Beyond the county: California water board fears water-saving has been abandoned; NSA contractor accused of taking classified information; After battering Haiti, Hurricane Matthew hits the Bahamas |

Beyond the county: California water board fears water-saving has been abandoned; NSA contractor accused of taking classified information; After battering Haiti, Hurricane Matthew hits the Bahamas

FILE - In this May 18, 2015 file photo, irrigation pipes sit along a dry irrigation canal on a field near Stockton, Calif. State regulators said Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016, water conservation continues to slip in drought-stricken California after officials lifted mandatory cutbacks. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)


California water board fears water-saving has been abandoned

FRESNO, Calif. — Californians conserved about a third less water in August than a year earlier, state regulators announced Wednesday, evidence that the decision to ease up on conservation mandates caused some to revert to old habits.

“We’re at yellow alert,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, as the board released August figures showing conservation by cities and towns dropping.

Water regulators would be looking closely at the causes for the increased water use, Marcus said. “I’m not ready to go to red alert until we figure it out.”

California is heading into a possible sixth consecutive year of drought with uncertainty of what this coming winter — the rainy season in the state — will do to ease the historic dry spell, officials said.

Last winter, a near-average amount of rain and snow fell in Northern California, prompting officials to relax conservation efforts statewide by turning over control to local water districts.

That may have been a mistake, said Tracy Quinn, a Southern-California based water expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ever since, Quinn said Wednesday, she notices more Californians have gone back to running water sprinklers full tilt, and hears friends and family expressing uncertainty whether the state is even in drought anymore.

“It’s very clear that, at least in this drought, voluntary conservation hasn’t been successful,” Quinn said. “What got us the savings we need is mandatory conservation throughout the state.”

Repeal or reform? Death penalty voter decisions for 3 states

LOS ANGELES — California’s dysfunctional death penalty faces a fate in November that seems fitting: voters can put it out of its misery, or fix it so it does what it promises. The state is among three where voters will make decisions on capital punishment.

California’s ballot initiatives — one would repeal capital punishment, the other would speed up appeals so convicted murderers are actually executed — are fueled by those who agree only that the current system is broken, leaving murder victims’ kin grieving and the condemned languishing on death row.

Meanwhile, voters in Nebraska will be asked whether they want to reinstate the death penalty and Oklahoma residents will decide whether to make it harder to abolish it.

In California, more than 900 convicted murderers have been sent to death row since 1978 — but only 13 have been executed in the state. Many more have died of natural causes and no one has been put to death in more than a decade after a judge ordered an overhaul to the state’s lethal injection procedure.

The votes for the three states come amid an evolution for capital punishment in the U.S.

Executions have mostly been in decline since the turn of the century and last year reached their lowest level in 25 years, with 28 prisoners killed. Capital punishment has been either legislatively or judicially repealed in eight states since 2000, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.


The referendum to repeal California’s death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole is a repeat of a 2012 ballot measure that failed 52 percent to 48 percent. Only voters in Arizona and twice in Oregon have repealed the death penalty and both states later reversed course to reinstate it.

The California repeal effort is supported by defense lawyers plus luminaries including former President Jimmy Carter, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.

Proponents of Proposition 62 argue eliminating it it would save California $150 million a year, mostly in reduced legal fees plus cheaper prison costs since death row inmates who get single cells could be double-bunked. California’s finance director has estimated the proposed reforms to speed up the death penalty could save the state $30 million annually.

They also point to wrongful convictions. Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nearly nine years in a Maryland prison for the sexual assault and bludgeoning death of a 9-year-old girl in Maryland, was the first condemned inmate in the United States freed because of DNA results in 1993. Another man later pleaded guilty to the murder.

“If it can happen to an honorably discharged Marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it can happen to anybody in America,” Bloodsworth said.

A majority of votes is needed for a ballot measure to pass in California. In the unlikely event both competing measures cross the 50 percent threshold, the one with the most “yes” votes would take effect. If neither passes, the current system would remain in place.


California’s prosecutors and law enforcement are leading the opposing measure to “mend, not end” capital punishment. They say Proposition 66 will begin to clear the legal bottleneck blocking the path to the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

“It shouldn’t take decades upon decades,” said Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who helped draft the initiative. “I’m not a rabid dog about the death penalty, but I think it should be an option in the rarest of the most heinous cases that exist in our society.”

