Florida Governor Pulls Murder Cases From Prosecutor Who Shuns Death Penalty

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is removing Orlando’s chief prosecutor from a number of murder cases in an ongoing dispute over the death penalty.

Through executive order, the Republican governor is reassigning 21 first-degree murder cases from State Attorney Aramis Ayala to a prosecutor who handles a different judicial circuit.

Ayala, a Democrat, is the first black elected prosecutor in Florida, and has said she will not seek the death penalty in Orange and Osceola counties, one of the largest judicial circuits in the state.

Scott says he is reassigning the murder cases in the “interest of justice.”

“State Attorney Ayala’s complete refusal to consider capital punishment for the entirety of her term sends an unacceptable message that she is not interested in considering every available option in the fight for justice,” Scott says in a statement.

Scott and Ayala have been at odds since she announced last month that she would not seek the death penalty in a high profile murder case in which a police officer and a pregnant woman were killed. He removed that case from her jurisdiction as well.

Ayala didn’t receive word of the latest reassignments until Scott issued his statement to the media, according to Eryka Washington, a spokesperson for Ayala.

“Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system,” Washington says in an email.

Ayala has hired an attorney — Roy L. Austin Jr., formerly civil rights lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department and former Obama White House official — and plans to fight Scott’s authority to take cases from her jurisdiction.

In his executive orders, Scott says he’s acting “in obedience to my solemn constitutional duty to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.'”

He cites Florida law that allows the governor to appoint a special prosecutor when it serves the ends of justice.

State law does not mandate that state attorneys seek the death penalty in capital cases, but gives them discretion.

Ayala took office in January, beating incumbent Jeff Ashton, also a Democrat. Her campaign was supported by a PAC with ties to billionaire liberal activist George Soros.

She did not campaign on capital punishment but after taking office said she had determined through research that pursuing the death penalty “is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice.”

She also said seeking death sentences gives victims’ families false hope that a killer will be executed.

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The Dust-up Over Gibraltar: What's The Big Deal About The Little Peninsula?

The limestone Rock of Gibraltar towers above the pensinsula, a British dependent territory that profits from tourism, finance and its shipyard.

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Let’s get something straight up front: Spain and the U.K. are not going to war over Gibraltar.

That, at least, is what politicians from both countries have been carefully asserting since Michael Howard, a former British Conservative party leader, made a not-so-subtle suggestion Sunday that force would be on the table in some recent unpleasantness over the long-disputed peninsula.

“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country,” Howard told an interviewer, referring to the brief 1982 Falklands War between the U.K. and Argentina, “and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”

Asked about Howard’s comment Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman made her answer plain, the Guardian reports: “It isn’t going to happen.”

May herself laughed when asked by reporters whether she’d rule out war with Spain. She told reporters the fraught talk over Gibraltar — a tiny chunk of land contiguous with Spain but controlled by the U.K. — is merely part and parcel of British negotiations to leave the European Union. Those talks formally kicked off last week, when May triggered the U.K.’s departure.

“What we are doing with all European countries in the European Union is sitting down and talking to them. We are going to talk to them about the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and for those countries, Spain included,” May said.

“Someone in the U.K. is losing their cool and there’s no need for it,” Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis also cautioned, when asked about Howard’s comment.

Still, the question bears asking: Why is it that a roughly 2.5-square-mile peninsula parked on the southwest tip of Europe — with just about 30,000 people on it — has international leaders so worked up?

The answer, as it turns out, can be taken in three parts:


The Brouhaha Over Brexit

While there has been no lack of friction between the two countries over the past three centuries on the topic of Gibraltar — more on that in the next section — the point of contention that has stoked tensions lately pertains to (what else?) Brexit.

Shortly after May triggered Brexit, the EU issued a nine-page document that laid out its draft negotiating guidelines for the 27 countries remaining in the union. For the most part, those guidelines looked much as people expected — yet a surprising statement lurked near the end:

“After the United Kingdom leaves the union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”

That proposed condition came as unwelcome news to British lawmakers, who widely viewed it as giving Spain veto power over any agreement on Gibraltar’s fate — and thus, an encroachment on British authority over the territory it has owned (despite occasional protests from Spain) since 1713.

