and Tyler, 11. The victims’ decomposing bodies were wrapped in blankets and had stab wounds and toxic amounts of Benadryl in their bodies when they were found in January 2020, according to autopsy reports.

Todt has pleaded not guilty. He also has been charged with animal cruelty for the death of the family’s dog, Breezy.

Todt initially confessed to the killings, but in jailhouse writings, he has since blamed his wife for the slayings. He was arrested in January 2020 but investigators believe the family members were killed weeks earlier.

Their bodies were discovered when federal agents and deputies went to the house to serve an arrest warrant for health care fraud charges in Connecticut. Todt had a physical therapy practice in Connecticut to which he would travel during the work week, returning to Florida to be with his family on weekends at their home in Celebration near Walt Disney World.

Jurors did not hear from Todt’s public defenders Monday. They had told the judge they wanted to wait to present their statements until after the state rests its case.

Venezuelan woman arraigned in murder for hire, abuse case

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A Venezuelan woman has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of conspiring with a Vermont man to kidnap and kill a man in a foreign country, and producing child pornography.

Moraima Escarlet Vasquez Flores, also known as Johana Martinez, 39, was arraigned in federal court in Burlington on Monday following her extradition to the United States from Colombia.

Last month, Sean Fiore, 38, of Burlington, was sentenced to 27 years in prison following his guilty plea to federal charges that he commissioned Vasquez Flores to make videos of the torture of a boy, and the torture and killing of a man, records show.

Court records say that in September 2018 Fiore used a secure messaging app to communicate with the woman in Venezuela.

Prosecutors say the communications were about Fiore's interest in purchasing a video depicting the torture of a kidnapped child. They say Fiore ultimately paid $600 to Vasquez Flores in Amazon gift cards and she allegedly sent him a hyperlink to a video file depicting what prosecutors describe as her "inflicting sadistic abuse on a prepubescent boy."

In December 2018, prosecutors say Fiore agreed to pay $4,000 for a second video that showed the torture and killing of a man in Venezuela. In April 2019, Vasquez Flores is alleged to have sent him a hyperlink to a 58-minute video file depicting the abuse and possible death of an adult male, the U.S. attorney's office for Vermont said.

Vasquez Flores will be represented by the federal public defender's office, prosecutors said. A phone message was left with the office seeking comment on Tuesday.

Judge dismisses lawsuit over county jail death

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a man who died from a drug overdose in the Dane County Jail.

U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled there was not enough evidence to put the case in front a jury.

The lawsuit was filed two years ago by the family of 37-year-old Shannon Payne, who overdosed in 2016 on what was said to be heroin that had been smuggled into the jail.

“In granting summary judgment to the defendants, the court in no way means to diminish the tragic events surrounding Payne’s overdose and death,” Conley wrote. “Of course, it is awful that heroin was smuggled into the jail, and as a matter of public policy, the jail should do all it can to restrict, if not eliminate, the presence of any unauthorized drugs within its walls.”

Conley said lawyers for Payne’s family failed to present sufficient evidence that would support the finding that Payne’s constitutional rights were violated or that the county was somehow liable, the State Journal reported.

According to court documents, Payne went into a restroom at the jail with another inmate, where both apparently used drugs. Payne suffered an overdose in the bathroom and was taken to a hospital, where he died two days later.

Defendants, which included Dane County and then-Sheriff Dave Mahoney, maintained it was not known when the drugs Payne took were smuggled into the jail, who smuggled them in and how, and whether Payne or the other inmate had possessed the drugs that were used in the bathroom.