Archive for May, 2017


A federal judge in Mississippi has sentenced a Gulfport man to 49 years in prison for murdering a transgender teenager, in the first-ever hate crime prosecution involving a transgender victim. Joshua Vallum, 29, plead guilty in the 2015 killing of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson and was sentenced to life in prison in July 2016 by an Alabama judge.  The Department of Justice later decided to pursue hat crime charges.  He was sentenced under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Vallum, a long time Latin Kings gang member, was arrested just days after the murder when his own father reported the crime to police.  He initially told investigators that he blacked out and killed Williamson when he discovered she was transgendered.  Several witnesses stepped forward saying that Vallum knew she was transgendered and the two had been in an 8 month relationship.

He later admitted that his motive for the killing was fear of being killed once fellow gang members found out.  Jeanie Miller, Williamson’s roommate testified that Vallum once told her and Williamson that his gang would kill both Vallum and Williamson if Williamson’s transgender status was discovered.  His brother Jacob saw him on the night of the murder covered in blood and testified that Vallum told him: ‘Well, it was my life or his.’

Prosecutors say Vallum killed Mercedes Williamson after the end of their relationship, because a friend learned that she was transgender, a fact Mr. Vallum kept hidden from friends and family while they dated.  On May 30th, Vallum lured Williamson into his car in Alabama and drove her 50 miles to his family home near Lucedale, Mississippi.  He then shocked her with a stun gun and stabbed her in the body and head with a pocketknife.  When Williamson tried to run into the woods, Vallum chased her down and beat her to death with a hammer.

Vallum confessed to his father Bobby Vallum on June 1st that he had murdered and buried Williamson on the rural property. Bobby Vallum took the information to police, leading to Josh Vallum being charged with murder.  Williamson was one of at least 21 transgender people murdered in the U.S. in 2015.

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The recent cyber-attack has reignited the debate over whether or not governments should disclose vulnerabilities they have discovered or bought on the black market. Privacy experts are also calling the recent global ransomware attack that hit 150 countries a prime example of why requiring tech companies to create backdoors into computer programs is a bad idea.  The danger of those digital keys being stolen has the potential to wreak havoc.

The global computer hack that used a cyber-weapon developed by the National Security Agency (NSA), disrupted hospitals, universities, government offices, gas stations, ATM machines and more than 300,000 computers worldwide.  Less than 10 U.S. organizations reported attacks to the Department of Homeland Security.  The attack caused the most damage in Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine and India.

It’s the first time a cyber-weapon developed by the NSA has been stolen and released by hackers.   The NSA has neither confirmed nor denied that they developed the cyber-weapon.  Elements of the malicious software used in the attacks were part of a treasure trove of cyber-attack tools leaked by hacking group the Shadow Brokers in April.  One of the tools contained in the leak, codenamed EternalBlue, proved to be “the most significant factor” in the spread of the ransom ware used in the attack.

The ransom ware was transmitted by email and then encrypted thousands of computers, locking people out of their data and then threatened to destroy it unless a ransom was paid.  The cyberattack locked medical workers out of the computer systems at dozens of British and Indonesian hospitals, disrupted train schedules in Germany and froze government computers from Russia’s Interior Ministry to police stations in India.

The cyber-weapon used exploits weaknesses in Microsoft software.  The U.S. government have known for years about this weakness in the software but only told Microsoft about the vulnerability recently. Microsoft had fixed the problem a month prior to the EternalBlue leak on April 14th but many high-profile targets had not updated their systems to stay secure.

The cyber-attack eased but the group who released the global WannaCry “ransomware” attack warned it would release more malicious code.  ShadowBrokers said they would release more recent code to enable hackers to break into the world’s most widely used computers, software and phones.  A blog post written by the group promised to release tools every month to anyone willing to pay for access to some of the tech world’s biggest commercial secrets.  It also threatened to dump data from banks using the SWIFT international money transfer network and from Russian, Chinese, Iranian or North Korean nuclear and missile programs. “More details in June,” it promised.

Cyber security researchers around the world have said they have found evidence that could link North Korea with the WannaCry cyber attack but that it is too early to confirm a definitive connection.

 

 

 

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit representing 10 plaintiffs who have alleged mistreatment-accusing the Madison County Sheriff’s Department of imposing a permanent state of siege against the county’s African-American residents.  The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff’s department has maintained multiple roadblocks and checkpoints in majority-black neighborhoods, where African-American residents are subjected to illegal searches.