“Gibraltar is not a bargaining chip in these negotiations. Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British,” Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said, according to the BBC.

Likening Brexit to a divorce, he cast European Council President Donald Tusk as “a cuckolded husband who is taking it out on the children.”

The Raising of the Siege of Gibraltar, by Sir John Leake.

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The Backstory

May laughed off the prospect of war this time around — but the Rock of Gibraltar is no stranger to spilled blood.

The land mass doesn’t boast much in the way of natural resources, but its position as a hinge point between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, standing between Europe and Africa, made it an attractive possession for the colonial powers.

Captured from the Spanish in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, Gibraltar was ceded to the British “in perpetuity” in the Treaty of Utrecht, the peace that ultimately brought that fight to a close in 1713.

Naturally, that was by no means the end of the dispute, which has manifested itself by turns as heated words, blockades and even further violence. Later that century, for instance, the Spanish launched a yearslong — and unsuccessful — siege that bequeathed no greater fruit than a rather stirring painting by John Trumbull.

The painting in question: The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar, by John Trumbull. The real thing, produced in 1789, now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It depicts a moment of battlefield camaraderie during the siege seven years earlier.


Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Metropolitan Museum of Art

More recently, Lauren Frayer reported for NPR that in 1969 Spanish dictator Francisco Franco closed the territory’s border with Spain, effectively isolating it from all but sea and air travel. Franco maintained this policy on and off for another 16 years before the border was opened again.

“For the Spanish, Gibraltar is an affront to their sense of national identity and their sense of sovereignty,” Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary, told BBC Radio 4. “It’s a bit like having a part of Dover being owned by Spain.”

The Brits On The Rock

But what do the Gibraltarians have to say about it?

Well, even that is a tad complicated. Despite its geographical proximity to Spain, a visitor to Gibraltar would be forgiven for feeling much closer to London. People on the peninsula use British currency, pay taxes to British authorities, even boast London’s distinctive red phone booths.

In fact, take away a map and the few facets of the scene that may give things away are the Mediterranean sun and omnipresence of apes — which, as Lauren notes, are the only ones to be found on the European continent.

One of the Gibraltarian residents noticeably absent from the dispute: a macaque — one of the 300 that live on the peninsula.

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Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

“We’ve been British for 300 years, and we have a hostile neighbor. People here identify themselves at British, they feel British. The identity of this people is intimately linked to this rock,” local newspaper editor Brian Reyes told Lauren in 2014. “Sure, it’s just a rock. But it’s a place — it’s a home. And it’s a pretty iconic rock.”

In 2002, partly at Straw’s urging, Gibraltarians weighed in on whether they preferred Spain to share sovereignty over their territory. In that referendum, about 99 percent voted to remain with the U.K. Only 187 of people voted in favor of joining up with Spain, according to the Guardian.

Still, the roughly 30,000 Gibraltarians, many of whom commute across the border into Spain for work, voted in similarly overwhelming numbers to remain in the EU — about 96 percent in the June 2016 Brexit referendum.

But Picardo warned that Spain should not take this in any way as an opening.

“Spain might like to use Gibraltar as a political pawn, the European Council may have allowed Spain to put this issue in this current draft of the guidelines, but Gibraltar is not going to be a political pawn of Brexit,” he told British media Friday.

“Gibraltar is going to be very prosperous and very successful and entirely British before, during and after Brexit.”

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NHL Announces It Won't Play Nice With 2018 Winter Olympics

The Olympic rings symbol is seen in Gangneung, near the venue for the ice hockey events, as preparations continue for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

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The NHL won’t be pausing its season to allow players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, officials announced on Monday.

Many pro players have expressed a desire to compete in the Games at Pyeongchang, South Korea. But the league says it doesn’t see a benefit to the sport — and does see a risk of injuries.

The NHL has allowed players to participate in every Olympic Games since 1998.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, disputes over money played a role in the decision not to continue.

The International Olympic Committee has previously paid for players to travel to the Olympics, and covered their insurance costs. But the IOC wasn’t planning to foot the bill for 2018.

