The week at a glance...United States

United States

Washington, D.C.

Ricin scare: Letters sent to President Obama and one senator this week tested positive for the poison ricin, and Senate offices were briefly evacuated as other letters and packages were removed for inspection. The letters to Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) were postmarked in Memphis and signed with the words, “I am KC and I approve this message.” Both were intercepted at off-site screening facilities set up after the anthrax scare of 2001. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that federal authorities suspect an individual who often wrote to senators, but the White House declined to comment. If ingested or inhaled, ricin can cause death within hours. The FBI said more testing was needed to confirm the poison’s presence, since preliminary tests sometimes produce false positive results.

Washington, D.C.

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Torture confirmed: An independent review has found it “indisputable” that the U.S. engaged in torture after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and that top officials are ultimately responsible for the human-rights abuses. In a 577-page report sponsored by the Constitution Project, a legal advocacy group, a bipartisan panel found that intelligence officers and military forces engaged in torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, the U.S.-run Guantánamo Bay prison, and elsewhere, in violation of U.S. and international law. The widespread torture, the report said, was the direct result of “decisions made by the nation’s highest civilian and military leaders,” including President Bush, who decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al Qaida and Taliban militants.

Washington, D.C.

Background checks thwarted: President Obama’s hopes of tightening gun laws in the wake of the Newton, Conn., school massacre faded this week, when a bipartisan bill to expand background checks for gun buyers was blocked in the Senate. The Senate voted 54–46 for the amendment, falling short of the 60 votes needed to move the legislation ahead. Proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the measure would have expanded checks to include online and gun-show sales in order to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from procuring guns. It had the support of nearly 90 percent of Americans, but the National Rifle Association argued the checks would be the first step toward a national gun registry. The mother of a student wounded in the Virginia Tech massacre shouted “Shame on you!” from the gallery during the roll call. The NRA celebrated the amendment’s defeat, saying checks would not have kept “our kids safe in their schools.” Proposals to ban large-capacity magazines and assault weapons also appear to be doomed.


Giant snails: South Florida is battling a growing infestation of one of the world’s most destructive invasive species: the giant African land snail. At least 1,000 of the snails are being caught each week in Miami-Dade County, and a total of 117,000 of the mollusks have been caught since September 2011. They can grow as big as a rat and feed voraciously on more than 500 plant species, but one of their favorite things to eat is stucco, because it contains calcium, which they need for their shells. In the Caribbean, which in places is overrun with the creatures, the snails’ shells can blow out car tires or be hurled in the air by lawnmower blades, and their excrement and slime coat walls and pavements. “It becomes a slick mess,” said Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Kaufman, Texas

Murder charges: The wife of a disgraced justice of the peace was charged this week with murdering the Kaufman County district attorney, his wife, and an assistant prosecutor. Kim Lene Williams, 46, has reportedly confessed to carrying out the murders along with her husband, Eric Williams, who was expected to be charged as well. District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife were gunned down at their home at the end of March, two months after Assistant D.A. Mark Hasse was shot in broad daylight. Eric Williams soon emerged as a prime suspect because of his history with McLelland and Hasse, who had prosecuted him in 2012 for the theft of county computers. He was arrested last week for allegedly making terrorist threats to police investigating the killings. If convicted, Kim Williams could face the death penalty.

Saratoga, Calif.

Juveniles charged: Three 16-year-old boys were charged this week with sexual battery, distribution of child pornography, and forcible sexual penetration in connection with an assault on Audrie Pott, the 15-year-old girl who committed suicide after a photo of the alleged attack was circulated around her school. In September, Pott awoke after passing out at a friend’s house to find she had been sexually abused, and that her attackers had scrawled on her body with a marker. The three boys, who had known Pott for years, apparently passed at least one photo of the unconscious sophomore on to classmates. Eight days after the humiliating attack, Pott hanged herself. Her stepmother, Lisa, said that she “had no idea what happened to Audrie until after her memorial service,” when she checked her Facebook account. “My life is ruined,” she’d written, “and I don’t even remember how.”

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