Of the ten plaintiffs, one has been stopped at the roadblocks at least 20 times in the previous year, according to the complaint.  At least four of the plaintiffs have had their homes raided by MCSD deputies who allegedly entered without warrants. Two of the plaintiffs were severely beaten by officers during confrontations, the suit claims.

The suit seeks a class-wide judgment declaring the department’s policies unconstitutional. A number of the plaintiffs are also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.  Along with the county, the suit lists MCSD Sheriff Randall Tucker and six unnamed deputies as defendants.

The lawsuit alleges the county’s roadblocks and pedestrian “checkpoints” are designed and placed to target black people for searches and seizures in majority-black neighborhoods and outside of majority-black housing complexes, even when they are not suspected of crimes.  The suit seeks a court order to stop the sheriff’s department from using such tactics and asks that a civilian board review complaints against the department.  It also asks for increased training and monitoring of officers.

Madison County is Mississippi’s wealthiest county with a per capita income in 2015 of around $58,000.  The most recent Census estimates that of the 105,000 residents-roughly 57% are white and 38% are black.   According to the lawsuit, Madison County’s wealth is concentrated among its white residents.  The complaint cites census figures that the arrest rate for black people in the county is nearly five times the rate for white people.

The ACLU says the disparity can’t be explained by nonracial factors and argues that the county has harbored a long history of “racial animus” toward its black residents. It notes that a previous sheriff was on the board of a citizens group that opposed desegregation in the 1950s, and says other authorities had used racially discriminatory policing tactics.

The ACLU alleges that Sheriff Randy Tucker, who has been in office since 2012,as ceased keeping track of civilian complaints of his department regarding racially-motivated policing. The lawsuit added that the Madison County Sheriff’s Department  has implemented a coordinated top-down program of methodically targeting Black individuals for suspicion-less searches and seizure ” while in their cars, walking in their neighborhoods or while in their own homes”.   Unjustified and excessive forces are routine occurrences during policing actions during these searches and seizures-leaving many residents afraid to leave their homes.

 

President Donald Trump announced the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the man who is responsible for the bureau’s investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign team colluded with Russia in its interference in last year’s election.  The administration attributed Comey’s dismissal to his handling of the investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server, but many suggested the reason behind his dismissal was that Comey was getting too close to the White House with the Russia probe.

The news caught Comey by surprise as it flashed on television screens in the room as he spoke to FBI agents at an event in Los Angeles.  His firing is the first dismissal of an FBI chief since 1993 when President Clinton ousted William Sessions as FBI director after Sessions refused to voluntarily step down amid ethical concerns.

President Trump stated in a letter to Comey that he agrees with his Department of Justice’s assessment that Comey is “not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”   Those findings, specifically from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, stem from Rosenstein’s belief that Comey mishandled the Clinton investigation.

Trump’s actions were a turnaround from his stance just seven months ago on the campaign trail, when he repeatedly praised Comey for reopening the investigation into the scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s private email server.  Just days away from the election, Comey sent a letter to Congress stating that the FBI had reopened its investigation into Clinton. The decision was made because of its investigation into former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is married to Clinton confidant Huma Abedin. Comey followed up days later with another letter, informing Congress that the FBI didn’t find anything and continued to believe Clinton’s practices were reckless but did not merit any criminal charges.

After Clinton’s loss, former President Bill Clinton blamed Comey for it.  Hillary Clinton herself told CNN “I was on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me and got scared off.”

A senior white house official said that a replacement will be announced in the coming days.  Some possible candidates include Ray Kelly, Chris Christie, David Clarke, Trey Gowdy.  Ray Kelly has a 47 year career within the NYPD.  He served as Police Commissioner from 1992 to 1994 and again from 2002 to 2013.  Chris Christie is the current governor of New Jersey and is a former Republican-appointed United States attorney in New Jersey.  David Clarke is currently serving his fourth full term as the sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, a position he has held since 2002.  Trey Gowdy is a Replublican U.S. Respresentative for South Carolina and a former federal prosecutor.  He led the House committee investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Benghazi investigation.

 

Members of the Trump administration and Pentagon officials are pushing for the deployment 3,000 to 5,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.  There are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  Officials are also looking for the relaxation of restrictions on launching airstrikes.  The recommendation comes after the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, warned the war has reached a stalemate. Trump is expected to decide whether to approve the deployment of additional troops later this month.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Kabul to speak with Nicholson just days after an attack by a Taliban-affiliated militants killed 140 Afghan troops, most of whom were unarmed in a mosque praying at their base.  The Pentagon’s proposal is aimed at countering the resilient Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan by adding thousands more troops closer to combat and bombarding the Taliban with airstrikes.  Army General John Nicholson told the Senate the security situation had deteriorated.  If approved, the decision would allow U.S. troops to partner with Afghan forces closer to the fight rather than just playing an advisory role.

