Archive for December, 2017


 

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Officials say three people are confirmed dead and 70 injured in the derailment of an Amtrak passenger train that plummeted off an overpass in Washington state.  Part of the train was left dangling over a busy freeway between Olympia and DuPont at the height of the Monday morning commute.   The high-speed passenger train was on a trip from Seattle to Portland when it derailed.  Federal investigators say the Amtrak train was traveling at 80 miles per hour when it barreled off the tracks in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. The accident sent some of the train’s cars tumbling onto the highway below.

The train, identified by Amtrak as the high-speed Train 501 from Seattle to Portland, was carrying 77 passengers and seven crew members when it derailed just after 7:30 a.m. local time.   All but one of its cars and engines jumped the tracks and at least one fell to the roadway below.  Multiple vehicles on the roadway below were struck by train cars that left the train tracks.   Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency to aid the response to the crash, which also clogged one of the state’s busiest roadways, used by some 60,000 people every day.

Amtrak Cascades trains began using a faster, more direct route that day, making this its inaugural trip.  Previously, it used to snake along the edge of Puget Sound, which was a slower route but began running on tracks known as the Point Defiance Bypass, which are owned by the Sound Transit agency. The Washington State Department of Transportation says the Federal Railroad Administration funded and reviewed recent upgrades to the tracks. All told, the project’s budget was nearly $181 million.

The change in route was met with criticism from some residents in the area after it was announced. Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson even predicted a deadly accident.   “Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens” Anderson said.

The National Transportation Safety Board says it’s too early to tell what caused the derailment and that its investigators would spend a week or more scouring the wreckage for clues. Ahead of the crash, the mayor of the city of Lakewood raised safety concerns about the new rail line, predicting earlier this month it could lead to multiple deaths. The train was not utilizing positive train control—a technology mandated by Congress, but rarely operating in Amtrak trains—which could have prevented the crash.

 

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A fire at an underground electrical facility caused an 11 hour blackout that brought the world’s busiest airport to a standstill.  The blackout at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport led to the cancellation of more than 1,500 flights and stranding tens of thousands of people in darkened terminals or on the tarmac, where some passengers sat for more than five hours on grounded planes.

The power outage began shortly after 1 p.m. leaving passengers in dim and overcrowded terminals as afternoon turned to evening.  Frustrated travelers lighted their way through smoky corridors with cellphones.  On Twitter, passengers reported waiting on the tarmac for more than five hours as the lack of power at the terminals made it hard to de-plane.  Getting out of the terminals quickly became difficult as traffic snarled access roads and MARTA trains ran at capacity to downtown.

The train between terminals was shut down and elevators, escalators, automatic doors and baggage carousels stood still.   Screens went black and the intercom for flight updates was silent.  No one could get reliable phone or internet service to access texts, email, flight apps or social media.  With a lack of information, travelers were too nervous to leave their spots, fearing the power might soon return at any moment and they’d lose their place in the line they were in.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed later said the fire was so intense that it damaged two substations serving the airport, including the airport’s back-up power system and prevented emergency crews from accessing the site for two to three hours.  Paul Bowers, Georgia Power’s president and CEO said there was a failure in the switchgear that caused the fire and the fire was contained by 3:30pm.  An estimated 30,000 people were affected by the power outage.

Delta bore the brunt of the impact, cancelling approximately 900 flights and diverting 48 more. The carrier said about 300 flights would also be cancelled on Monday, as the chaos spilled into one of the busiest air travel weeks of the year.  The blackout led the Federal Aviation Administration to declare a ground stop at the airport, preventing Atlanta-bound flights in other airports from taking off and causing inbound flights to be diverted. The ground stop in Atlanta disrupted air travel across the United States.

Some power was restored just before midnight but stranded travelers were still sleeping on the floor the day after the outage.  Long ticket and security lines were moving slowly as normalcy began returning to the airport Monday.  Volunteers in shirts that said, “Ask Me,” tried to allay concerns and passed out doughnuts to those in line, many of whom shared horror stories about the night before.

