WASHINGTON -- Samuel Alito coasted toward probable confirmation as the 110th Supreme Court justice Thursday, with the only question after 18 hours of grueling Senate interrogation being how many Democrats would support him. Alito said nothing to undermine his solid support by the Senate's majority Republicans during three days of aggressive questioning by Democrats who challenged his credibility, judicial philosophy and independence.
TEL AVIV, Israel -- Nothing controversial from Pat Robertson this time, just an apology. Robertson sent a letter to Ariel Sharon's son Omri expressing regret for suggesting that the prime minister's massive stroke was divine punishment for pulling Israel out of the Gaza Strip. Robertson made the contentious comments on his TV program "The 700 Club" the day after Sharon had a stroke. It drew condemnation from other Christian leaders, President Bush and Israeli officials, who canceled plans to include the American evangelist in the construction of a Christian tourist center in northern Israel. Despite the apology, it was doubtful Robertson would be brought back into the fold of the proposed Christian Heritage Center in the northern Galilee region. Rami Levi, director of marketing for Israel's tourism ministry, said that the government remains "outraged" by Robertson's remarks.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- An American researcher believes he has solved the mystery of how one of the most important human ancestors died nearly 2 million years ago: An eagle killed the 3 1/2-year old ape-man known as the Taung child. The discovery suggests small human ancestors known as hominids had to survive being hunted not only by large predators on the ground but by fearsome raptors that swooped from the sky, said Lee Berger, a senior paleoanthropologist at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. The discovery of the partial skull of a juvenile ape-man in South Africa's North West Province in 1924 revealed a human ancestor species called Australopithecus africanus, which was proposed to be the "missing link" between apes and humans.
An anti-terrorism law creating a national standard for all driver's licenses by 2008 isn't just upsetting civil libertarians and immigration rights activists. State motor vehicle officials nationwide who will have to carry out the Real ID Act say its authors grossly underestimated its logistical, technological and financial demands. In a comprehensive survey and in follow-up interviews, officials cast doubt on the states' ability to comply with the law on time and fretted that it will be a budget buster. "It is just flat out impossible and unrealistic to meet the prescriptive provisions of this law by 2008," said Betty Serian, a deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 was released from prison Thursday after serving more than 25 years in Italy and Turkey for the plot against the pontiff and the slaying of a Turkish journalist. To the cheers of nationalist supporters, a white sedan whisked Mehmet Ali Agca through the gates of the high-security Kartal Prison as dozens of police officers stood guard. His supporters showered the car with red and yellow flowers. But Turkey's justice minister later said authorities will review Agca's release to make sure there were no errors in the handling of the complicated case. He said Agca's release was not "a guaranteed right." Agca, 48, wearing a blue sweater and jeans, was freed five years after he was pardoned by Italy and extradited to Turkey. He had served 20 years in prison in Italy, where John Paul forgave him in a visit to his cell in 1983. Agca shot the pope as he rode in an open car in St. Peter's Square in Rome on May 13, 1981.
RICHMOND, Va. -- New DNA tests confirmed the guilt of a man who went to his death in Virginia's electric chair in 1992 proclaiming his innocence, a spokeswoman for the governor said Thursday. The case had been watched by both sides in the death penalty debate because no executed convict in the United States has ever been exonerated by scientific testing. The tests, ordered by the governor last month, prove Roger Keith Coleman was guilty of the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law, said Gov. Mark R. Warner's spokeswoman Ellen Qualls. Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife's sister, who was found raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in her home in the coal mining town of Grundy. A finding of innocence could have had a powerful effect on the public's attitude toward capital punishment. Death penalty opponents have been warning for years that the risk of a grave and irreversible mistake by the criminal justice system is too great to allow capital punishment.
-- From wire reports
Blunt claims momentum in GOP leadership race
WASHINGTON -- Missouri Republican Roy Blunt claimed Thursday to be just short of the tally required to succeed embattled former Majority Leader Tom DeLay as the No. 2 Republican in the House, even as a potential dark horse candidate mulled a race. Blunt issued a statement claiming more than 100 supporters in the race, though his roster of supporters willing to make their names public contains fewer than 70 lawmakers. To win the race to replace DeLay, R-Texas, requires 116 votes, a majority of the 231 member House GOP conference. Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., was inching toward a decision on whether to join the race, saying candidates Blunt and Rep. John Boehner won't move aggressively enough to drive the party, which is shaken by ethics scandals, out of its doldrums. An aide to Boehner said the Ohio Republican and chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee has 86 committed supporters. Neither candidate's claim could be verified. Given the dynamics of the election, which is conducted by secret ballot, it is possible that one or both claims are inflated. Before Thursday, Blunt and Boehner would only reveal publicly declared supporters, and the release of the new claims of support seemed in part designed to discourage new entrants into the race. The election will be held Feb. 2.
Six killed in crash of tractor-trailer, pickup
WIGGINS, Miss. -- A tractor-trailer rig slammed into a pickup truck on a rural highway early Thursday, killing six people, all believed to be in their late teens, authorities said. Chief Deputy Jimmy Green said two other young adults in the extended-cab pickup were injured, though the severity of their injuries wasn't immediately clear. All eight were inside the pickup's cab, he said. The pickup had pulled onto Highway 26 from another highway when it was hit at about 3:30 a.m., Green said. He said the rig, used to haul gravel, was empty at the time. Two of those killed were students at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, said school spokeswoman Colleen Hartfield. She said three other victims were former students. Green referred additional questions to the Mississippi Highway Patrol's Gulfport office, which did not immediately return phone calls. Wiggins is near Mississippi's Gulf Coast, 130 miles south of Jackson.