Austin Bomber Dies, Detonating Bomb in Car

A suspect identified as 24-year-old white man dies as SWAT officers approached his car. The man said to be responsible for six bombs was traced through FedEx transactions.

The suspect in a string of bombings in Austin is dead, reports the Austin American-Statesman. Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said authorities tracked down the suspect’s vehicle to a hotel in Round Rock, Tx., just north of Austin. Police began following the suspect’s vehicle, and as SWAT officers approached, the suspect detonated a bomb in the car. The name of the suspect, described as a 24-year-old white man, has not been released, pending notification of his family. Although police are still investigating the possibility of accomplices, Manley said, “we believe this individual is responsible for all of the incidents in Austin.” Manley urged the community to remain vigilant for possible other explosives, adding that “we do not know where (the suspect) has been in the past 24 hours.” Police have not identified a motive for the bombings.

The break in the case was based largely on information gained after the suspect shipped an explosive device from a FedEx store in Sunset Valley, a suburb surrounded by Austin. Authorities also relied on store receipts showing suspicious transactions and obtained a warrant for his Google search history that showed him conducting searches they considered suspicious. Authorities used cell phone technology to trace the suspect to a hotel. Four bombs exploded in Austin starting on March 2, killing two men and injuring four people. A fifth bomb exploded early Tuesday at a FedEx sorting facility in Schertz, 60 miles southwest of Austin. A package containing an apparent unexploded bomb was found Tuesday at a FedEx distribution center in Austin. The use of FedEx represented a major shift in the bomber’s methods and a major break for authorities. The first three bombs were left overnight on doorsteps and were not delivered commercially. The fourth bomb was left next to a street in a residential subdivision and was triggered by a trip wire strung over a sidewalk.


Executions in Drug Cases Authorized in 1994 Crime Law

President Trump is advocating the possible execution of drug dealers, but that is already possible under a 1994 federal anticrime law. Prosecutors never have invoked the provision, which some legal scholars say may be unconstitutional.

The execution of drug smugglers that President Trump advocates as part of his plan to combat the opioid crisis is already legal under a 1994 law passed at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, Politico reports. Federal prosecutors have never used it. The 1994 death penalty statute was part of a clampdown on drug dealers in response to the crack epidemic, linked to a surge of crime and violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Many prosecutors believed it would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, said criminologist Ojmarrh Mitchell of the University of South Florida. “In the absence of a direct link to a death, the constitutionality of death penalty prosecution is shaky at best,” said Ohio State law Prof. Douglas Berman.

The 1994 statute authorizes capital punishment against people who direct a continuing criminal enterprise involving either large quantities of drugs or generate $20 million a year from the enterprise. It includes 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for drug sales that result in overdose deaths. At least 20 states have “drug-induced homicide” laws, which increasingly are used to prosecute opioid dealers whose drug sales result in accidental deaths. In as many as half of the state homicide-by-drugs cases, the accused dealer is also the wife, husband, parent or friend of the victim, and also an addict. Often,  user and dealer are one and the same, and neither knows the specific drug substances in play. “The evil villain in this story is very hard to find,” said John Roman of NORC at the University of Chicago. “The people who are convenient for arrest for the most part aren’t that evil villain.” In a 2008 case, the Supreme Court effectively removed drug smuggling as a capital crime, said Berman. “It has never been pursued, and if it were pursued with Trump’s urging, there would be extensive litigation that would go to the Supreme Court.”


Three Hurt in Southern Maryland School Shooting

Three people were injured, including the shooter, at a high school 65 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning. Two teens in the area were arrested last month for “threats of mass violence.”

A shooting at a southern Maryland high school Tuesday morning injured three people, including the shooter, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said. Authorities said the situation was “contained” as deputies and federal agents converged on the crime scene, the Associated Press reports. St. Mary’s County Sheriff Timothy Cameron said the shooting occurred shortly after classes began around 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, the Washington Post reports. He said a male and female student were shot by a gunman, who was also a student at the school. A school resource officer exchanged fire with the student shooter. Terrence Rhames, 18, told the Baltimore Sun that he heard a gunshot and saw a girl fall as he ran for an exit.

The St. Mary’s County Public Schools said the situation was “contained” after the shooting at Great Mills High School, which has about 1,600 students and is near the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, about 65 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. This latest shooting happened as many students are calling for action against gun violence in schools, leading up to Saturday’s March For Our Lives rally in the nation’s capital. At Great Mills last month, Principal Jake Heibel, told parents that two students were interviewed after they were overheard mentioning a school shooting, and they were found to pose no threat. Heibel said the school increased its security nevertheless after social media posts about a possible school shooting “circulated quite extensively.” Also last month, St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s office said it arrested two teenage boys for “threats of mass violence” and a 39-year-old man on related charges after the teens made threats about a potential school shooting at Leonardtown High School, a high school about 10 miles from Great Mills.


No Funding Commitment in Trump’s Anti-Opioid Plan

The president wants to cut opioid prescriptions by one-third within three years. He seeks the death penalty for dealers, which aides say would apply only to “very specific, high-level cases.”

