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The week at a glance...United States

United States

Richmond, Calif.Refinery blaze throttles supply: California drivers could soon face gasoline price jumps of as much as 30 cents a gallon after a massive fire at a Chevron oil refinery disrupted fuel production this week. What began as a small leak at the 110-year-old refinery in Richmond, about 10 miles northwest of San Francisco, sparked a major blaze that raged for hours, producing a column of noxious black smoke that could be seen for miles and prompted authorities to warn residents to stay indoors. At least 900 people were treated at emergency rooms for respiratory and other health problems. The Richmond refinery accounts for 15 percent of California’s refining capacity, and is a top source of the state’s low-pollution gas blend. Contracts for wholesale fuel prices jumped nearly 30 cents a gallon, and the spike will likely soon be passed on to consumers.  

Phoenix Loughner pleads guilty: The man accused of the January 2011 shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, pleaded guilty this week and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Jared Loughner, 23, entered his plea on 19 counts of murder and attempted murder in a slow, and at times slurred, monotone in a courtroom packed with victims’ relatives. Giffords’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, said avoiding a trial would help victims and their families “move forward with our lives.” The case against Loughner has been dogged by questions about his mental stability. He was initially ruled incompetent to stand trial, but a judge allowed his guilty plea after a prison psychologist testified that Loughner’s mental condition had improved following months of therapy and powerful psychotropic drugs. 

Huntsville, Texas Mentally handicapped man executed: Texas executed a death-row inmate this week despite evidence that the man had an IQ of only 61. Marvin Wilson, 54, was convicted of killing a police informant in 1992, but his lawyers argued that he should have been spared lethal injection because he was below the IQ threshold of 70 used by most states. The U.S. Supreme Court banned executions of mentally deficient prisoners in 2002, but left it up to states to define mental impairment. Texas’s standards are among the most restrictive in the country. Courts there ruled that Wilson’s low IQ was determined by a single, unreliable test. In setting its benchmark for mental disability, Texas courts cited John Steinbeck’s character Lennie from Of Mice and Men, arguing that a mentally handicapped person can still be responsible for his acts. 

Jefferson City, Mo. McCaskill’s gambit: With help from the Democrat he hopes to unseat, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin came from behind to win a hotly contested Republican primary slot to contest Sen. Claire McCaskill in November. Sarah Palin had campaigned hard for former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, while the Republican establishment had largely backed wealthy St. Louis businessman John Brunner, who invested $7 million of his own money in a campaign he was widely predicted to win. But McCaskill’s campaign, which figured Akin to be her easiest opponent, spent almost $2 million on ads touting him as “very conservative.” McCaskill is considered one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable senators, and the race for her seat is expected to be one of the most expensive Senate contests of the year.  

New York City Near-collision revealed: Air-traffic controllers allowed an American Airlines Boeing 777 with 250 passengers aboard to pass within 2,000 feet of a C-17 military transport plane in January 2011, federal authorities revealed this week. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the near-collision, 88 miles from New York City over the Atlantic, on mistakes and miscommunication among JFK airport controllers, who monitor the nation’s busiest air corridor. The board’s investigation found that a distracted controller briefly lost track of the passenger plane. A catastrophe was avoided when the airliner’s collision-avoidance systems sounded an alarm and the crew took evasive action. The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t say whether anyone was disciplined because of the incident, but told The Wall Street Journal that it had taken a number of corrective actions to avoid such close calls in the future. 

Hempstead, N.Y. Fake death exposed: A man believed to have drowned in a swimming accident off Long Island last month was stopped for speeding last week in South Carolina, foiling an apparent plot to fake his own death. Raymond Roth, 47, was reported missing off Jones Beach by his 22-year-old son, Jonathan, prompting a massive air-and-sea search operation. After incriminating emails surfaced, Jonathan was charged this week with conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. He pleaded not guilty, claiming he was framed by an uncle. “His dad has put him through hell his entire life,” Jonathan’s girlfriend told reporters. “This is where he ends up just because of his dad.” His father, meanwhile, is still missing, having been released by the South Carolina police after assuring them that he was headed back to New York. 

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