The Pentagon had been focused on ending its presence in Afghanistan since 2001 but after the September 11th attacks, U.S. forces, with 100,000 troops deployed-helped topple the Taliban government that had given shelter to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

With the end of the combat mission “Enduring Freedom” and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the United States had pulled out most its troops in late 2014.  The Obama administration decided to leave a force of about 13,000 troops in place after responding to pleas from U.S. Commanders.  The 13,000 includes all active duty service personnel from all branches (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force), National Guard and Reserve as well as civilian employees of the Department of Defense and civilian contractors (APF) – which make up the smallest group.

There have been restrictions in place regarding how close Americans could accompany Afghan forces in combat and on bombing Taliban targets. Those rules were eased last year, and the Pentagon’s recent proposal would grant added authority for air strikes.    The current NATO-led operation in Afghanistan is called “Resolute Support” and aims to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Sporadic combat operations are left to Special Forces.  The U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan is America’s longest war and the Pentagon’s proposal means it won’t be ending any time soon.

 

 

The state of Arkansas received heavy criticism and sparked new debates over the death penalty after they rushed to carry out an unprecedented series of 8 executions in 11 days during the month of April as its supply of the sedative midazolam was set to expire at the end of the month.  All eight men were convicted of murders that occurred between 1989 and 1999 with some of the crimes described as particularly heinous.  The eight men scheduled for execution were Kenneth Williams, Bruce Ward, Stacey Johnson, Don Williamson Davis, Ledell Lee, Jack Harold Jones, Jason McGehee and Marcel Williams.

Governor Hutchinson signed proclamations setting four execution dates for the eight inmates between April 17 and 27. Two men would be put to death on each of the four dates.  In a statement he said that it was necessary to schedule the executions close together because of doubts about the future availability of one of three drugs the state uses in its lethal-injection procedure.

Arkansas uses a cocktail of three drugs in its lethal injection formula: Midazolam is used to sedate the prisoner, vecuronium bromide paralyzes prisoners and stops their breathing, and potassium chloride stops the heart.  Midazolam is the most controversial of the three since it has repeatedly failed to make prisoners unconscious in other executions, leading to painful deaths.  It is not approved by the FDA to be used as an anesthetic on its own, but doctors do use it combined with other drugs before surgical procedures. That is not the case in prisons.

The hurried schedule hit roadblocks from the moment it was announced as attorneys for the eight men attempted to block the executions- including using the argument that midazolam does not effectively prevent a painful death.  Separate rulings stayed the executions of two of the prisoners, Don Davis and Bruce Ward.  Arkansas appealed the decision in Davis’ case, but the US Supreme Court upheld it.  Then Federal Judge Kristine Baker put a stop to all eight executions on April 15, a decision that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed two days later.  By the end of April, four of the men received stays for various reasons.

Despite the drug shortage and the controversy over its use-  lethal injection remains the country’s primary method of execution.  The drug shortage has spurred some states to begin adapting new and untested combinations of drugs while other states look at other methods of executions.  Utah, Tennessee and Oklahoma added or broadened their abilities to use a firing squad, electric chair or nitrogen gas.

With the month over and the expiration date passing-the freshly stirred dust on the death penalty debate has not settled.  Capital punishment has long been a divisive issue in the United States with support of it declining to a 40 year low.  According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, Americans remain split, with 49 percent in favor and 42 percent against it (9% were undecided).

Nationwide, the number of executions has faced a decline as well.  Since 2007, seven states have abolished the death penalty and the governors of four others have issued moratoria on the practice.  Arkansas is currently one of 31 states with courts that still issue death sentences.

 

United Airlines has reached a settlement with Kentucky physician, Dr. David Dao, who was dragged off a plane at O’Hare International Airport in early April.  The incident aboard Flight 3411 was captured on video by passengers on the plane and widely shared online around the world.   It quickly became an international embarrassment for both the carrier and the city’s aviation department.

Dao’s attorney Thomas Demetrio,  announced that a settlement had been reached, but terms were not disclosed.  The airline released a written statement in response to the announcement: “We are pleased to report that United and Dr. Dao have reached an amicable resolution of the unfortunate incident that occurred aboard flight 3411. We look forward to implementing the improvements we have announced, which will put our customers at the center of everything we do.”