The reformers want to trim state appeals of death sentences to five years, assigning some to trial judges and expanding the pool of lawyers taking cases. It would have no control over federal appeals.

Those seeking to abolish the death penalty say the reforms will result in incompetent lawyers being assigned appeals and forced to meet arbitrary deadlines that will overwhelm already strained trial courts.

Death penalty supporters point to heinous crimes and the grieving family members of victims who have long waited for justice.

Sandy Friend’s 8-year-old son, Michael Lyons, was kidnapped, stabbed 70 to 80 times with a knife and bludgeoned 20 years ago in Northern California. Robert Rhoades, the barber who murdered him, was also convicted of murdering and raping a young woman and sentenced to death for both cases.

“Robert Rhoades is just the poster child for the death penalty and there are people who are worse than him. These people are monsters,” Friend said. “I’d like to see the last breath that Rhoades takes. I really would. I think that’s what Michael had to endure.”

Merced City Council candidate accused of possession

MERCED — A Merced City Council candidate has been accused of 17 criminal charges including possession of more than one pound of marijuana for sale and tax code violations in connection to a medical marijuana dispensary.

The Merced Sun-Star reports that Lakisha Jenkins was arrested Tuesday on a felony warrant in Stanislaus County just hours after taking part in a candidates forum.

Jenkins formerly operated a medical marijuana dispensary in the Stanislaus County community of Oakdale. The operation was shut down when deputies found more than the allowed 60 marijuana plants at the operation when they arrived to serve an eviction notice.

Jenkins was being held Tuesday with bond set at $50,000.


For Clinton, election likely to be won or lost in October

WASHINGTON — Each night, Hillary Clinton’s data experts head to a conference room on the 11th floor of her Brooklyn headquarters, to start counting votes.

The sessions in the “early voter boiler room,” as it’s been dubbed by campaign aides, stretch into the early hours of the morning. The team pores over turnout patterns in states where advance voting is already underway, projects how many votes Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have already received, and updates crucial targeting lists of the voters she still needs.

For Clinton, October is when she’s likely to win or lose the election, not Nov. 8. By the third week of this month, Clinton’s campaign hopes to have a solid enough sample of the early vote to know whether the Democrat is on track to win the White House.

“Many battleground states are already voting so every day is Election Day,” said Matt Dover, Clinton’s voter analytics director.

In several competitive states, including North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Florida and Nevada, at least 45 percent of the total vote is expected to come in early. Initial metrics show good news for Clinton in North Carolina, a must-win state for Trump. There are modestly positive signs for the Republican in Iowa, but that’s a state the Democrat can likely afford to lose.

Some see Pence, post-debate, as top-of-ticket material

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Republican Mike Pence emerged from the vice presidential debate Wednesday an energized No. 2 set on using his Midwestern reserve to win over small-town and rural conservatives in battleground states.

But the praise Pence is receiving after Tuesday’s debate against Democrat Tim Kaine is also an awkward reminder of Trump’s failings at his own top-of-the-ticket showdown against Hillary Clinton. That has some Republicans wishing for a ticket flip – with Pence the one running for president – and looking ahead to Pence’s prospects in 2020.

“Some people say they wish the ticket were reversed. I can see that,” said Jim Wood, a retired Army officer and Iraq War veteran from nearby Waynesboro, Virginia. “People got to see that last night. For all of Trump’s anger, this guy plays it cool.”

The understated Pence kept calm during the debate, offering only an indignant “Oh, come on” at Kaine’s assertion that Trump’s “personal Mount Rushmore” includes the faces of dictators including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The more a wound-up Kaine challenged him to defend Trump’s statements and policies, the calmer Pence seemed to get. And as the political intelligentsia debated which man won, Pence offered a gracious deflection.

NSA contractor accused of taking classified information

WASHINGTON — A contractor for the National Security Agency has been arrested on charges that he illegally removed highly classified information and stored the material in his house and car, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Harold Thomas Martin III, 51, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, was arrested by the FBI in August after authorities say he admitted to having taken government secrets. A defense attorney said Martin did not intend to betray his country.

The arrest was not made public until Wednesday, when the Justice Department released a 5-page criminal complaint that accused Martin of having been in possession of top-secret information.

Among the classified documents found with Martin, according to the FBI, were six that contain sensitive intelligence – meaning they were produced through sensitive government sources or methods that are critical to national security – and date back to 2014. All the documents were clearly marked as classified information, according to a criminal complaint.