The International Ice Hockey Federation offered to cover the costs instead. But one NHL writer says “there was concern the funds would come from assets that would otherwise be used to grow the game at the grassroots level.”

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reports that “the NHL had been looking for more concessions that were believed to include marketing opportunities tied to the Games.”

Some of the world’s top hockey players have sent “clear signs” that they want to compete at the Olympics, the AP reports. After the NHL announced its decision, one former NHL player tweeted, “way to ruin the sport of hockey even more Gary” — that is, Commissioner Gary Bettman.

NHL columnist Nicholas J. Cotsonika acknowledged that “the players wanted to go,” in a column expressing support for the decision. He said that the NHL has been “lending its players to someone else’s tournament,” without getting any boost in ratings or revenue.

“The NHL did it without the Olympics for 80 years and will do so again,” Cotsonika wrote.

(Cotsonika also writes that the players’ Olympics careers were essentially subsidized by their NHL salaries. That’s a point that came up obliquely in a recent dispute between the women’s national hockey team and USA Hockey, where the women — who don’t have the benefit of hefty NHL checks — noted how poorly they were compensated for their Olympic efforts.)

ESPN notes that the announcement might not be the end of the conversation:

“Some players, including Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, have said they would play in the Olympics regardless of whether the league was formally committed or not. The league did not address this issue in its release, but league officials expect players to fulfill their contractual commitments to play with their respective clubs.”

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Warren Buffett adorns Cherry Coke cans in China

File photo: Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett drinks a can of Cherry Coke at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha May 1, 2010.

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Coca-Cola Co is putting the likeness of Warren Buffett on Cherry Coke cans in China, hoping to benefit from its biggest shareholder’s popularity in the country.

According to its website, Coca-Cola got permission from the billionaire investor to use his image on cans for a limited time, while supplies last. It launched Cherry Coke in China on March 10.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc, which Buffett runs, is Coke’s largest investor, with a 9.3 percent stake worth roughly $17 billion.

Buffett has many fans in China, which often sends a large contingent to watch him at Berkshire’s annual meetings in Omaha, Nebraska.

Last year, Berkshire webcast its meeting for the first time, and provided simultaneous translation only in Mandarin.

Buffett has often said he drinks five Cokes a day, and joked that he is “one quarter Coca-Cola” because the beverage accounts for 25 percent of his caloric intake.

The 86-year-old told shareholders at Berkshire’s annual meeting last April that he had no evidence he would be more likely to live to 100 if he switched to “water and broccoli.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Rigby)

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Carrying Some Extra Pounds May Not Be Good After All

A new study finds that being overweight may decrease a person’s life span.

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New research published Monday adds fuel to an ongoing debate in the public health community over whether a few extra pounds are good, or bad, for you.

Earlier research found that being somewhat overweight, but not obese, may result in a longer life.

But today’s study in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that being slightly overweight may actually decrease a person’s life span, which is more in line with conventional wisdom about weight.

So who’s right? It’s all about study design and statistical analysis.

Let’s start with the newest study, headed by demographer Andrew Stokes at Boston University School of Public Health. His group found a 6 percent increased risk of dying from any cause among individuals with a history of being overweight.

Although Stokes says that 6 percent “is only a modest increase,” it’s still “extremely worrisome” because so many Americans are overweight.

“Our findings confirm that there is no benefit of being overweight on risk of death, and indicate that [being] overweight is actually associated with an increased risk of dying,” he says.

These findings apply only to those who are overweight, not to obese people. There is little debate that people who are obese are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and even premature death.

Overweight is defined as a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 to 29.9, which is about ten to 30 pounds overweight depending on your height. Obese is defined as anyone with a BMI of 30 or above. You can calculate your BMI here.

About 38 percent of Americans over 20 years old are considered overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 30 percent or so fall into the obese category.

For their study, Stokes and colleagues gathered data on more than 225,000 adults over the age of 50 to determine whether being overweight affected life span. They included people participating in three major studies that lasted between eight and 20 years.

Stokes focused on each person’s maximum BMI over a 16-year period, which he says makes the findings more reliable than earlier studies that have used a single BMI without regard to whether someone is gaining or losing weight at the time of the measurement.

