February 23, 2021

Virginia, historically America's most prolific practitioner of capital punishment, will become the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty as soon as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signs legislation given final approval Monday. The state Senate passed the House's capital punishment ban 22 to 16, with one Republican joining all Senate Democrats. The House of Delegates passed an identical Senate bill 57 to 43, with support from two Republicans.

"Over Virginia's long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person," Northam, Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D), and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) said in a joint statement after the vote. The death penalty is "inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane," and "it's time we stop this machinery of death."

Once Northam signs the legislation, Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, following Colorado's ban last year. Virginia has not executed any inmates since 2017 and hasn't sentenced anyone to death since 2011. The two remaining inmates on death row, Thomas Porter and Anthony Juniper, will serve out the rest of their lives in prison.

Since America's first execution in 1608 — when the Jamestown colony executed a Spanish spy — Virginia has put to death 1,390 people, including 113 after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Those 113 executions put Virginia behind only Texas in modern-day use of capital punishment.

Abolishing the death penalty is "just the latest in a long list of sweeping policy changes enacted by Democrats" after they took full control of the General Assembly last year, The Associated Press reports. "Last year, lawmakers passed some of the region's strictest gun laws, broadest LGBTQ protections, its highest minimum wage, and some of its loosest abortion restrictions." Peter Weber

May 15, 2021

The long-awaited 2020 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame may be one of the best in the sport's history, featuring NBA legends like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, a WNBA great in Tamika Catchings, and a stellar list of coaches, including Rudy Tomjanovich, Eddie Sutton, and Barbara Stevens. But the night will likely be remembered, most clearly, for Vanessa Bryant's speech, which she gave on behalf of her late husband, Kobe Bryant, the longtime Los Angeles Lakers star and five-time NBA champion who was killed last year in a helicopter crash alongside his teenage daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

"All of your hard work and sacrifices paid off," Vanessa Bryant, who was accompanied on stage by her husband's hero and mentor, Michael Jordan, said at the close of her speech, speaking to her husband. "You once told me, 'If you're going to bet on someone, bet on yourself.' I'm glad you bet on yourself, you overachiever. You did it. You're in the Hall of Fame now. You're a true champ. You're not just an MVP, you're an all-time great." Watch the full speech below. Tim O'Donnell

May 15, 2021

Rombauer came from behind to upset Kentucky Derby-winner Medina Spirit to win the Preakness on Saturday, spoiling the latter's chances of capturing horse racing's Triple Crown. Rombauer's odds were 11-1.

Medina Spirit, aside from winning the first leg of the Triple Crown and entering the Preakness as the favorite, was the center of attention Saturday because he failed a post-Derby drug test. While the horse was cleared to run at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course after passing multiple pre-race drug tests, skepticism surrounded his trainer, Bob Baffert. Ultimately, Medina Spirit finished in third behind Rombauer and Midnight Bourbon, who had 3-1 odds. Read more at ESPN. Tim O'Donnell

May 15, 2021

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is considered one of the strongest supporters of the United States' relationship with Israel among congressional Democrats. On Saturday, though, he said he is "deeply troubled" by reports of Israeli airstrikes killing Palestinian civilians and targeting a building that houses international media offices (Israel said Hamas was also using the building for military purposes).

Israel, he said, "has every right to defend itself" against rocket attacks from Hamas, but "given the complexity of Gaza's densely populated civilian areas, and Hamas' shameful record of exploiting that reality by hiding military assets behind the innocent, Israeli authorities must continue taking the conscientious practice of giving advance warning of its attacks to reduce the risk of harm to the innocent." He added that "there must be a full accounting of actions that have led to civilian deaths and destruction of media outlets."

Menendez's comments certainly don't reflect a full reversal from his traditional stance, but observers noted that, so far at least, it appears to be one of the most unexpected responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict from an American politician.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly told him that Israel was doing whatever it could to make sure civilians were not hit in airstrikes. The White House has mostly kept quiet about details of the phone call. Tim O'Donnell

May 15, 2021

The Biden administration still firmly believes the United States is not headed toward a "sustained pick-up" in inflation. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is closely monitoring the situation and hasn't found any surprising data that's cause for panic. But, with prices likely to continue to rise in the near future, it might become more difficult for the White House to convince Americans that that's the case, Bloomberg reports.