Some travelers said airline and airport employees did their best to take care of stranded passengers, handing out blankets, beverages, even slices of pizza.  Others reported a lack of communication, widespread rumors, the strong smell of fire near baggage claim and a taxi line that amounted to “pandemonium.”  While some fortunate passengers were able to board the flights departing Atlanta the day after the outage, other passengers were being told they’d have to wait hours or days.  One airline was telling passengers it would be five days before they could get a flight out.

 

 

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Facing mounting evidence that Puerto Rico has vastly under-counted the number of people who died because of Hurricane Maria, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló ordered that every death on the island since the devastating storm be reviewed.  Officials will look review all deaths attributed to natural causes after the hurricane, which made landfall Sept. 20 and knocked out power to 3.4 million Puerto Ricans and to their hospitals and clinics.

Roselló made the order to the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, which is the island’s vital statistics bureau, and to the Department of Public Safety following the investigative media reports on the death toll and after residents claiming deaths of their loved ones were caused by Maria.  The governor also said he’d create an expert panel to review the island’s death certification process.

The Puerto Rican government has put the official death toll at 64 but several investigations have revealed that nearly 1,000 more people died.   The prolonged blackout hampered critical medical treatment for some of the island’s most vulnerable patients, including many who were bedridden or dependent on dialysis or respirators. But if they died as a result, the storm’s role in their deaths may have gone officially unrecorded.

Several news organizations, including The New York Times, conducted independent analyses and found that the number of deaths traceable to the storm was far higher than the official count.  The Times’s review, based on daily mortality data from Puerto Rico’s vital statistics bureau, found that 1,052 more people than usual had died across the island in the 42 days after Maria struck. The analysis compared daily figures for 2017 with an average of figures for the corresponding days in 2015 and 2016.

The leading causes of death on the island in September were diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, Puerto Rican government data show.  There was a sharp 50 percent spike in the number of recorded deaths from sepsis, a complication of severe infection that can be tied to delayed medical care or poor living conditions.    Reports emerged of people being unable to use oxygen and dialysis equipment, unable to refrigerate insulin, evacuated from hospitals that lost emergency power and other problems.

Reviewing the circumstances surrounding each death will require interviewing family members and doctors who signed death certificates to find out if, for example, a heart attack might have been brought on by stress from the hurricane, or might have been fatal because an ambulance could not get through debris-blocked streets in time to help.

The governor’s announcement comes as the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico reported that nearly three months since the storm, 45 people are still listed as missing and efforts by Puerto Rico’s police to locate them have been minimal or almost nonexistent.    Parts of the island are still without power leaving many to celebrate Christmas in the dark.   The power grid is only operating at 70 percent of capacity and officials say power won’t be fully restored until the end of May.

 

 

 

Grenfell Tower Memorial

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Around 1,500 people including, bereaved family and survivors of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire gathered at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for a memorial service, along with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and the royal family.   The fire killed 71 people when it swept through a poorly built public housing tower and was the worst fire in Britain since World War II.  The memorial ceremony lasted just over an hour and at the end of the service, a Grenfell banner was carried out of the cathedral, followed by mourners, who held white roses and photographs of their loved ones.

Of the 293 people believed to be in the 27 story building, 222 escaped; 65 of those survivors were rescued by firefighters.  Some residents appear to have moved up the building to escape the flames, only to become trapped in the apartments of friends and neighbours on the upper floors. Twenty one people died on the top floor of the tower block and the fire to raged for 60 hours before finally being contained.

Two days after the disaster, the Prime Minister promised families would be rehoused within three weeks.  Six months after the fire, according to a report published by the government, of the 395 households displaced by the fire, 300 were living in hotels, 75 were in apartments, nine were living with friends and family on a temporary basis and only 11 had found new permanent accommodation by the end of September.

