Supreme Court rejects California anti-animal cruelty law on pigs

The Supreme Court has struck down an anti-animal cruelty law from California that sought to prevent sick or wobbly pigs from being sent into slaughterhouses, ruling that federal regulation already requires careful inspections of such animals.

The 9-0 decision on Monday held that since Congress has adopted federal regulations governing slaughterhouses, California is not free to enforce different rules or standards. The justices noted that Congress said states may not adopt slaughterhouse rules that were “in addition to or different from” the federal standards.

The ruling was a victory for the National Meat Assn., which represents pork producers. It is a setback for the Humane Society of the United States, which sponsored the California law.

The state measure was adopted shortly after an undercover video in 2008 showed workers at a California slaughterhouse dragging sick and disabled cows. It led the federal government to institute the largest beef recall in U.S. history. It also led to stricter federal regulations involving cattle, but not pigs.

The California measure made it illegal for a slaughterhouse to “receive a non-ambulatory animal.” Any such animals were to be returned to the farm or “humanely euthanized.”

The National Meat Assn. sued, arguing the California regulation was pre-empted by the federal regulations.

The Supreme Court agreed. “The federal law establishes rules for handling and slaughtering non-ambulatory pigs brought to a slaughterhouse, rather than ordering them returned to sender,” said Justice Elena Kagan.

She said the federal regulations require inspectors to examine animals to check for disease or injury. They prescribe “methods for handling animals humanely at all stages of the slaughtering process,” she added. California cannot “endeavor to regulate the same thing, at the same time, in the same place -- except by imposing different requirements.”


'Headless body in topless bar' killer wants out of prison

Giffords resignation: Questions were growing back in Arizona

Supreme Court: Police need warrant to use GPS tracking on cars

-- David G. Savage in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Reuters

Supreme Court: Police need warrant to use GPS tracking on cars

The Supreme Court on Monday put the brakes on the government’s use of high-tech monitoring devices to track motorists, ruling unanimously that police and the FBI violated the 4th Amendment by attaching a GPS device to a Jeep owned by a drug suspect.

The justices all agreed that the government needs a search warrant from a judge before it seeks to track a suspect by secretly installing a device on his car.

U.S. Justice Antonin ScaliaThey were divided, however, as to what level of tracking would require a search warrant. Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking for a five-member majority, said the police erred because they attached the tiny device to the vehicle. He said the 4th Amendment was intended to protect against government searches on private property.

"We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,'" Scalia said. “The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information,” he said.

Such a search is unconstitutional unless officers obtained a search warrant from a judge. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor joined Scalia’s opinion.

Meanwhile, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he would go further and rule that the “long-term monitoring” of the vehicle with a tracking device violated the 4th Amendment regardless of whether the device was attached to a car. He took the view that the government violated a motorist’s right to privacy by tracking his movements for weeks on end.

Under Alito’s approach, police would need a search warrant for any use of a tracking device, whether or not it was attached to the car. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined his opinion.

None of the justices agreed with the Justice Department’s view that the use of GPS device was a reasonable means of tracking a motorist on a public highway.


Document: Read the full Supreme Court opinion

22 show horses killed in New Jersey fire

Joe Paterno dies: Sex abuse scandal spurs emotional reaction

Roe vs. Wade anniversary: Marking the 39th with marches and blogs

-- David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: Justice Antonin Scalia. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Supreme Court: Alabama death row inmate gets new chance to appeal

Supreme CourtThe Supreme Court rarely gives criminal defendants a second chance if they miss a deadline to file an appeal, but the justices did so Wednesday in the case of an Alabama death row inmate, citing a "perfect storm" of missing lawyers and unopened letters.

Cory Maples, convicted of killing two people in Alabama, was "abandoned" by his lawyers and lost his right to appeal because of "extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Alabama is one of the few states that do not pay for lawyers to represent death row inmates in their appeals, Ginsburg noted. Private law firms often take on their work as volunteers. Maples may have thought he was quite lucky when two attorneys from the prestigious New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell agreed to represent him in his appeals.

But it did not turn out as he expected. The two New York attorneys filed an initial claim, asserting that Maples' trial lawyer failed him by not arguing that he was intoxicated when he shot and killed two friends after a night of heavy drinking.

But 18 months later, when an Alabama judge rejected his initial appeal, the two New York lawyers had left their firm to take other jobs. They did not notify Maples, the judge or a local attorney who was listed on the appeals.

When copies of the judge's order were sent to the New York firm, they were returned by the mailroom unopened. As a result, the 42-day deadline for Maples to appeal this ruling passed by.