Stokes’s study was also more likely to exclude people who had temporarily lost weight due to illness.

His approach is also different from that taken by the authors of the 2013 study that startled many in the public health community by suggesting that being overweight could lead to a longer life.

In that study, CDC epidemiologist Katherine Flegal and her colleagues analyzed results from 97 studies of obesity, covering nearly 3 million people, and found that the combined effect showed “a slight decrease in mortality” among overweight individuals, when compared to those of normal weight.

It was surprising news.

“Our article got called rubbish and ludicrous,” Flegal told NPR in 2013, “so it really opens you to lots of criticism. I discovered, much to my sorrow, that this is kind of a flashpoint for people.”

Flegal continues to stand by her results, and she criticized the new study for relying on people’s memories of their own weight.

“We know people don’t report their weight and height very accurately. Women tend to under report weight and men tend to over report height,” Flegal, now of Stanford University, says.

She also says that her findings were more accurate than the new study’s findings because her work was not based on participants’ maximum weight, which might make them appear less healthy.

But Stokes says Flegal’s study is “seriously flawed” because it fails to separate the effects of illness on weight from the effect of weight on risk of disease. “This new analysis provides a novel way of addressing this issue by using weight history to distinguish between people who were slim over time from those who were formerly heavy and lost weight after developing an illness,” he says.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear why being overweight would be protective or even life-extending. Some researchers speculate it could be that a little extra fat protects people if they fall, or that it offers an energy reserve during illness.

Faced with these conflicting findings, Dr. Steven Heymsfield says people who are overweight should check with their doctor to see if they have other weight-related health problems such as high blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol. Heymsfield is an obesity researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La.

For people who do have those problems, there are generally effective treatments available for the conditions. At the same time, he says, people should work to prevent future weight gain and, if possible, lose weight and try to bring their BMI down to a healthier level.

Stokes says future research should look at whether overweight people who diet, exercise and lose weight can turn back their risk of disease to that of an individual who never gained weight in the first place.

“Individuals should try as hard as possible to maintain weight in a normal range for as large a portion of their adult life as possible,” he says.

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Kishori Amonkar, Leading Indian Classical Vocalist, Dies At Age 84

The Indian vocalist Kishori Amonkar and tabla player Zakir Hussain posing at an awards ceremony in Mumbai, India in February 2016. Amonkar died on April 3, 2017 at age 84.

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One of India’s foremost classical singers, Kishori Amonkar, has died; she was one of the primary representatives of the Hindustani (North Indian) vocal tradition. The Times of Indiareported Amonkar died today at home in Mumbai after a brief illness, at age 84.

Kishori Amonkar was a musicians’ musician. In a 2011 documentary about the singer, Bhinna Shadja(a film commissioned by India’s Ministry of External Affairs), the internationally renowned tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain placed her among the greatest Hindustani vocalists of all time, saying of her music: “It’s a painting that embodies every detail of someone’s life. In that, there is great happiness, great sadness, great anger, great frustration, desperation. Everything comes into focus in this one, concentrated little piece.” Using her nickname, “Tai,” Hussain continued: “That journey you can take in the world of art with so few. Kishoritai is one of those people.”

Along with her brilliant and deeply emotional improvisations in the khyal classical song style, in performances of single ragas that could last well over an hour, Amonkar — who usually sang cradling a small swaramandal zither to accompany herself — was particularly noted for her work in two other, more compact song genres: the “semi-classical” thumri style, and in bhajans, a kind of Hindu religious devotional song. In the recording below, Amonkar interprets a Meera bhajan, a song in honor of the god Krishna attributed to the 16th-century mystic and poet Meera (also known as Mira, Meerabai or Mirabai).

YouTube

Born April 10, 1932, Amonkar trained with her mother, singer Mogubai Kurdikar, in the Jaipur Atrauli gharana (school, or tradition) founded by the 19th-century artist Ustad [Master] Alladiya Khan. In an interview with The Indian Express originally published in December, Amonkar recalled her mother as a stern taskmaster: “She would sing and I would repeat,” she said. “I would copy her without asking her anything. Aai [Mother] was so strict that she would sing the sthayi [refrain] and antara [stanza] only twice and not a third time. I had to get every contour of the piece in those two instances. That taught me concentration.” Later, she would accompany her mother onstage, playing the stringed tanpura drone as her mother sang.