Maxine Holdsworth, the official responsible for rehousing the people who lost their homes in the Grenfell Tower fire says Theresa May made and unachievable commitment in the aftermath of the fire.  The current promise is that everyone will be rehoused within a year.  The number of staff working on rehousing Grenfell tenants has increased since the summer from five to 20.   They have been given a budget of $235 million to replace the homes lost in the tower. They are currently in the process of buying 300 new homes, at a rate of two a day, and hope to have done that by Christmas.

A review of building regulations ordered after the Grenfell Tower fire found the system is “not fit for purpose” and open to abuse by those trying to save money.  The report into building safety called for an overhaul of the construction industry to put safety above cutting costs.  The report called for an end to cost-cutting on materials. It is suspected that an attempt to drive down the price of refurbishing the tower in west London led to cheaper, flammable material being installed on its exterior.

The tower was built in 1974 but was remodeled in 2016.  Fire safety experts have pointed to cladding on the building as a possible reason the blaze spread so quickly.  New cladding was fitted as part of the refurbishment of the tower in May of last year.  Footage has shown the fire travelling up one side of the building, before engulfing the entire block.

New York Bombing Attack

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New York City police have identified the suspect in the bombing attack in a Midtown Manhattan subway station that took place during the busy Monday morning commute.  The accused attacker was identified as 27-year-old Brooklyn resident and Bangladeshi immigrant Akayed Ullah.  Ullah was carrying a pipe bomb strapped to his body with Velcro and zip ties whe he detonated it in a tunnel connecting the busy Port Authority and Times Square terminals.   Five people were treated for minor injuries at area hospitals, while the suspect was said to be seriously injured.

Investigators have been pouring over surveillance footage of the area.  Ullah was first spotted on a security camera as he climbed the subway station stairs to the 18th Avenue F. train platform in Brooklyn at 6:25 a.m.  He then switched to the A train at Jay St./MetroTech stop in Brooklyn before exiting the train at the Port Authority Bus Terminal stop in Manhattan.

The blast detonated around 7:20 a.m. in an underground walkway connecting two subway lines beneath the Port Authority Bus Terminal, near Times Square, which accommodates 220,000 passenger trips a day.  Surveillance footage shows commuters walking through a tunnel when a burst of smoke erupts into the hallway, quickly filling it.  Commuters flinch and take cover, and when the smoke clears, an injured man, Ullah, can be seen lying on the ground in the hallway.

Law enforcement officials say Ullah was inspired to set off a bomb in retaliation for U.S. attacks against ISIS in Syria.  He faces five federal terrorism-related charges and three state terrorism-related charges after he allegedly detonated the homemade device made of a battery, wires, metal screws and a Christmas tree lightbulb during the busy morning commute.  According to Department of Homeland Security, Ullah is a Bangladeshi immigrant who has been living in the United States since 2011 on an F43 family immigrant visa.  He is a legal permanent resident living in Brooklyn and has no criminal record in the United States.

According to a federal complaint, Ullah admitted to investigators that he built and detonated the device and said he was inspired to do so by ISIS.  He said that he was prepared to die and told investigators he was motivated in part by pro-ISIS Christmas attack propaganda circulated about a month ago online with an image of Santa Claus over Times Square.  Investigators recovered a passport in his name with a handwritten message: “O America, die in your rage.”  Investigators say Ullah’s ISIS radicalization began in 2014 and he began researching how to build improvised explosive devices about a year ago.  He began collecting the necessary items to make the device two to three weeks ago, and built the bomb in his home a week ago.

According to law enforcement officials, Ullah had two homemade devices with him but they did not elaborate on the second device.  Andrew Cuomo said in an interview that the device was an amateur, “effectively low-tech device” that partially detonated.  The explosive chemical ignited, but the pipe itself did not explode, lessening its impact.  Cuomo added “Fortunately for us, the bomb partially detonated, he did detonate it, but it did not fully have the effect that he was hoping for.”