President Trump pledged to achieve victory over the opioid epidemic in a speech in hard-hit New Hampshire, touting a “tough” law-enforcement approach—including the death penalty for dealers—as Congress wrestles with treatment funding, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Addiction is not our future. We will liberate our country from this crisis,” Trump said. “This is about winning a very, very tough problem, and if we don’t get very tough on these dealers, it’s not going to happen, folks.” Trump’s remarks at a community college on Monday marked the unveiling of the next phase of his administration’s plan to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic, now claiming the lives of 100 Americans a day through overdoses of prescription opioid pills, fentanyl and heroin.

The plan calls for opioid prescriptions to be reduced by one-third within three years, partly by encouraging physicians to change their behavior. It seeks guaranteed access to overdose-reversal drug naloxone and Justice Department filing of death-penalty cases against drug traffickers. Trump said concerns about fentanyl and heroin supported his policies seeking to extend a barrier on the southern border and punish cities that refuse to cooperate with federal deportation efforts. White House aides said the proposal on the death penalty was focused only “very specific high-level cases” and that the administration was more interested in seeing new laws providing mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl dealers. The plan backs expanding access to medication-assisted treatment, though it doesn’t come with a price tag. Democrats have criticized the administration’s response as slow, saying they want a specific commitment for funds. “This is not a crisis that we can solve just by being tougher on drug dealers,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), “We need presidential leadership in pushing for the significant additional funding that it will ultimately take.”


Cities Face Showdown With Trump Over Safe Injection Sites

Research finds that injection sites prevent fatal overdoses and reduce the spread of infectious diseases. Still, the sites themselves violate federal anti-drug law and could face prosecution.

Several cities could soon face a legal showdown with the Trump administration over efforts to open “supervised injection facilities” where drug addicts can shoot up with powerful illegal drugs while trained personnel stand by to prevent fatal overdoses, McClatchy Newspapers reports. San Francisco plans to open the nation’s first two  authorized injection facilities in July. Philadelphia and Seattle are also pursuing similar sites. Other large cities like Denver and New York City and even smaller towns, like Ithaca, N.Y. have considered such facilities. The Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association want a pilot facility in their state.

Research on injection sites around the world have found they prevent fatal overdoses and reduce the spread of infectious diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV by providing sterile needles and equipment. They also connect drug users with counseling, treatment and other services without increasing area drug trafficking and other crime, studies have found. Armed with naloxone to reverse overdoses, injection facility staff provide a lifesaving backstop to addicts whose stash may be tainted with lethal fentanyl, said Taeko Frost of the Harm Reduction Coalition in Oakland. By being in illegal possession of controlled substances, every user who visits an injection site would violate drug-possession provisions of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, said Katherine Pfaff of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The sites themselves would violate the law’s “crack house statute” that prohibits the use of a location to manufacture, store, distribute or use controlled substances, Pfaff said. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is likely to oppose safe injection sites but he might let local U.S. Attorneys decide how best to deal with an injection facility in their jurisdiction.


How FL Officials Missed Chances to Stop Gunman

School officers in Florida could have sought an involuntary commitment of Nikolas Cruz under the state’s Baker Act. The Miami Herald says authorities repeatedly failed to appreciate his growing interest in weapons.

The day before Nikolas Cruz’s 18th birthday, administrators at his Parkland, Fl., high school were fretting about what adulthood would portend for their very troubled student. Cruz’s mother was going to help him get a government ID. That would allow him to buy guns. Cruz had told a classmate he had ingested gasoline, causing him to vomit. He had “expressed” threats to both himself and others, and had cut himself with a pencil sharpener. He had written the word “kill” in a school notebook. It was Sept. 23, 2016, and Henderson Behavioral Health in Broward County had been asked to determine whether Cruz was a danger to himself or others. A Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School resource officer was evidently convinced that Cruz was, and told social workers he was considering initiating an involuntary commitment of Cruz under Florida’s Baker Act. The petition was apparently never filed, the Miami Herald reports.

Cruz — who is facing 17 first-degree murder charges for a Feb. 14 rampage at Stoneman Douglas — had been evaluated at least three times in 2016. “Mother reported the school is concerned due to client turning 18 years old and he will get an ID; client has made statements at school regarding getting a gun, and the school has expressed concerns,” read a note from a mental health counselor. It appears authorities missed numerous opportunities to ensure Cruz didn’t have access to weapons, including the kind that are capable of instant devastation. His records make a compelling case that authorities repeatedly failed to appreciate Cruz’s growing interest in weapons, and the danger they posed in the hands of a profoundly troubled young man. Again and again, workers took Cruz’s word when he denied any intention to harm himself or others — though records show they didn’t necessarily believe him.


Explosion at FedEx Center Linked to Austin Blasts

Authorities believe that a package bomb explosion Tuesday morning at a FedEx facility near San Antonio is connected to a series of bombings in Austin that have killed two people.

A package bomb that exploded at a FedEx facility near San Antonio early Tuesday is likely linked to attacks by a serial bomber that have killed two people in Austin, USA Today reports. “It would be silly for us not to admit that we suspect it’s related” into four bombings in Austin this month, said FBI spokeswoman Michelle Lee. The incident happened at about 12:30 a.m. at a FedEx Ground distribution center in Schertz, Tx. Schertz police said the explosion came from a package in the sorting area of the facility.