The airline unveiled new policies earlier in the same day the settlement was reached.  Part of the new policies include a promise to not use law enforcement to remove overbooked customers from planes, additional training for front-line employees and setting up an automated system that will ask passengers at check-in if they would be willing to give up their seat.  United CEO Oscar Munoz also pledged to reduce the amount of overbooking and offer up to $10,000 for customers willing to volunteer to take a later flight.

Dao’s attorney praised Munoz for agreeing to the settlement.  “Mr. Munoz said he was going to do the right thing and he has. In addition, United has taken full responsibility for what happened on Flight 3411, without attempting to blame others, including the City of Chicago. For this acceptance of corporate accountability, United is to be applauded.”

Demetrio added “Dr. Dao has become the unintended champion for the adoption of changes which will certainly help improve the lives of literally millions of travelers.  I sincerely hope that all other airlines make similar changes and follow United’s lead in helping to improve the passenger flying experience with an emphasis on empathy, patience, respect and dignity.”

Dr. Dao, 69, of Elizabethtown, Ky., was one of four passengers picked to be bumped from an April 9th flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Louisville, Ky., to make room for four airline employees who were added to the flight shortly before it departed.  When he refused to leave, multiple Chicago Department of Aviation security officers were called to remove him.

According to a report released by the Chicago Department of Aviation, Officer James Long boarded the plane to respond to a disturbance involving two passengers who were refusing to leave the aircraft.  When he approached Dao’s seat and asked him to leave, Long said Dao “folded his arms tightly” and refused to leave the aircraft.   The officer said he was able to “hold” the physician in order to remove him from his window seat.

A struggle ensued between Dao and the officer in the isle of the aircraft. Dao, who was hospitalized in Chicago, suffered a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth in the ordeal.  The viral video shows Dao being dragged by his arms down the aisle of the plane as other passengers watch in horror.

 

A Balch Springs police officer was fired for violating several department policies and procedures in the shooting death of a Texas teen.  He was later arrested on a murder charge in the killing of Jordan Edwards, who was a passenger in a car that was driving away from a party.  The former officer turned himself in at the Parker County Jail, posting his $300,000 bail that evening.  If convicted of murder, he faces up to life in prison.

Roy Oliver, 37, was the second of two officers who responded to a report of a loud party with underage drinking in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs.  Oliver and the other officer went into the house to talk to the host of the party as teens scattered from the party.   During this time, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, his two older brothers and two 16 year old friends got into their car driven by his older brother Vidal.

As the officers were talking to the host they heard what sounded like gunshots and went outside.  Both officers went outside to see what was going on and saw several people fleeing the party.  The other officer, who has not been identified, walked toward the area where he thought the shots had been fired while Oliver went to the patrol car and got his rifle.

The second officer tried to stop a black Chevrolet Impala at the nearby intersection. The car slowly reversed, and the second officer pulled his gun and walked toward the passenger side of the car.  As the car started to drive forward, the officer used his gun to break the rear passenger window.  Oliver got behind the officer and fired several rounds into the car as it drove past him.

Jordan Edwards was shot in the head as he sat in the front passenger seat of the vehicle.  Originally Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber said the officer fired after the car drove “aggressively” toward both officers but he later said he misspoke.  Both officers were wearing body cameras and body camera footage showed the car was driving forward, away from the officers, not reversing toward them as he originally reported. The officer’s behavior “did not meet our core values,” Haber said.

Records reveal that Officer Roy Oliver, a 6 year veteran with the Balch Springs department was suspended in 2013 for sixteen hours and ordered to attend “anger management and training in courtroom demeanor and testimony.”   That same year, according to his personnel files – he demonstrated a low score on “the extent to which this employee is able to communicate with the public as wells as other employees both verbally and in writing.”

Jordan Edwards was a freshman at Mesquite High School and a straight A student with a 4.0 GPA.  He was a talented athlete who played quarterback and receiver on the football team.  He lived in an upper middle class neighborhood in Balch Springs with his parents, two older brothers and younger sister.

Those who knew him say he was the last person you’d expect to die in a police shooting.  His family, teachers and coaches described him as a happy, hardworking and respectful teen that was always in a good mood.  His father Odell, said that his son Vidal, continued driving away so that no one else would be shot.  He stopped the car two blocks from the party and called his father while his two friends in the back seat called their parents.  “All I could hear was screaming and crying and the boys saying that police had just shot and killed Jordan. I could hardly make sense of it all” said Odell Edwards.  Then the phone went dead.  At that point, police had swarmed the car and forced all of the boys out at gunpoint.