Alabama prosecutors then insisted it was too late for Maples to appeal because he had "defaulted" by missing the deadline. The Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Appeals Court in Atlanta agreed, saying Maples lost his chance to appeal because of his lawyers' mistakes.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled for Maples and said he deserves a right to appeal his conviction. Maples "has shown ample cause, we hold, to excuse the procedural default into which he was trapped when counsel of record abandoned him without a word of warning," Ginsburg said.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said a "veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events" had come together to unfairly deprive Maples of a chance to appeal.

The ruling does not free Maples from death row, but it will give him a new chance to argue on appeal that he would not have been sentenced to death had his trial lawyers told the jury he was intoxicated at the time of the crime. His jury voted 10 to 2 in favor of a death sentence.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying they wanted to maintain the "principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys."


Supreme Court to schools: Take care with First Amendment

Ohio man who freed exotic animals 'had a plan,' report suggests

Humane Society: California best, South Dakota worst for animals

-- David G. Savage in Washington, D.C.

Photo: A U.S. flag flies outside the U.S. Supreme Court in this file photo. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Supreme Court to schools: Take care with First Amendment

Off-campus speech via computer
The Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down appeals from two Pennsylvania school districts that were successfully sued by students who posted on the Internet malicious mockeries of their school principals.

The court’s action puts school officials on notice they may violate the First Amendment if they try to discipline students for online posts made from their home computers.

Last year, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school officials cannot police “off-campus speech” by students unless they can show it caused a major disruption at school.  Based on that standard, the appeals court upheld free-speech lawsuits by the students over profiles of their principal that one judge called “lewd and vile.”

In one case, an eighth-grade girl posted a mock profile of her principal with his photo that called him a “sex addict” who enjoyed “hitting on students” on his office. In a second, a high school senior from western Pennsylvania profiled his principal on MySpace as a drug user, a “big fag” and a “big whore.”

After the students were briefly suspended, they and their parents sued the school districts, citing the First Amendment.

A national coalition of school administrators and counselors had urged the high court to take up the issue. They said the “explosion” of social media had blurred the lines between on-campus and off-campus speech. And they argued that the Constitution “does not demand that school officials remain idle in the face of vulgar and malicious attacks.”

But without comment, the high court turned away appeals not only from the Pennsylvania schools but also from one in West Virginia. In the latter case, a student’s online attack was directed against another student.

The court also turned down an appeal that sought to allow a greater use of Christian prayers at county council meetings.

The justices let stand a ruling holding a North Carolina county board violated the First Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion" by opening its sessions with a Christian prayer. The judges agreed, however, the board could have a non-denominational prayer at each session.


Fuel begins flowing into ice-bound Nome, Alaska

Baby born on train: Those contractions were the real thing

No Steve Jobs doll: Company blames family -- and Apple lawyers

-- David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: The Supreme Court declined to hear appeals of two lower-court rulings won by students disciplined for online posts about their principals. Credit: L.G. Patterson / Associated Press

Supreme Court: Church-state separation extends to religious schools

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court extended the principle of church-state separation Wednesday to shield religious schools nationwide from discrimination suits from teachers and school employees who serve as “ministers” of the faith.

In a unanimous ruling, the high court for the first time concluded the Constitution includes a “ministerial exception” that protects churches and their schools from undue interference from the government and its courts.

However, lower courts have long recognized that churches are protected from lawsuits involving their internal workings.

The 1st Amendment protects the “free exercise of religion,” and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the state infringes on religious freedom if it forces a church or its schools to accept or retain “an unwanted minister.”

Notre Dame Law Professor Rick Garnett called the ruling "one of the court's most important church-state decisions in decades." It "protects religious liberty by forbidding governments from second-guessing religious communities' decisions about who should be their teachers, leaders and ministers," he said.

Wednesday’s ruling appears to apply to some, but certainly not all, teachers who are employed in church schools. 

The justices tossed out a disability discrimination suit brought by a former Lutheran school teacher from Michigan. Cheryl Perich was a “called” teacher who taught religion as well as other classes and led her students in daily prayers. The same school had “lay” teachers who worked under contract and were not considered to be ministers of the faith.

Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy in 2004, and after a dispute with school officials in which she threatened to sue, she was fired. She did indeed sue, alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed she had a valid claim, and sued Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church on her behalf.

The EEOC took the position that if there were a ministerial exception, it applies only to church school employees who “perform exclusively religious functions.” The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and ruled Perich’s suit could proceed because most of her work involved ordinary teaching of subjects such as reading and math. Only 45 minutes of her school day involved religious activities, the lower court said.

