Teen sniper could face death penalty


Citing what he called strong circumstantial evidence, a judge ruled yesterday that 17-year-old sniper suspect John Lee Malvo can be tried as an adult, making him eligible for the death penalty.

Juvenile Court Judge Charles Maxfield made his decision after a hearing in which prosecutors said Malvo tried to extort $10 million from authorities during the killing spree and that fingerprints on the murder weapon and other evidence tied the teen-ager to four attacks, three of them fatal.

“There is no eyewitness at any of the four crime scenes but the circumstantial evidence is quite strong,” Maxfield said.

Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, 42, are accused of killing 13 people and wounding five others in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., last year. They are being tried first in Virginia in separate trials.

The extortion allegation is a key element of a Virginia anti-terrorism law that allows the death penalty for killers convicted of trying to intimidate the public or coerce the government. Malvo is also charged under a statute that allows a death sentence for multiple murders.

“They wanted to negotiate for money,” prosecutor Robert Horan said. “They said ‘If you want us to stop killing people give us the money.’ If that is not intent to intimidate government, I don’t know what is.”

Missing vials of plague samples found


About 30 vials of the plague that were reported missing at Texas Tech University were found yesterday in a mysterious episode that triggered a terrorism-alert plan and showed how jittery Americans are over the threat of a biological attack.

The FBI refused to say how or where the vials were found. However, an FBI official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities believe the samples of the lethal bacteria were simply destroyed and not properly accounted for, rather than stolen or misplaced.

FBI agent Lupe Gonzalez said a criminal investigation was continuing.

The samples, about 30 of the 180 the school was using for research on the treatment of plague, were reported missing to campus police Tuesday night.

“We have accounted for all those missing vials and we have determined that there is no danger to public safety whatsoever,” Gonzalez said.

Plague – along with anthrax, smallpox and a few other deadly agents – is on a watch list distributed by the government, which wants to make sure doctors and hospitals recognize a biological attack quickly.

Supreme Court rules in favor of Disney


Mickey Mouse and The Walt Disney Co. scored a big victory yesterday as the Supreme Court upheld longer copyright protections for cartoon characters, songs, books and other creations worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Companies like Disney breathed a collective sigh of relief with the 7-2 court ruling giving Congress permission to repeatedly extend copyright protection.

The decision was a blow to Internet publishers and others who wanted to make old books available online and use the likenesses of Mickey Mouse and other old creations without paying royalties. Hundreds of thousands of books, movies and songs were close to being released into the public domain when Congress extended the copyright by 20 years in 1998. Justices said the copyright extension, named for the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), was neither unconstitutional overreaching by Congress, nor a violation of free-speech rights.

Hard drives reveal personal information


So, you think you cleaned all your personal files from that old computer you got rid of? Two MIT graduate students suggest you think again.

Over two years, Simson Garfinkel and Abhi Shelat bought 158 used hard drives at secondhand computer stores and on eBay. Of the 129 drives that functioned, 69 still had recoverable files on them and 49 contained “significant personal information” – medical correspondence, love letters, pornography and 5,000 credit card numbers. One even had a year’s worth of transactions with account numbers from a cash machine in Illinois.

About 150,000 hard drives were “retired” last year, according to the research firm Gartner Dataquest. Many end up in the trash, but many also find their way back onto the market.

New study points to surgeons’ negligence


Surgical teams accidentally leave clamps, sponges and other tools inside about 1,500 patients nationwide each year, according to the biggest study of the problem yet.

The mistakes largely result not from surgeon fatigue, but from the stress arising from emergencies or complications discovered on the operating table, the researchers reported. It also happens more often to fat patients, simply because there is more room inside them to lose equipment, according to the study.

Both the researchers and several other experts agreed that the number of such mistakes is small compared with the roughly 28 million operations a year in the United States. “But no one in any role would say it’s acceptable,” said Donald Berwick, president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

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