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Disney is set to buy a major part of 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion.  Both sides have  said it will likely take 12 to 18 months to complete.  They will still have to sell the deal to government regulators, who must review the merger to determine its effects on competitors and consumers.   That task will likely fall to the Justice Department, which weeks ago took the rare step of suing companies in a different blockbuster deal: AT&T’s bid for Time Warner.

Members of Congress have already stated that they want to hold hearings on Disney’s billion dollar bid to buy 21st Century Fox.  Key voices on competition and consumer protection fear the deal will only solidify Disney’s dominance in entertainment — granting it too many major box-office franchises and too much power over regional sports networks and streaming video services.  Lawmakers don’t actually have a say in major mergers but they tend to scrutinize them anyways since the Department of Justice investigations happen outside of public view.  Hearings-sometimes featuring testimony from major chief executives — can ultimately shape public opinion about the companies’ plans.

If the deal goes through, Disney will own the rights to everything from the Avatar movies to FX’s The Americans.  They will also own the film rights to the Marvel comics characters associated with the X-Men and Fantastic Four, which Marvel sold off to Fox long before either was a Disney subsidiary.  Federal Communications Commission regulations state that no one company can own more than one broadcast network and since Disney already owns ABC, Fox broadcast network was off the table.

Fox, will maintain the rights to Fox News, Fox Sports 1, the Fox broadcast network and the Fox studio lot in Los Angeles.  Fox broadcast network is home to everything from The Simpsons to New Girl to The X-Files. The network launched in 1986 and by the mid-’90s, it was a mainstay in most American homes, competing with ABC, CBS, and NBC.

The massive deal would consolidate two of the biggest players in Hollywood and would reshape the media and entertainment industries.  Disney will also get Fox’s 30 percent share of ownership of Hulu in this deal.  Disney already owns a 30 percent share so Fox’s share will now make Disney the majority shareholder in Hulu.  NBC still owns a 30 percent stake and Warner Bros. owns the remaining 10 percent.

Disney already announced plans for its own streaming business in 2019, which will feature films from Disney and Pixar, content that specifically won’t be available on Netflix.  Hulu already has 12 million subscribers so it remains to be seen whether Disney will piggyback their own streaming business with Hulu or just convert Hulu into Disney’s streaming service.  Disney’s Marvel and Lucas film franchise will still appear on Netflix as part of a multiyear agreement, but that runs out in a few years and will almost certainly be exclusive to their own streaming service.

 

 

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The Pentagon says the U.S. military plans to accept openly transgender recruits on January 1, 2018—despite President Trump’s announcement earlier this year of a ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military. In October, a Washington, D.C., district judge blocked Trump’s order from taking effect.   The Justice Department is now trying to delay the acceptance of transgender recruits.  The Pentagon’s announcement came just days after the Trump administration asked a federal judge to temporarily put on hold a portion of the October U.S. District Court ruling that required the military to begin accepting transgender troops on Jan. 1.

The Pentagon announced that it would enforce the Jan. 1 court-imposed deadline for processing transgender military applicants as the Department of Justice appeals the ruling.  Potential transgender recruits will have to overcome a lengthy and strict set of physical, medical and mental conditions that make it possible, though difficult, for them to join the armed services.

Under the new guidelines, the Pentagon can disqualify potential military recruits who have a history of gender dysphoria or of medical treatments associated with gender transition, as well as those who underwent reconstruction surgery.  Those recruits can be allowed to serve if a licensed medical provider certifies they have been stable in their preferred gender for 18 months and are free of “significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”  Transgender individuals receiving hormone therapy also must be stable on their medication for 18 months.

The administration has filed an appeal to the decision, which blocked Trump’s policy and set the January enlistment date, to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.  In a recent motion, officials argued that the federal government would be “seriously and irreparably harmed if forced” to implement the requirement to accept transgender recruits by next month.  A Washington state federal court ruled against the president’s proposed ban, marking the third to do so.