At least 140 Afghan soldiers were killed after Taliban militants disguised as soldiers, drove onto a military base and opened fire on soldiers leaving Friday prayers.  Around 130 of the victims were young recruits who had just graduated from military school.  A national day of mourning followed as the calculated Taliban attack was the deadliest on an Afghan military base in the last 16 years.

Camp Shaheen, in northern Afghanistan, was considered one of the nation’s most secure bases in the now relatively peaceful city of Mazar-i-Sharif.  Though the April 21st death toll was high, it could have been much higher.  It began when two pickup trucks with at least eight Taliban fighters disguised as ANA soldiers passed through multiple checkpoints undetected with fake military identification cards used to obtain access.

An intelligence officer who survived the attack said the attackers were clean-shaven and had what they claimed to be a bloody and bandaged, wounded soldier in the backseat.  The “soldier” acted like he was in pain and the disguised attackers claimed it was a medical emergency, insisting that they needed to be let into the base immediately to save the soldier.

As the trucks made it to the final checkpoint which was manned by three guards and no barricade-the guards radioed headquarters to find out if the army hospital was expecting the urgent case.  The guards were instructed to let them through but to inform them that they must leave their cache of weapons at the gate.  The insurgents refused to leave their weapons and a fierce fire fight with the guards ensued.  The Taliban attackers shot all three guards, killing two while the third remains in a critical condition.

After the altercation at the last checkpoint, the attackers made their way into the mosque just as prayers had ended and people were making their way outside.  Armed with a machine gun installed on the roof of one of their trucks, the attackers sprayed bullets into the crowd.

As explosions went off, terrified recruits began running for safety.  Nearby, an attacker in disguise was calmly directing terrified recruits “to safety” by ushering them inside the dining hall.   Trusting the familiar uniform, many young recruits poured in, minutes later, he blew himself up — killing more than 20.

Many recruits ran back into the mosque for safety but the attackers followed them in, mercilessly killing them.  A survivor inside the mosque said that as he “played dead” among bodies of fallen recruits he heard a voice call out that “it was over” and “survivors stand up.”   Slowly, several survivors rose only to be shot dead.

As deadly as this calculated was, if it wasn’t for the altercation at the final checkpoint, it is likely the casualties would have been far higher.   It is believed that the intention of the attackers was to breach the mosque and open fire during final prayers — where 1,500 unarmed personnel would have been easy prey in one enclosed space.

Following the ongoing investigation and amid speculation of inside assistance in the attack, 8 ANA personnel have been arrested while more remain under investigation.  Afghanistan’s defense minister and Army chief have also resigned.

Relations between North Korea and the US and South Korea have rapidly deteriorated in recent months, as the rhetoric and military posturing on both sides has increased.  North Korea has threatened to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier that is conducting military drills, along with Japanese ships, in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and guided-missile destroyers USS Michael Murphy and USS Wayne E Meyer have practiced for war with North Korea with a series of military drills.  US allies South Korea and Japan surrounded North Korea with joint exercises on both sides of the Korean peninsula.  The navy fleet is now within “striking range” of North Korea, in the Philippine Sea- just east of the Japanese island of Okinawa.

North Korea conducted its own military drills which involved 300 large-caliber self-propelled guns lined up along the coast where they opened fire with live rounds.  A statement from the South Korean military said the live-fire exercises were in the Wonsan region in the east of the country.  North Korea fired four ballistic missiles toward Japan as part of its exercise targeting US bases there.

Soon after those drills were conducted, the US began to deploy its advanced THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea, despite opposition from Russia and China. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system came THAAD is a missile defense system designed to intercept short and medium-range ballistic missiles as they begin their descent to their targets.   Developed by Lockheed Martin, THAAD missiles use infrared seeker technology to locate their targets and detonate on impact.

Both Russia and China have spoken out against the THAAD deployment.  China’s Foreign Ministry stated that it was “resolutely opposed” to the move and say the missile system actually aims to counter China’s military power in the region, not to contain North Korea.  The deployment also drew protests from hundreds of villagers in Seongju, South Korea, who clashed with police as troops began deploying THAAD hardware on a local golf course.

The Trump administration called the entire US Senate to a meeting at the White House, for a briefing on North Korea with the US secretaries of Defense and State.   President Trump recently stated “North Korea is a big world problem, and it’s a problem we have to finally solve. People put blindfolds on for decades and now it’s time to solve the problem.”  Many fear that Trump is backing himself into a corner with his firm stance on North Korea, leading both countries to a point where “bad things are going to happen.”