Investors face another Washington deadline

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors face another Washington-imposed deadline on government spending cuts next week, but it's not generating the same level of fear as two months ago when the "fiscal cliff" loomed large.

Investors in sectors most likely to be affected by the cuts, like defense, seem untroubled that the budget talks could send stocks tumbling.

Talks on the U.S. budget crisis began again this week leading up to the March 1 deadline for the so-called sequestration when $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts are scheduled to take effect.

"It's at this point a political hot button in Washington but a very low level investor concern," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The fight pits President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats against congressional Republicans.

Stocks rallied in early January after a compromise temporarily avoided the fiscal cliff, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.spx> has risen 6.3 percent since the start of the year.

But the benchmark index lost steam this week, posting its first week of losses since the start of the year. Minutes on Wednesday from the last Federal Reserve meeting, which suggested the central bank may slow or stop its stimulus policy sooner than expected, provided the catalyst.

National elections in Italy on Sunday and Monday could also add to investor concern. Most investors expect a government headed by Pier Luigi Bersani to win and continue with reforms to tackle Italy's debt problems. However, a resurgence by former leader Silvio Berlusconi has raised doubts.

"Europe has been in the last six months less of a topic for the stock market, but the problems haven't gone away. This may bring back investor attention to that," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.


The spending cuts, if they go ahead, could hit the defense industry particularly hard.

Yet in the options market, bulls were targeting gains in Lockheed Martin Corp , the Pentagon's biggest supplier.

Calls on the stock far outpaced puts, suggesting that many investors anticipate the stock to move higher. Overall options volume on the stock was 2.8 times the daily average with 17,000 calls and 3,360 puts traded, according to options analytics firm Trade Alert.

"The upside call buying in Lockheed solidifies the idea that option investors are not pricing in a lot of downside risk in most defense stocks from the likely impact of sequestration," said Jared Woodard, a founder of research and advisory firm in Forest, Virginia.

The stock ended up 0.6 percent at $88.12 on Friday.

If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on reducing the U.S. budget deficit in the next few days, a sequester would include significant cuts in defense spending. Companies such as General Dynamics Corp and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp could be affected.

General Dynamics Corp shares rose 1.2 percent to $67.32 and Smith & Wesson added 4.6 percent to $9.18 on Friday.


The latest data on fourth-quarter U.S. gross domestic product is expected on Thursday, and some analysts predict an upward revision following trade data that showed America's deficit shrank in December to its narrowest in nearly three years.

U.S. GDP unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, according to an earlier government estimate, but analysts said there was no reason for panic, given that consumer spending and business investment picked up.

Investors will be looking for any hints of changes in the Fed's policy of monetary easing when Fed Chairman Ben Bernake speaks before congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shares of Apple will be watched closely next week when the company's annual stockholders' meeting is held.

On Friday, a U.S. judge handed outspoken hedge fund manager David Einhorn a victory in his battle with the iPhone maker, blocking the company from moving forward with a shareholder vote on a controversial proposal to limit the company's ability to issue preferred stock.

(Additional reporting by Doris Frankel; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Grief besets family of Pistorius' slain girlfriend

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Far from the courtroom drama that has gripped South Africa, the family of Oscar Pistorius' slain girlfriend has struggled with its own private deluge of grief, frustration and bewilderment.

The victim's relatives also harbor misgivings about efforts by the Olympian's family to reach out to them with condolences.

Pistorius, meanwhile, spent Saturday at his uncle's home in an affluent suburb of Pretoria, the South African capital, after a judge released him on bail following days of testimony that transfixed South Africa and much of the world. He was charged with premeditated murder in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine's Day, but the athlete says he killed her accidentally, opening fire after mistaking her for an intruder in his home.

"We are extremely thankful that Oscar is now home," his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, said in a statement that also acknowledged the law must run its course. "What happened has changed our lives irrevocably."

The Pistorius family took steps to lower its profile on social media after someone hacked into the Twitter account of his older brother, Carl, family spokesman Janine Hills said.

"Carl did not tweet this afternoon, out of respect to Oscar and Reeva," Hills said in a statement. "We are busy cancelling all the social media sites for both Oscar's brother and his sister."

Mike Steenkamp, Reeva's uncle, told The Associated Press that the family of the double-amputee athlete initially did not send condolences or try to contact the bereaved parents, but had since sought to reach out in what he described as a poorly timed way. After Pistorius was released on bail in what amounted to a victory for the defense, Arnold Pistorius said the athlete's family was relieved but also in mourning "with the family" of Reeva Steenkamp.

"Everybody wants to jump up with joy," Mike Steenkamp said, speculating on the mood of Pistorius' family after the judge's decision. "I think it was just done in the wrong context, completely."

A South African newspaper, the Afrikaans-language Beeld, quoted the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model, law school graduate and participant in a television reality show, as saying the family had received a bouquet of flowers and a card from the Pistorius family.

"Yes, but what does it mean? Nothing," June Steenkamp said, according to the Saturday edition of Beeld. She also said Pistorius' family, including sister Aimee, a somber presence on the bench behind the Olympian during his court hearings in the past week, must be "devastated" and had done nothing wrong.

"They are not to blame," June Steenkamp said. According to Beeld, she said she had hoped to plan a wedding for her daughter one day.