After her professional career began to develop in her early twenties, Amonkar reportedly lost her voice totally. She said that she found no cure in Western-style doctors or physical therapy. Instead, she credited the return of her abilities — a process that took two years — to a holy person who aided her with Ayurveda. According to Amonkar, that two-year break from singing helped her find her own voice — and her own approach into the tradition. She finally felt free enough to locate her own connection to the music she was singing, rather than simply mimic what she had been taught.

Amonkar received two of the Indian government’s highest civilian awards: the third-highest, the Padma Bushan, in 1987 and the second-highest, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2002. Even so, she was less of a celebrity figure than some of her contemporaries, rarely performing internationally and loathe to give interviews.

She was also famously prone to chastising audiences and presenters for what she perceived as less-than-perfect attention to her performances. Amonkar attributed that acerbity to her need to service the music. “I want to get involved and focus on the abstract … For that I need my audiences’s help, not their interruptions,” she told The Indian Express. “People have to understand that music isn’t entertainment. It is not to be sung to attract the audience, which is why I never play to the gallery.”

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Recall Of Some EpiPens Extends To U.S.

An EpiPen Jr. epinephrine auto-injector. Some EpiPens have been recalled from the U.S. market over concerns that they could fail to activate when people try to use them.

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Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The pharmaceutical company Mylan NV announced a recall of some brand-name EpiPen and EpiPen Jr. auto-injectors on Friday.

The announcement followed a separate recall of about 80,000 EpiPens from the Australian market, which the company announced in March. Mylan did not immediately respond to a request for information about how many EpiPens are affected by the latest recall.

The company said in a press release that the recall affecting the U.S. was prompted by two cases outside the U.S. in which consumers had trouble activating their EpiPens due to a “potential defect in a supplier component.” In those cases, the company said the EpiPen was difficult to activate or couldn’t be activated at all, which could be bad newsfor someone experiencing a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Epinephrine auto-injectors are portable and easy to use, making them a must-have for anyone with a serious allergy, as we have reported. The EpiPens being recalled were distributed between December 2015 and July 2016.

The Food and Drug Administration released a statement on Friday saying that the recall is being driven by “the potential for life-threatening risk if a severe allergic reaction goes untreated.”

Even if an EpiPen is included in the recall, the FDA is instructing consumers to keep and use the recalled auto-injectors until their replacements arrive, adding that “consumers should always seek emergency medical help right away after using their EpiPens, particularly if the device did not activate.”

Mylan is directing consumers to their website to see if an EpiPen should be replaced, and for instructions on how to do so. Meridian Medical Technologies manufactures the EpiPen, which is distributed by Mylan.

The price of the EpiPen has increased nearly fivefold in the past ten years. EpiPens were available for $47 in 2007. As NPR’s Alison Kodjak reported last year, the price shot up to $284 in 2016, and because the auto-injectors were only available in pairs, the cost to fill an EpiPen prescription at Walgreens was about $634 as of August 2016.

To address criticism of the price increase, last December Mylan introduced the generic EpiPen at $300, half the cost of the name-brand alternative. They have also offered coupons in the past to reduce out-of-pocket EpiPen costs. Generic EpiPens are not included in this recent recall.

According to the website GoodRX, the average retail price of a pair of EpiPens is now about $330.

Last year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services accused Mylan of misclassifying EpiPens and charging the government too much for Medicaid patients who used the auto-injector. The company settled for $465 million with the U.S. Justice Department along with other government agencies.

This isn’t the first time an epinephrine auto-injector has been pulled from the shelves. In 2015, EpiPen competitor Auvi-Q was taken off the market after it was found to administer an unreliable dose of epinephrine.

Now, Auvi-Q is available again, and its maker, the privately-held drugmaker Kaleo Pharmaceuticals, says all commercially insured patients can pay nothing out of pocket for the auto-injector.

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