Nation briefs 10/30/03

Thursday, October 30, 2003

DNA testimony opens Peterson hearing

MODESTO, Calif. -- A hearing to determine whether Scott Peterson must stand trial in the slaying of his pregnant wife opened Wednesday with an expert testifying about a disputed type of DNA analysis used to match a hair found on a pair of pliers on Peterson's boat with strands from Laci Peterson.

For much of an hour, FBI lab supervisor Constance L. Fisher explained the mitochondrial DNA analysis used to compare Laci Peterson's hair with one strand in the boat Peterson said he used to go fishing the day his wife disappeared on Christmas Eve.

Peterson is charged with murder in the deaths of his wife and their unborn son and could get the death penalty.

Schwarzenegger prepares for deregulation sequel

SAN FRANCISCO -- No stranger to sequels, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes to sell California on the virtues of electricity deregulation again, despite the fiasco the first time around.

The action hero's energy advisers say they will bring a fresh approach to deregulation this time, avoiding the mistakes that led to rolling blackouts, insolvent utilities, market manipulation and a $20 billion debt that customers will spend the next decade repaying.

"We have a system that is broken, with pieces laying on the ground that need to be picked up and put back together again," said James Sweeney, a Stanford University professor who helped write Schwarzenegger's energy plan.

Maine pits casino glamour against L.L. Bean style

SANFORD, Maine -- Maine voters will decide next week whether to allow two Indian tribes to build the state's first casino, a colossal $650 million project that opponents say will spoil Maine's L.L. Bean image of spruce woods, lobster shacks and lighthouses.

The centerpiece of the project is a 200,000-square-foot casino -- more gambling space than any Las Vegas casino -- with 4,000 slot machines and 180 gaming tables. The resort would also have an 875-room hotel, a convention center, a 2,000-seat theater, 10 restaurants and nightclubs and a golf course.

The project's opponents -- who also include Gov. John Baldacci -- also say the casino would lead to more crime, traffic and social ills.

Casino supporters, though, say the postcard images and L.L. Bean catalogs do not reflect the harsh reality of life in hardscrabble Maine.

Forty names removed from WTC death toll

NEW YORK -- Forty names listed on the World Trade Center death toll for more than two years were removed Wednesday because the city cannot confirm their deaths or -- in some cases -- their existence.

The list was cut from 2,792 to 2,752, a decision made by several city agencies, including the medical examiner's office, the police department and the mayor's office.

The names removed include illegal immigrants whose jobs were not well documented and people whose relatives say they were near the trade center on Sept. 11, 2001, but know little more.

Senators support NASA space plane proposal

WASHINGTON -- The Senate injected itself Wednesday into a simmering debate over America's future in space, urging NASA's top administrator -- over objections by House lawmakers -- to continue developing a space plane to ferry astronauts into orbit.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe disclosed that the agency is considering plans to accelerate work on the space plane, NASA's most ambitious effort in decades. The space plane would carry astronauts, but not heavy equipment, to the International Space Station.

Last week, two leading members of the House Science Committee urged NASA to defer development of the spacecraft because of concerns about cost and its potential benefit.

Teen calmly testifies in Washington sniper case

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The only child shot during last year's sniper spree calmly told jurors Wednesday how he was gunned down outside his school.

Iran Brown, shot on Oct. 7, 2002, after his aunt dropped him off outside his middle school in Bowie, Md., said the shooting "brought me closer to God." Brown, now 14, testified for less than two minutes and was not cross-examined by attorneys for suspect John Allen Muhammad.

"I walked out of the car and I put my bookbag down and I got shot," Brown told the jury.

He then went back to his aunt's car, and she drove him to a nearby urgent care treatment center, he said. He was hospitalized for several weeks with severe injuries to many of his major organs, including his spleen, stomach and pancreas.

Iraq contract extended for Cheney's ex-company

WASHINGTON -- Citing new damage to Iraq's oil industry from saboteurs, the Bush administration Wednesday delayed its planned replacement of a lucrative no-bid contract that was awarded to Halliburton -- Vice President Dick Cheney's former company.