But Chief Justice Roberts disagreed and said these disputes cannot “be resolved by a stop watch.” He said Perich was “commissioned as a minister” by her church. She received a special housing allowance for those involved “in the exercise of the ministry.” And her school duties included leading chapel services.

“We conclude that Perich was a minister covered  by the ministerial exception,” Roberts said, and therefore, she may not sue the church. “The 1st Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” 

A concurring opinion by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan said they understood the “ministerial exception” to extend equally to “Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists” even if those religions do not use the term “minister.”  The exception “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith,” Alito wrote.

The 1st Amendment forbids “an establishment of religion” by the government, and it protects the “free exercise” of religion.

In the past, the court had often invoked the separation of church and state doctrine to strike down state laws that gave aid to religious schools, citing the ban on “establishment” of religion. In this case, the court ruled against government interference with religion, citing the “free exercise” clause.


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--David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: A Supreme Court ruling Wednesday shields religious schools nationwide from discrimination suits in some cases. Credit: Joshua P. Roberts / For The Times

Indecency on TV: Supreme Court reluctant to ease profanity rules

Scene from Saving Private Ryan
The Supreme Court seemed reluctant Tuesday  to end the government’s historic policing of the broadcast airwaves and to strike down the “indecency” rules that guide prime-time TV shows.

Broadcasters use the public airwaves, and the “government can insist on a certain modicum of decency,” said Justice Antonin Scalia during oral arguments on the constitutionality of a ban on four-letter words and nudity. 

“All we are asking for is for a few channels” where parents can be confident their children will not hear profanity or see sex scenes, said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is a parent of two young children.

At issue before the high court was a plea from the broadcast industry urging the justices to strike down or sharply limit the government’s authority to police the airwaves. Since the 1930s, federal law has prohibited radio and TV broadcasters from putting on the airwaves material that is “obscene, indecent or profane.”

In the past decade, Bush administration appointees at the Federal Communication Commission launched a crackdown on indecency. Several TV networks, including Fox and ABC, were hit with heavy fines. Fox was fined for allowing celebrities, including singer Cher and U2's Bono, to utter four-letter words during live awards programs. ABC was fined for showing a brief nude scene in an episode of “NYPD Blue.”

Lawyers for the networks urged the Supreme Court to throw out the fines and strike down the FCC’s indecency rules. They said federal policing of broadcast content was outdated and no longer warranted. They said most Americans receive entertainment and news though cable TV or the Internet, and these media have full 1st Amendment rights. Broadcasters deserve the same rights, they said.

They also argued that current FCC policy against indecency is vague and arbitrary and should be voided on those grounds. They noted, for example, that the broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan,” the World War II movie by Steven Spielberg that portrayed the Normandy landings, was permitted, even though it included plenty of four-letter words. At the same time, other broadcasters were fined for allowing a single four-letter word.

During Tuesday’s argument, neither approach seemed to win converts among the justices.

“People understand that context counts,” Roberts told one lawyer for the broadcasters. “Your argument is that they can’t take context into account.”

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he would not like to see a time when “celebrities and want-to-be celebrities” had a free speech right to utter profanities on television and radio.

At one point, Justice Elena Kagan agreed with the broadcasters that the rules on indecency seem arbitrary. “It seems no one can use dirty words, except Steven Spielberg,” she commented.

But she also voiced opposition to throwing out the rules entirely. Broadcasters have been given free use of the public airwaves. “It seems to be a good thing to have a safe haven” in prime-time broadcasts where standards of decency are enforced, she said.


Supreme Court allows reversal of 'Skid Row Stabber' convictions

Supreme Court orders a new trial for convicted New Orleans killer

Supreme Court is critical of EPA wetland order against Idaho couple

-- David G. Savage in Washington, D.C.

Photo: "Saving Private Ryan," directed by Steven Spielberg, was used as an example in the case on "indecency" rules before the Supreme Court. Credit: David James

Supreme Court orders new trial for convicted New Orleans killer

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The Supreme Court issued a sharp rebuke to New Orleans prosecutors Tuesday, giving a new trial to a man convicted of shooting and killing five people during the robbery of a drug house because the government withheld crucial evidence.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the court could have “no confidence” in the conviction because the jury was not told that the sole eyewitness to the crime had initially told police he “could not ID anyone.”

The 8-1 decision is the latest to put a spotlight on the problem of prosecutors and police concealing evidence.