The Department of Defense has stated that current transgender service members would be treated with respect as the Pentagon worked through the policy shift — which came one month after U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis gave military chiefs another six months to review whether allowing transgender individuals to enlist in the military would affect the force’s “readiness or lethality.”

Last year, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter ended the ban on transgender service members, allowing them to serve openly in the military. He said that within 12 months — or by July 2017 — transgender people also would be able to enlist.  Lat July, President Trump tweeted that the federal government “will not accept or allow” transgender people to serve “in any capacity in the U.S. military.” In August, the president reversed the Obama directive to allow transgender individuals to serve in the armed forces, directing the Pentagon to renew the ban. He gave the department six months to determine what to do about those currently serving.

That decision was quickly challenged in court, and two U.S. district court judges ruled against the ban.  District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her decision that transgender members of the military who had sued over the change were likely to win their lawsuit, and she barred the Trump administration from reversing course. Part of one ruling required the government to allow transgender individuals to enlist beginning Jan. 1.

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An investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico has revealed that nearly 1,000 more people died in the 40-day period after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico compared to that same time period last year. These findings sharply contradict the storm’s “official” death toll of 62.   The government allowed 911 bodies to be cremated without being physically examined by a government medical officer to determine if they should be included in the official death toll from the storm.  Each cause of death was listed as being of “natural causes.”

The revelation of the new data also coincides with accounts from relatives’ reports of victims that point to problems with essential health services such as dialysis, ventilators, oxygen, and other critical circumstances caused by the lack of electricity in homes and hospitals throughout Puerto Rico.

The majority of the deaths were men and women over 50 who died in hospitals and nursing homes from conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, hypertension, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. When compared to the same time period from 2016, there was a significant increase in deaths, especially in hospitals and nursing homes.

Some have said they considered heart attacks and people who died of lack of oxygen because of lack of power as hurricane-related deaths, while others said they considered those “natural causes.”  Accurate information about the death toll is important because it allows victims’ families to claim federal relief aid.  It has also been used as a measure of how effective relief efforts have been.  The official death toll likely fails to take account of all those who died as a result of the deadly hurricane.

Demographer José A. López, the only person at the registry in charge of analyzing this data, has said that the increase in deaths in the first two post-Maria months is significant and the government’s inability to link more deaths to the hurricane shows that the current process of documenting causes of death in a disaster is not working and must be reformed.  López and the Department of Health appeared before Puerto Rico’s Senate to request that a dialogue begin about the issue and that they lead to changing the system.

Currently, linking a death to a disaster depends almost exclusively on a physician making an annotation related to the hurricane in the death certificate and listing the clinical cause of death, but both doctors and hospitals maintain that their responsibility and knowledge are strictly tied to the clinical cause of death.  In most cases, the doctor who certifies the death may not be the same doctor who was in charge of the patient.   Because of this, most death certificates do not include additional information about the other circumstances that could lead to death — such as the stress caused by an emergency; lack of power, transportation services or medications; lack of access to health services; changes in diet; and increases in ambient temperatures, among others.

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Former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, 36, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for the deadly shooting of unarmed motorist Walter Scott-who was pulled over for a broken tail-light.  U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled that Slager committed second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, when he shot and killed 50-year-old Scott on April 4, 2015. The second-degree murder ruling came with a recommended 19 to 24 year sentence.  Slager has 14 days to appeal.

Slager initially claimed self-defense, but witness cellphone video that surfaced shortly after the encounter showed the officer fatally shooting Walter Scott five times in the back as he ran away. He was fired from the force after the shooting.  Slager was charged in South Carolina with murder and pleaded not guilty. During the state murder trial, Slager’s attorney said his client shot Walter Scott because he was in fear for his life.