Halliburton, paid $1.59 billion so far, could stay on the job until early next year under the new schedule announced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps, which supervises the reconstruction, already has received competitive bids for replacement contracts, but needs revised proposals that reflect the additional work that will be needed.

Harry Potter causes 'Hogwarts headaches'

Has the latest Harry Potter fantasy cast a spell of "Hogwarts headaches" on some of its most avid readers?

A pediatrician says he had three otherwise healthy children complain of headaches for two to three days last summer. It turns out all had been reading the 870-page "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" in marathon sessions.

"The kids I saw were all avid Harry Potter fans who just plowed through the book," said Dr. Howard J. Bennett, whose office is in Washington. "A lot of my kids would be reading six, eight hours a day. And it's a big book for a 9- or 10-year-old child."

He dubbed their ailment "Hogwarts headache" after the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that the boy wizard attends. He said the youngsters' headaches were probably caused by tensing their head muscles for long periods.

Bennett described "Hogwarts headaches" in a letter to the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. The letter in today's issue is printed with a graph tracking the size and weight of the five books in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Bennett didn't hear any headache complaints with the earlier books, which started at 309 pages and grew. "If this escalation continues as Rowling concludes the saga, there may be an epidemic of Hogwarts headaches in the years to come," he writes.

Calif. couple gets double payout from jackpot

MILPITAS, Calif. -- A Santa Clara couple will not only receive half of a $99 million lottery jackpot -- they also get the commission for selling the winning ticket.

Narinder Badwal said Monday he had not checked the Oct. 22 Super Lotto jackpot ticket he bought at his 7-Eleven franchise store until his brother urged him to take a look.

Badwal and his wife, Lilla Singh, officially claimed the ticket Friday.

The couple chose the annuity option and will receive payments starting at $1.2 million and graduating to $2.5 million by the 26th year.

They will also get a $247,500 commission for selling one of the winning tickets. The other winners claimed their ticket last week.

New color of money not always accepted

WICHITA, Kan. -- As colorful new $20 bills circulate around the nation, more consumers are finding out that the notes do not work on automated payment machines like those found in self-service checkout counters at grocery stores.

The first calls started coming into the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing two days ago, frustrating government officials who had worked to overcome the vending machine problems that followed the 1998 redesign of the bill.

This time the problem seems to plague mostly automated payment machines -- a relatively recent arrival in the industry, the bureau said.

"This is a minor inconvenience for our customers right now," said Dan Wilinsky, a spokesman for Sprint. The company expects to upgrade its machines to accept the bills within a month, he said.

In Punkin Chunkin, it's all about the distance

HOWELL, Mich. -- Most people prefer them baked in pies or decoratively carved.

But for Bruce Bradford, the preferred method of serving up pumpkin is to have it shot out of an air cannon. After all, that's how he became the world champion of Punkin Chunkin -- a sport where winning is a matter of distance, not taste.

This Halloween, Bradford will defend his title at the Punkin Chunkin World Championship in Delaware's Sussex County. His team triumphed in the air cannon division last year after the pumpkin they shot out of their cannon sailed 4,594 feet.

"It's something to do," Bradford told The Daily Oakland Press. "It looked interesting. It was a challenge."

The sport began in the late 1990s in Delaware. The objective is to see who can shoot, propel or fling a pumpkin weighing between seven to 10 pounds the farthest.

Bradford became interested in Punkin Chunkin in 1998 after reading a magazine article about the sport. That year, he and a few friends went to watch the competition in Sussex County.

They came back the following year, armed with the aptly named Second Amendment -- an 18,000 pound compressed air cannon which Bradford built. It sports a 100-foot long barrel.

Their first year in the competition, the group took fifth. In 2000 and 2001, they finished third. The big win came in the 2002 championship, which was televised as part of a Discovery Channel documentary.

-- From wire reports

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