U.S. Sinks $12 Million Into Biofuels

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (UPI) — The U.S. Department of Energy announced it was doling out $12 million to support biofuels projects that will work to replace conventional gasoline.

Three small-scale projects in Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin get federal funding to help commercialize a process that uses heat and other catalysts to convert biomass into liquid fuel. These, in turn, could go directly into the supply chain to be used as replacements to conventional gasoline.

“These investments aim to accelerate the discovery of innovative solutions that could drive down the cost of biofuels production and boost their availability in the marketplace,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

The U.S. departments of Energy, Agriculture and Navy announced plans in August to invest up to $510 million during the next three years in partnerships with the private sector. This plan would help advance the use of biofuels to power military and commercial transportation, the departments said.

U.S. President Barack Obama said advancing biofuels would contribute to U.S. energy security plans. The United States lacks the manufacturing capabilities to take full advantage of the alternative fuel, however.

Kittens Tossed From Moving Vehicle In Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore., Sept. 1 (UPI) — Portland, Ore., police offered a reward for information on a motorist who allegedly threw three live kittens from a moving gold minivan Thursday.

One of the kittens had to be euthanized after it was picked up by a witness, police said in a written statement announcing a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Police said the incident occurred about 7 a.m. PDT and could result in a felony animal-abuse charge against the driver.

Witnesses found two kittens, but a third apparently ran off after its crash-landing on the pavement and could not be located.

Postal Mailboxes Vanishing From U.S.

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 1 (UPI) — The number of U.S. Postal Service boxes on the streets has dropped by more than half since 2000, officials say.

The major reason is the growth of electronic financial services and e-mail, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Postal service spokeswoman Sue Brennan said the volume of mail has dropped by 35 percent in just five years as more people pay bills online.

In 1985, there were about 400,000 blue mail boxes in the country, dropping to 365,000 in 2000. Now, there are about 160,000 left with hundreds being removed every month.

First-class mail began dropping in the 1970s, observers say. Women entered the workforce and had less time to write letters while long-distance telephone calls became cheaper.

Boxes that take in fewer than 25 pieces of mail each day become candidates for removal. Once the decision is made a 30-day notice is posted on the box to give users time to complain to the local postmaster.

“To be honest, we don’t get a lot of complaints,” James Wigdel, a spokesman for the postal service in San Francisco, told the Chronicle. “The younger generation is moving everything online.”

Lawyers: Death Penalty Tainted By Racism

AUSTIN, Texas, Sept. 1 (UPI) — Lawyers for a Texas death-row inmate are contesting his execution on grounds he was unfairly sentenced based on “racist testimony.”

The lawyers for Duane Edward Buck, who was convicted of a 1995 Harris County double murder, petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry Wednesday to stop the execution, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Buck, who is black, was among seven death-row inmates who then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn said in 2000 had been unfairly sentenced to death because of improper racial testimony.

“It is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system,” Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, said at the time.

Six of the inmates later received new sentencing hearings but Buck, who is scheduled to be executed Sept. 15, did not.

Cornyn said the seven cases had been tainted by the testimony of psychologist Walter Quijano, who repeatedly told juries defendants were more likely to commit future crimes because they were black or Hispanic. The American-Statesman said his testimony was meant to inform jurors in death-penalty cases on whether a defendant would likely be a future threat to society.

“It’s very rare to see an attorney general concede error in a capital case, much less a series of capital cases,” said Andrea Keilan, director of the Texas Defender Service, whose lawyers are representing Buck.

“It shouldn’t be controversial, and yet no one has stepped forward” to give Buck a new sentencing trial, she said.

The lawyers have also asked Attorney General Greg Abbott and Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos to agree to cancel the execution date, Keilan said.

“The bottom line is that this guy (Buck) got death based on racist testimony,” Keilan said.

Tucson Republicans Raffling Glock Handgun

TUCSON, Sept. 1 (UPI) — A Tucson-area Republican group is giving supporters a chance to win a Glock 23, the type used in the killing spree aimed at Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

The Pima County Republican Party plans to sell 125 $10 tickets for the drawing, The Huffington Post reported. The gun comes with three 12-round magazines.

Six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, were killed and 13 others wounded at a Giffords meet-and-greet outside a Tucson supermarket in January. The alleged gunman, Jared Loughner, has been found unfit to stand trial for now and is being held in a federal prison hospital.

Giffords was shot in the head and has been in rehab for months. She appeared in the House on Aug. 1 for the first time since the shooting to vote for a deficit reduction compromise.

At least one Tucson Republican leader has denounced the gun raffle.

“There’s a woman who has a bullet in the brain and who everybody is wishing a full recovery,” Brian Miller, the immediate past chairman of the Pima County Republicans, told Talking Points Memo. “I don’t think that raffling off a firearm right now is probably the right way to go.”

Uruguay Shanty Towns Get Partial Reprieve

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Sept. 1 (UPI) — About half of the 200,000 residents of Montevideo’s shanty towns are set to win a reprieve in a government plan to regularize substandard housing seen as an embarrassment to a country hailed abroad as a buoyant emerging economy with prospects of further growth.

Officials said they would consider giving nearly half of the slums regular status, but the other half would need to go and likely be relocated.

It was not immediately clear how the relocation would be arranged. The majority of the slum dwellers have jobs or small businesses in the capital and other cities where their settlements have drawn public criticism.