The complaint does not specify what documents Martin was alleged to have taken. The arrest was made around the same time that U.S. officials acknowledged an investigation into a cyber leak of purported hacking tools used by the NSA. The tool kit consists of malicious software intended to tamper with firewalls, the electronic defenses protecting computer networks. Those documents were leaked by a group calling itself the “Shadow Brokers.”

Arm transplant recipient says he can now hold fiancee’s hand

BOSTON — A former Marine sergeant who underwent a double arm transplant said Wednesday that the best part about having arms again is that he can hold his fiancee’s hand and pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a chef.

Retired Sgt. John Peck , who lost all four limbs as the result of an explosion of a homemade bomb in Afghanistan in May 2010, underwent 14 hours of surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in August. The procedure involved 60 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

His arms are scarred and move awkwardly, but every day with the new limbs is better, he said at a news conference at the hospital. He is learning to dress himself, brush his teeth and feed himself all over again.

The first time he held fiancee Jessica Paker’s hand after the surgery, he couldn’t even feel it, but it still meant the world.

“That truly is a special gift,” he said, adding later that he can now feel pressure when she squeezes.


After battering Haiti, Hurricane Matthew hits the Bahamas

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rescue workers in Haiti struggled to reach cutoff towns and learn the full extent of the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew as the storm battered the Bahamas on Wednesday and triggered large-scale evacuations along the U.S. East Coast.

At least 11 deaths were blamed on the powerful storm during its weeklong march across the Caribbean, five of them in Haiti. But with a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the western tip of Haiti was isolated and there was no full accounting of the dead and injured in Matthew’s wake.

After moving past Haiti, Matthew rolled across a corner of Cuba and then began pounding the southern Bahamas with winds of 120 mph (195 kph) and heavy rain on a course expected to take it near the capital city of Nassau.

Forecasters said the storm could hit Florida – or come dangerously close – Thursday evening and then sideswipe the East Coast all the way up to the Carolinas over the weekend. Matthew could become the first major hurricane to blow ashore in the U.S. since Wilma slashed across Florida in 2005, killing five people.

At least a half-million people along the lower East Coast were urged to evacuate their homes.

Syria’s military to reduce airstrikes for Aleppo evacuations

BEIRUT — Syria’s military command said it would scale back its bombardment of the contested city of Aleppo on Wednesday to allow civilians to evacuate besieged rebel-held neighborhoods.

The announcement, broadcast on state TV, followed 16 days of airstrikes and shelling that have killed over 300 civilians and damaged hospitals and water facilities. Satellite images released Wednesday by the U.N. show the scale of the destruction since a U.S.-Russia brokered cease-fire collapsed two weeks ago.

The government is accused by opponents and international observers of using violence to forcibly depopulate areas seen as disloyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The government has used scorched earth tactics against us, and then blesses us with an opportunity to leave? Of course this is refused,” said Ammar Sakkar, the military spokesman of the Fastiqum rebel faction inside east Aleppo.

Doctors inside the city’s besieged eastern neighborhoods said there were fewer attacks on Wednesday, after two weeks of airstrikes in which Russian and Syrian government jets targeted underground hospitals with bunker-busting bombs.

Paris climate agreement to take effect Nov. 4

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The landmark Paris agreement on climate change will enter into force on Nov. 4, after being pushed past a key threshold Wednesday by a coalition of the world’s largest polluters and small island nations threatened by rising seas.

President Barack Obama hailed the news as “a turning point for our planet,” and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the agreement’s strong international support a “testament for the urgency of action.” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech, called it: “A moment of bright hope in the increasingly discouraging landscape of climate science.”

U.N. Spokesman Farhan Haq said the EU, Canada and Nepal would deposit their instruments of ratification Wednesday, edging the percentage of emissions by ratifying countries past the 55 percent threshold needed for the treaty to take effect.

“I am delighted to announce that today the Paris Agreement will cross the second and final threshold needed for entry into force, and will enter into force on 4 November 2016,” Ban said in a statement issued from Europe. “Global momentum for the Paris Agreement to enter into force in 2016 has been remarkable. What once seemed unthinkable is now unstoppable. “

The deal takes effect 30 days after 55 countries, accounting for at least 55 percent of global emissions, have adopted it. Sixty-two countries had done so as of Tuesday but they accounted only for about 52 percent of emissions.

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