Federal prosecutors sought a life sentence, arguing Slater, had committed second-degree murder and also should be punished for obstructing justice by providing the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division with false statements.  In 2016, the case ended in a mistrial. The state retrial and federal trial were expected to take place this year, but in May, Michael Slager pleaded guilty to violating Walter Scott’s civil rights in federal court, ending the federal case against him and also resolving the state charges that were pending after the mistrial.

Before the sentence was announced, Scott’s family addressed the court and gave the judge their victim impact statements.  Judy Scott broke down in tears as she recalled the memory of her son.  Speaking to Slager, Scott also said she forgave the former officer, a sentiment echoed by Walter Scott’s brother, Anthony Scott.  Scott’s family has repeatedly expressed forgiveness to Slager, saying they needed to in order to let go of the pain of losing Walter.

Before hearing his sentence in federal court, Michael Slager called each family member out by name and apologized, thanking them for forgiving him. “I wish this never would have happened,” he said. “I wish I could go back to the day and change the events, but I can’t.”  For the past 31 months, he said, he had thought about the moment he opened fire.  “Walter Scott is no longer with his family, and I’m responsible for that,” Slager said, adding the Scott family would be forever changed without Walter.

The Scott family said at the subsequent press conference that Slager had sought to make amends with them.  “He apologized to the family,” said Rodney Scott, one of Walter’s brothers. “He called each and every last one of our names in court today and apologized. So who are we not to forgive?”

He said his family is “thankful for the justice system that worked on our behalf,” but added that “a lot of work” still needs to be done in the justice system.  Another one of Walter Scott’s brothers, Anthony Scott, thanked Feiden Santana, the witness who filmed the shooting, for being “brave” enough to film what he saw that day.

 

 

 

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South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeals has more than doubled the prison sentence for Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius, who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013.  The sentence has now been increased from six years to 15 years, with time served.  Under that initial sentence, which the court called “shockingly lenient,” Pistorius could have been released on parole in mid-2019. Now, the earliest he’ll be eligible for parole is 2023.  Supreme Court judges are generally reluctant to change sentences handed down by trial courts, and it’s rare for them to change one so dramatically.

Pistorius killed Steenkamp in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 by shooting four times through a closed toilet cubicle door with his 9 mm pistol. He claimed he mistook the 29-year-old model and reality TV star for an intruder.  Throughout the trial, the prosecution had been looking to prove that the couple had gotten into an argument, and Pistorius intentionally murdered his girlfriend.  A few of Pistorius’s neighbors testified to hearing an argument that lasted nearly an hour, followed by a woman screaming before and during the shots being fired.

A police ballistics expert concluded that the first shot fired through the bathroom door hit Steenkamp in the hip and caused her to collapse.  The second shot missed.  Prosecutors tried to prove that Steenkamp screamed while she was hit by two more shots as she covered her head with her arms in a desperate attempt to protect herself.

Pistorius was initially convicted of manslaughter by trial Judge Thokozile Masipa.  That conviction was overturned and replaced with a murder conviction by the Supreme Court in 2015.  Masipa then sentenced Pistorius to six years for murder, which prosecutors called much too lenient.

Supreme Court Justice Willie Seriti said a panel of judges unanimously upheld an appeal by prosecutors against Pistorius’ original six-year sentence for shooting Steenkamp.   The Supreme Court agreed that the sentencing was too leniant, saying in a full written ruling released later that “the sentence of six years’ imprisonment is shockingly lenient to a point where it has the effect of trivializing this serious offence.”  The Supreme Court said Pistorius “displays a lack of remorse, and does not appreciate the gravity of his actions.”  As Seriti delivered the verdict he said “Pistorius should have been sentenced to the prescribed minimum of 15 years for murder.”

The new sentence of 13 years and five months took into account the one year and seven months Pistorius served in prison and under house arrest after his manslaughter conviction.  The new sentence was backdated to start on the day he began his murder sentence, on July 6 last year.  Pistorius must serve at least half of the 13 years and five months — nearly seven years — before he can be considered for parole. He has served a year and five months of his murder sentence.