Most likely to be displaced are inhabitants of shanty towns erected in areas notorious for environmental contamination from industrial effluence or sewage or land prone to frequent flooding.

Montevideo is known to have most of an estimated 676 shanty towns — a fact not readily recognized by officials until former guerrilla fighter and revolutionary Jose Mujica took over as president March 1, 2010, after an election the previous year.

The former extreme left winger from the Tupamaros armed guerrilla movement has proven to be a pragmatist, courting capitalists and working-class communities alike with his folksy style of government.

The government acted to streamline the shanty town housing as part of an ambitious $150 million program that combines poverty reduction with cleaning up and modernization of the capital city and other urban centers.

Almost 90 percent of the shanty towns are concentrated in Montevideo, although estimates differ.

Housing and Environment Minister Graciela Muslera cited expert estimates that up to 48 percent of the irregular settlements — currently condemned as illegal — could be regularized through government-led reforms. But the other 52 percent would have to be relocated, Muslera said.

Although much of the funding for the program will come from the government, officials said contributions from several multilateral organizations would be included in the financing of the project.

Progress on the regularization process is likely to be in stages, however. The first 800 families most exposed to health hazards and flooding will be relocated within five years.

Estimates based on surveys by non-government agencies indicate up to 11 percent of the capital’s population may be living in the slums.

Various government agencies have already begun measures to reduce crime and drug trafficking in the slums, where recent studies have highlighted sharp income disparities between ordinary working-class groups and members of organized armed gangs.

Most of the shanty towns sprang up in the 1990s as a combined result of poor living conditions in the outlying rural areas of Uruguay, crop failures, drought and the lure of urbanization.

Canada Lifts Sanctions Against Libya

PARIS, Sept. 1 (UPI) — Canadian sanctions against Libya were lifted Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced at a summit in Paris.

International leaders met at the conference to discuss helping Libya’s National Transitional Council stabilize the country after seven months of armed rebellion that fought to end Moammar Gadhafi’s 42 years in power.

“Canada is taking this first step to remove our unilateral sanctions that were put in place against the Gadhafi regime in order to assist the Libyan people transition justly, safely and securely towards a democracy,” Harper said. “We will continue to work with our international partners and allies to help ensure support for the people of Libya as they chart their own democratic course.”

Canada imposed the economic sanctions in February, barring Canadian individuals and companies from any dealings in Libya.

Earlier in the day while speaking to Canadian soldiers at a military airbase in Trapani, Italy, a staging area for NATO forces working in Libya, Harper said intelligence reports indicated fighting would continue in the North African country for some time.

Remains Of Australian Outlaw Identified

MELBOURNE, Sept. 1 (UPI) — The remains of notorious 19th century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, executed in 1880, have been identified in a mass grave of prisoners, authorities said.

Doctors and scientists at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine have identified the infamous outlaw’s remains, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Thursday.

His body had been put into a wooden box and thrown into a mass grave with the corpses of other prisoners after his hanging at the Old Melbourne Gaol.

The bodies were transferred to Pentridge Prison in 1929 and then exhumed again in 2009, officials said.

Forensic scientists say they confirmed the identification using a DNA sample from Melbourne schoolteacher Leigh Olver, the great grandson of Kelly’s sister Ellen.

Police Kill Man Carrying Toy Rifle

NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla., Sept. 1 (UPI) — A police officer in North Miami Beach fatally shot a man who appeared to be carrying a rifle that was actually a toy gun, officials said.

Police said officers responded Wednesday afternoon to reports of calls about a man walking around carrying a rifle, WFOR-TV, Miami, reported.

When officers arrived, police said, a confrontation prompted one officer to fire at the man.

The victim was flown by helicopter to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead, The Miami Herald reported.

An investigation found he was actually carrying a toy rifle.

Family members identified the victim as Ernest Vassell, 56.

“They murdered him in cold blood for a toy gun!” Vassell’s older sister, Claire Harding, told the station. “That’s no reason for you to kill somebody.”

She and other sisters said they had never seen him with a toy gun and thought he thought he found it.

They told WFOR he was mentally disabled because of a childhood brain injury and was never violent.

The officer has been placed on administrative leave while police and the state attorney’s office investigate, the station reported.

Tea Party Groups To Protest Romney Speech

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (UPI) — Efforts by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to reach out to the Tea Party have upset some Tea Party groups, U.S. political observers said.

The former Massachusetts governor, who had previously kept the Tea Party at arms-length, has increased his visibility with the group since Texas Gov. Rick Perry of Texas entered the race for the Republican nomination, the Boston Globe reported Thursday.

Perry, who entered the race last month, is a Tea Party favorite, the report said. A Gallup Poll last week showed Perry supported by 35 percent of self-identified Tea Party members.

The newspaper said many Tea Party activists distrust Romney because of his past positions and his political flexibility.

Representatives from Tea Party groups such as the Republican Liberty Caucus, the Lakes Region Tea Party, the Raymond Tea Party and Granite State Patriots are planning to stage a protest event Sunday night in New Hampshire before Romney speaks at a Tea Party Express rally.

Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express, said Romney is certainly late in getting on the Tea Party bandwagon but told the newspaper the protest is “a silly stunt that’s unhelpful to advancing the Tea Party movement or finding a suitable replacement for Barack Obama.”