Court Roundup

Ex-astronaut indicted in traffic deaths of 2 girls

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - A grand jury in Alabama has indicted a former NASA space shuttle commander on four felony charges in the traffic deaths of two girls killed on a rural highway in June, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Grand jurors indicted James Halsell Jr., who turns 60 on Friday, on two counts each of reckless murder and assault, said Tuscaloosa County prosecutor Jonathan Cross.

The Huntsville resident was arrested on reckless murder charges after the June 6 wreck that killed 11-year-old Niomi James and 13-year-old Jayla Parler in the west Alabama county. Police reports show investigators believe alcohol and speed could be factors.

The reckless murder charges involve the girls' deaths, Cross said, and the assault charges stem from injuries suffered by the girls' father, Pernell James of Brent, who was driving, and his female friend, Shontel Cutts.

The girls' relatives filed two civil lawsuits blaming Halsell for the deaths. Halsell's attorneys have filed a document in one of those cases saying the driver of the car carrying the girls failed to yield and contributed to the wreck.

The girls' father told investigators he was driving about 65 mph on U.S. 82 when a car traveling "at a very high rate of speed" struck his Ford Fiesta from the rear, crushing the Ford and sending it tumbling across the road, court documents state.

A sworn statement by a state trooper said Halsell was driving a rental car at the time and told officers he thought he was on Interstate 20/59, not U.S. 82. Troopers said the girls were ejected.

Halsell was driving to his native Louisiana to pick up his son at the time of the crash and was so intoxicated that he asked to see the victims' bodies, the trooper's statement said.

The girls lived with their mother in Houston and their father, Pernell James of Brent, was returning home from Texas with them and a woman for a summertime visit, according to Brent Mayor Dennis Stripling.

Court documents do not indicate that Halsell mentioned his career to officers, and a trooper spokesman has said authorities didn't realize he was a former astronaut until they saw news reports about the case.

An online biography by NASA said Halsell's career with the space agency included five shuttle flights starting in 1994. He spent more than 1,250 hours in space, serving as commander on three shuttle missions and pilot on two others.

After the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, Halsell helped lead NASA's return-to-flight effort. He retired in 2006 and worked for at least two aerospace companies afterward, including ATK Launch Systems, Utah, according to his NASA biography.

Court upholds ban on gun sales to pot card holders

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A federal appeals court has upheld the government's ban on the sale of guns to medical marijuana card holders.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday the ban does not violate the 2nd Amendment.

The ruling applies to the nine Western states that fall under the court's jurisdiction, including California, Washington and Oregon.

It came in a lawsuit filed by S. Rowan Wilson, a Nevada woman who tried to buy a firearm in 2011 after obtaining a medical marijuana card.

The gun store refused, citing the federal rule on the sale of firearms to illegal drug users. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

An email to her attorney was not immediately returned.

Reporter sues over picking of witnesses for execution

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - A reporter whose stories have been critical of Missouri's death penalty procedures sued the state's prisons chief Wednesday in federal court, accusing him of wrongly excluding him from being an execution witness.

The American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit filed on behalf of Buzzfeed News reporter Christopher McDaniel asks a judge to block anyone other than Missouri's attorney general from serving as an execution witness until McDaniel's due-process claims are decided. No Missouri executions were scheduled as of Wednesday.

McDaniel, a former reporter for St. Louis public radio, applied in January 2014 to witness a Missouri execution "to ensure that executions are carried out in a constitutional manner," according to the lawsuit. But McDaniel never got a response, and 17 executions have been carried out by the state since.

George Lombardi, who heads the state Department of Corrections, has "unfettered discretion" in deciding who, according to state law, may be among the at least "eight reputable citizens" to witness an execution, according to the lawsuit.

Neither Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, nor Scott Holste, a spokesman for the governor, immediately responded to requests for comment.

The lawsuit contends that McDaniel's "unfavorable" reporting about the way Missouri executes prisoners may explain why he hasn't been allowed to witness an execution. McDaniel's stories since December 2013 have called into question such matters as how the state obtains its execution drugs and the state's method of giving condemned inmates sedatives before their executions.

State records obtained by the ACLU through a May 2014 public records request and eventual litigation showed that applicants to be execution witnesses were denied if they "expressed a desire to ensure that executions were carried out properly and constitutionally," the lawsuit alleges.

"Execution witnesses are an important check to ensure the department does not abuse its power. That check does not work when the department can choose to exclude anyone critical of its behavior," Tony Rothert, the ACLU of Missouri's legal chief, said in a statement.

Missouri has executed more prisoners than any state except Texas in recent years. It has executed 19 prisoners since November 2013, including six last year. The only one this year came in May, when 66-year-old Earl Forrest was put to death for the 2002 killings of two people in a drug dispute and a sheriff's deputy in a subsequent shootout.

Man sentenced for prostitution ring run in hotel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - A man who authorities say ran an international prostitution ring out of a South Florida hotel has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a news release Wednesday that 50-year-old Miguel A. Hernandez of Miami Beach was sentenced by a federal judge after previously pleading guilty to eight charges related to the prostitution ring.

Court documents show Hernandez ran the operation called "International Playmates" from a Fort Lauderdale hotel beginning in 2010. Documents show Hernandez and others recruited women from Spain, Colombia, Venezuela and other countries.

Court records show Hernandez employed overseas recruiters, drivers to transport women on dates and female associates to manage the operation. The business openly advertised on the internet.

Published: Fri, Sep 02, 2016