In Brady vs. Maryland in 1963, the high court said criminal defendants had a right to be told about evidence that is “favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment,” as Roberts put it.

But enforcing that rule has proven difficult. Hidden evidence can remain hidden for many years, even decades.

Last year, the high court was sharply criticized for overturning a $14-million jury verdict in a civil trial that favored another New Orleans man who was wrongly convicted of murder and nearly executed. John Thompson was weeks away from being put to death when an investigator found a hidden blood test in the police files that led to his exoneration.

By a 5-4 vote, however, the justices ruled the district attorney’s office could not held liable for the mistakes made by several of its trial prosecutors.

Shortly after that ruling, the justices agreed to hear the case of Juan Smith, who was convicted of shooting and killing five people during the robbery of a drug house. Smith was identified as the perpetrator by Larry Boatner, who was in the house and survived the shooting.

Years after Smith’s conviction, lawyers working on his appeal obtained notes from the police investigation. Boatner had told the lead investigator he “could not ID anyone because (he) couldn’t see faces” and he “wouldn't know them if he saw them.”

The investigator’s report concluded Boatner “could not identify any of the perpetrators of the murder.”

Nevertheless, when the case went to trial, Boatner testified he saw Smith clearly come through the door and begin shooting. No other witnesses or physical evidence pointed to Smith.

The Louisiana courts refused to reopen Smith’s case, and the Louisiana Supreme Court turned down his appeals.

But the Supreme Court reversed the conviction Tuesday in a brief but blunt opinion. “Boatner’s undisclosed statements were plainly material,” the chief justice said. “We hold that Boatner’s undisclosed statements alone suffice to undermine confidence in Smith’s conviction.”

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented alone. “Smith is not entitled to a new trial simply because the jury could have accorded some weight to Boatner’s undisclosed statements,” he said. Thomas, who wrote last year’s opinion in the John Thompson case, said there were other statements from Boatner that confirm he did indeed see Smith.

For the record, 3:59 p.m. Jan. 10: A previous version of this post said that five men were killed in the robbery. Not all of the victims were male.


Faking daughter's death to go to Costa Rica? Not a good idea

California congressional shake-up: Rep. Wally Herger will retire

8 killers pardoned: Outgoing Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour under fire

-- David G. Savage in Washington

Supreme Court allows reversal of 'Skid Row Stabber' convictions

Los Angeles' skid rowThe Supreme Court has let stand a ruling that overturns murder convictions in two slayings tied to the so-called Skid Row Stabber, who was thought to be responsible for the killing of as many as 10 homeless men in downtown Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

Bobby Joe Maxwell was convicted of two murders after a lengthy trial in 1984 and was sentenced to life in prison.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals set aside his convictions because a key witness for the prosecution, a notorious jailhouse informer named Sidney Storch, had been exposed as a “habitual liar.” Storch, who is now dead, was known to read newspaper stories in his jail cell and then offer testimony that would be useful to prosecutors in exchange for favors, Judge Richard Paez wrote.

The case against Maxwell was circumstantial. Prosecutors introduced evidence that three homeless men reported speaking with a man who resembled Maxwell near the stabbing scenes, but they were unable to identify Maxwell. Maxwell was found with a knife similar to one used in the murder, and his palm print was found near one victim.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented Monday. The passage of time and “the intervening loss of witnesses and evidence will likely make it impossible to retry” Maxwell, Scalia said. He faulted the 9th Circuit for second-guessing the California courts, which had upheld the conviction.


Keep Obama off ballot, Alabama man says; judge will listen

Katharine Hepburn estate? Being bought by Obamas? Um, no

Gabrielle Giffords commemorates shootings; what does future hold?

-- David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: As seen from the rooftop of the Downtown Women's Center in this 2003 photo, the homeless prepare their makeshift dwellings before bedding down for the night on Los Angeles' skid row. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times              

Chief Justice Roberts says high court not exempt from ethics rules

Supreme Court

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. assured the public that members of the Supreme Court are not “exempt” from the ethics rules for federal judges, including the requirement to step aside from a case if there are reasonable doubts about their impartiality.

But each justice gets to decide on his or her fitness to rule on a case, he said Saturday, and their decisions are subject to no further review.

“This is a consequence of the Constitution’s command that there be only ‘one Supreme Court.’ The Justices serve on the nation’s court of last resort,” Roberts said.

Without citing the specifics, the chief justice addressed a controversy that has swirled around the high court in the run-up to the constitutional challenge to President Obama’s healthcare law.