One person was treated for injuries and released at the scene. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI were sent to the scene as well as SWAT and bomb squads from the San Antonio Police Department. Four explosions about 80 miles away in Austin this month have killed two people and wounded four more. Authorities have said those blasts most likely were connected. The most recent Austin blast seriously wounded two men Sunday in a quiet southwest neighborhood. Police Chief Brian Manley said 500 law enforcement officials involved in the case at the local, state and federal levels have found “persons of interest,” but no clear suspects have emerged. Authorities have asked residents to share home-security video for clues. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the state is committing $265,000 to the effort to solve the bombings.


House GOP Leaders Back Second Special Counsel

More leaders in the House are backing conservatives’ call for a second special counsel, this one to investigate alleged anti-Republican bias at the FBI. A second counsel could raise questions about the Russia probe being led by Robert Mueller.

House GOP leaders are starting to come out in strong support of a second special counsel to investigate conservative allegations of bias and abuse at the FBI, The Hill reports. Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said he backs the appointment of another special counsel to look at how law enforcement has handled the Russia probe. Scalise’s statement echoed similar calls from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) over the weekend. The moves align the No. 2 and No. 3 House GOP leaders with President Trump, who could be a factor in a future leadership race between the two friendly rivals.

Neither Scalise nor McCarthy wants any daylight between themselves and Trump in the event Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) calls it quits after the November midterm elections. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have not endorsed the idea of a second probe nor criticized special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, despite growing calls from rank-and-file members. Mueller “and his team should be able to do their job,” said a Ryan spokeswoman. The creation of a second special counsel would almost certainly muddy the waters surrounding Mueller’s investigation and could undermine it by raising questions about his evidence. At the same time, it could chill suggestions that Mueller should be fired by Trump, a maneuver many Republicans see as a huge political risk and the White House insists is not in play. Democrats argue the creation of a second investigation would be a smokescreen designed to shift criticism toward 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whom Trump has repeatedly blamed for the instigation of the probe.


‘Critically Dangerous’ Staff Shortages in NC Prisons

At a maximum-security prison that has been plagued by violence, more than one of every three officer positions was vacant in January. The vacancies there have climbed sharply over the past year. Prison leaders have required many officers to work overtime, which can lead to burnout and fatigue.

Dangerous staff shortages have worsened inside some of North Carolina’s toughest prisons, despite recent state efforts to address the problem, the Charlotte Observer reports. At Lanesboro Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison that has been plagued by violence, more than one of every three officer positions was vacant in January. The vacancies there have climbed sharply over the past year. Prison leaders have tried temporary measures to maintain order. They’ve required many officers to work overtime, which can lead to burnout and fatigue. State Rep. Justin Burr, whose district includes the Albemarle prison, said, “They’re retiring. They’re quitting. They don’t want to put their lives in danger.” The officer vacancy rate at Albemarle has more than tripled – from 7 percent in January 2017 to 25 percent a year later.

Prison leaders are trying a different approach at Lanesboro: They’re sending in members of the Prison Emergency Response Team, which is made up of officers from various prisons. About 37 percent of positions at Lanesboro were vacant in January, up from about 22 percent a year earlier. One officer at Lanesboro said some officers are working nine straight days or consecutive 16-hour shifts. The prison is so short-staffed, she said, that two officers are sometimes left in charge of overseeing 200 inmates in the cafeteria. In the past, one former officer said, there were twice that many officers stationed there. If a gang battle broke out, staff members could do little to stop it, the current officer said. “I think it’s critically dangerous,” she said of the prison’s staffing shortages. At Pasquotank Correctional Institution, where four employees were fatally attacked during an October escape attempt, the overall vacancy rate in January was about 37 percent.


Punishment is Rare for NYC Police ‘Testilying’

New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board finds only two cases out of 81 in which a police officer was severely disciplined for lying.

For years, New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board has documented every instance it believes it has caught an officer lying. Often they involve officers who deny throwing a punch or who downplay the force used during an arrest, only to have their accounts undermined by video recordings. The civilian board has no power to mete out discipline in such cases; it refers them to the Police Department for possible action. In case after case, the Police Department reaches the same finding: There is not enough evidence to determine whether the police officer made a false statement, the New York Times reports.

The board has been notified of only two cases out of the 81 it has been able to track since 2010 in which the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau upheld the board’s accusation that the officer had made a false statement. In the other 79 cases, the Police Department found no wrongdoing or found the officer guilty of lesser misconduct, such as failing to properly fill out a memo book. “There didn’t appear to be any disciplinary consequences for cases where it seemed black and white that the officer was not telling the truth,” said Richard Emery, the civilian board’s chairman from 2014 to 2016. The Times has examined how lying remains a persistent problem within the Police Department, which, with 36,650 officers, is by far the nation’s largest municipal force. A monthslong investigation uncovered a number of cases in recent years in which officers had clearly not told the truth about arrests they had made, a phenomenon with the storied nickname “testilying.”