"We still have a weird six months ahead," Josh Bivens, the director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg. "It will be a real challenge for the administration and the [Federal Reserve} to stay firm on their stance."

Indeed, there's reportedly some concern within the administration about political fallout, even if inflation is ultimately temporary, as Biden's economics team believes. One of the most consequential risks is how a potential "inflationary psychology" — in other words, anxious consumers — will affect support for Biden's major spending proposals, which could total around $4 trillion, an unnamed "ally" of the president told Bloomberg. Read more about how the Biden administration is responding to inflation fears at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

May 15, 2021

There was already a bipartisan effort in Congress to craft legislation that would require certain companies, particularly those that operate critical infrastructure, to report cyberattacks, and the recent ransomware strike against the Colonial Pipeline has increased the urgency to get things done, Politico reports.

"You couldn't have a better reason" for adding a mandate than the attacks on Colonial and SolarWinds, which took place last year, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told Politico. He's working alongside Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who said requiring companies like Colonial to alert the government of an attack is just "the tip of the iceberg of what we need to do."

Private companies have bristled at the idea of voluntarily sharing their data with the government for fear of leaks, Politico notes, but as the risk of cyberattacks increases, a mandate could become harder and harder to avoid. Until something is in place, the U.S. government will remain "completely blind to what is happening," Brandon Wales, the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told reporters earlier this week, per Politico. "That just weakens our overall cyber posture across our entire country."

Warner said the legislation would provide a "public-private forum, with appropriate immunity and confidentiality." Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

May 15, 2021

Perseverance and Curiosity have company.

The China National Space Administration successfully landed its Zhurong rover on Mars on Saturday, state media reports, making China the third country after the United States and Soviet Union to touch down on the Red Planet (the 1971 Soviet mission failed shortly after landing). It's considered a major achievement for Beijing's space program, which is growing more and more ambitious.

Zhurong will soon be deployed from the lander for a three-month mission, joining the aforementioned operational NASA rovers. So, what will it be doing? CNN and The Associated Press report that it will be searching for signs of ancient life, but the mission appears to be a little more specific than that. The Scientific American reports that Zhurong's landing site, Utopia Planitia, is "a rather bland expanse of rock-strewn sand," a good spot for a touchdown, but "decidedly sub-par for addressing cutting-edge research questions, such as whether Mars harbors past or present life."

That said, the mission should come in handy, Agnes Cousin, a planetary scientist at the Institute for Research and in Astrophysics and Planetology in France, told The Scientific American. "For the overall geological implications for Mars, it’s very nice to have a new location to compare," she said.

Among other things, Zhurong is equipped with the first magnetometer sent to Mars, which reportedly could possibly reveal details of how Mars lost its magnetic field and, subsequently, its atmosphere and water billions of years ago. Read more at The Scientific American and The South China Morning Post. Tim O'Donnell

May 15, 2021

An Israeli airstrike destroyed the Al Jalaa Tower, a high-rise in Gaza that housed the offices of multiple media outlets in the region, including Al Jazeera and The Associated Press, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continued Saturday. The Israeli military warned people to evacuate the building, and there do not appear to be any reports of casualties; AP has said its staffers are safe.

AP reported that there was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted, but Israel has since said it contained "military assets belonging to the intelligence offices of the Hamas terror organization."

Gary Pruitt, AP's president and CEO, said the organization is "shocked and horrified" by the strike. "We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life," he said, adding that "the world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today."

Al Jazeera responded to the incident, as well, calling for international condemnation of Israel's actions, which the publication called a "blatant violation of human rights" and a "war crime," although American attorney Mark Zaid said that accusation could be complicated if it turns out Hamas was using the media as a "shield" for what would otherwise be a "legitimate target." Tim O'Donnell

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