“I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted,” Roberts wrote in his year-end report on the federal judiciary. “They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience….  I know that they each give careful consideration to any recusal questions that arise in the course of their judicial duties.”

Some House Democrats and liberal activists have insisted that Justice Clarence Thomas should step aside, or recuse, from the case because his wife, Virginia, led a tea party group calling for the “repeal of Obamacare.”

At the same time, some Republicans and conservative activists have insisted that Justice Elena Kagan should step aside because she was Obama’s solicitor general when the healthcare bill was signed into law in March 2010. A few weeks later, the president nominated her to the high court. Kagan told senators in her confirmation hearing that she would withdraw from any case in which she had done legal work before joining the court.

Kagan stepped aside from more than 20 cases in her first year. In early December, she signaled she would stay out of the Obama administration’s clash with Arizona over immigration enforcement.

But Kagan and Thomas have given no hint they will withdraw from the healthcare case.

The chief justice gently batted aside several suggestions for change. He said the justices as a group have not and should not review a decision by one of their colleagues on whether to drop out of case. Such a policy “would create an undesirable situation in which the court could affect the outcome of a case by selecting who among its members may participate,” he wrote.

He also noted the high cost of one justice stepping aside.

If one of the nine justices were to withdraw from the healthcare case, the outcome could be a 4-4 tie vote. That would leave the law in a muddle because the healthcare’s individual mandate has been deemed unconstitutional in one regional circuit and upheld in another. A justice cannot withdraw from a case “as a matter of convenience or simply to avoid controversy,” Roberts wrote.

The chief justice also warned Congress to keep its distance. Twice, he cast doubt on whether lawmakers can impose an ethics rules on the high court, a separate branch of government. While the justices choose to abide by the current ethics rules, he said, “the limits of Congress’s power to require [them] have never been tested.”


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Flag burning at Occupy Charlotte creates divide among members

-- David Savage in Washington

Photo: The Justices of the US Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on October 8, 2010 at the Supreme Court in Washington. Front row (L-R): Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back Row (L-R): Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr. and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal won't face death penalty

Former Black Panther and convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal will be spared the death penalty, the Philadelphia district attorney announced Wednesday, bringing a quiet end to a racially charged case that spanned 30 years.

Seth Williams, the city’s top prosecutor, said Abu-Jamal will spend the rest of his life in prison. He said the “decision to end this fight [over a death sentence] was not an easy one to make” and that he remained convinced that Abu-Jamal was guilty as charged and deserved to die for his crimes.

Mumia Abu-JamalBut he said he also had concluded that prosecutors could not likely win another death sentence for the now 57-year-old convicted murderer in the face of steady opposition from the federal courts. And he said he did not want to put the widow of slain officer Daniel Faulkner through the ordeal of another sentencing hearing.

“The survivors of Officer Faulkner have suffered enough, and the best remaining option is to allow his murderer to die in prison,” the district attorney said in a statement.

On Dec. 9, 1981, Faulkner stopped a car driven by William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s young brother. Seated in a taxi nearby, Abu-Jamal saw what happened and ran to the scene. Witnesses said he exchanged gunfire with the officer, who was hit multiple times and died at a hospital. Abu-Jamal was arrested at the scene, and his revolver was found next to him.

A radio reporter and a black activist, Abu-Jamal had been a fierce critic of the police, and his trial, conviction and death sentence turned his case into an international cause celebre. Supporters asserted he had been framed by the police.

But over many years and multiple appeals, state and federal courts upheld his guilt for the murder. Federal judges, however, questioned the process that led to his death sentence. Ten years ago, a federal judge said the jury may have been confused over whether it could grant leniency, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia affirmed that decision in several rulings.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the district attorney’s appeal, leaving Williams the option of convening a new jury to weigh a death sentence or accepting the lesser sentence of life in prison without parole for Abu-Jamal. Williams said he had decided on the latter.

“While Abu-Jamal will no longer be facing the death penalty, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, and that is exactly where he belongs,” he said.

Maureen Faulkner said she accepted the decision reluctantly.

“My family and I have endured a three-decade ordeal at the hands of Mumia Abu-Jamal, his attorneys and his supporters,” she said. “After 30 years of waiting, the time remaining before Abu-Jamal stands before his ultimate judge doesn’t quite seem so far off as it once did when I was younger. I look forward to that day.”


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Arrested former Colorado sheriff held in jail that bears his name

--David Savage

Photo: Mumia Abu-Jamal leaves Philadelphia's City Hall after a 1995 hearing. Credit: Chris Gardner / Associated Press



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