In an affidavit, 26-year-old Oscar Pistorius said he was "absolutely mortified" by the death of "my beloved Reeva," and he frequently sobbed in court during the several days during which his bail application was considered. However, prosecutor Gerrie Nel, suggested in a scathing criticism that Pistorius was actually distraught because his vaunted career was now in peril and he was in grave trouble with the law.

"It doesn't matter how much money he has and how good his legal team is, he will have to live with his conscience if he allows his legal team to lie for him," Barry Steenkamp, Reeva's father, told Beeld.

"But if he is telling the truth, then perhaps I can forgive him one day," the father said. "If it didn't happen the way he said it did, he must suffer, and he will suffer ... only he knows."

Barry Steenkamp suffered "heavy trauma" at the loss of his daughter and his remarks to the newspaper partly reflect how he is working through it, said his brother, Mike Steenkamp.

Steenkamp was cremated in a funeral ceremony on Feb. 19 in her family's hometown of Port Elizabeth on South Africa's southern coast. Mike Steenkamp delivered a statement about the family's grief to television cameras, at one point breaking down in tears.

The three-story house where Pistorius is staying with his aunt and uncle lies on a hill with a view of Pretoria. It has a large swimming pool and an immaculate garden.

Pistorius was born without fibula bones due to a congenital defect and had his legs amputated at 11 months. He has run on carbon-fiber blades and was originally banned from competing against able-bodied peers because many argued that his blades gave him an unfair advantage. He was later cleared to compete. He is a multiple Paralympic medalist, but he failed to win a medal at the London Olympics, where he ran in the 400 meter race and on South Africa's 4x400 relay team.

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Analysis: Italian election explained

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back for the fourth time

  • The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11%

  • Pier Luigi Bersani of the center-left Democratic Party is expected to narrowly win

  • Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances

(CNN) -- Little more than a year after he resigned in disgrace as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi is campaigning to win his old job back -- for the fourth time.

Berlusconi, the septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere," has been trailing in polls behind his center-left rival, Per Luigi Bersani.

But the controversial media tycoon's rise in the polls in recent weeks, combined with widespread public disillusionment and the quirks of Italy's complex electoral system, means that nothing about the race is a foregone conclusion.

Why have the elections been called now?

Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April. However in December, Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL) withdrew its support from the reformist government led by Mario Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric." Monti subsequently resigned and the parliament was dissolved.

Berlusconi -- the country's longest serving post-war leader -- had resigned the prime ministerial office himself amidst a parliamentary revolt in November 2011. He left at a time of personal and national crisis, as Italy grappled with sovereign debt problems and Berlusconi faced criminal charges of tax fraud, for which he was subsequently convicted. He remains free pending an appeal. He was also embroiled in a scandal involving a young nightclub dancer - which led him to be charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

MORE: From Venice to bunga bunga: Italy in coma

He was replaced by Monti, a respected economist and former European Commissioner, who was invited by Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano to lead a cabinet of unelected technocrats. Monti's government implemented a program of tax rises and austerity measures in an attempt to resolve Italy's economic crisis.

Who are the candidates?

The election is a four-horse race between political coalitions led by Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti, and the anti-establishment movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo. Polls are banned within two weeks of election day, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding onto a slender lead over Berlusconi, followed by Grillo in distant third.

READ MORE: Will Monte Paschi banking scandal throw open Italy's election race?

The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani. He is a former Minister of Economic Development in Romano Prodi's government from 2006-8 -- and has held a comfortable lead in polls, but that appears to be gradually being eroded by Berlusconi.

Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances, and the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party.

The 61-year-old Bersani comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said political analyst James Walston, department chair of international relations at the American University of Rome.

He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."

Bersani has vowed to continue with Monti's austerity measures and reforms, albeit with some adjustments, if he wins.

At second place in the polls is the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.

Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.

In a recent speech, he proposed himself as Economy and Industry Minister, and the PdL Secretary Angelino Alfano as prime minister.

Roberto Maroni, leader of the Northern League, has said the possibility of Berlusconi becoming prime minister is explicitly ruled out by the electoral pact between the parties, but the former premier has repeatedly said he plays to win, and observers believe he is unlikely to pass up the chance to lead the country again if the opportunity presents itself.

Berlusconi has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court. Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.

He is also facing charges in the prostitution case (and that he tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was accused of theft) -- and in a third case stands accused of revealing confidential court information relating to an investigation into a bank scandal in 2005.

Despite all this, he retains strong political support from his base.

"Italy is a very forgiving society, it's partly to do with Roman Catholicism," said Walston. "There's sort of a 'live and let live' idea."

Monti, the country's 69-year-old technocrat prime minister, who had never been a politician before he was appointed to lead the government, has entered the fray to lead a centrist coalition committed to continuing his reforms. The alliance includes Monti's Civic Choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy.

As a "senator for life," Monti is guaranteed a seat in the senate and does not need to run for election himself, but he is hitting the hustings on behalf of his party.

In a climate of widespread public disillusionment with politics, comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo is also making gains by capturing the protest vote with his Five Star Movement. Grillo has railed against big business and the corruption of Italy's political establishment, and holds broadly euro-skeptical and pro-environmental positions.

How will the election be conducted?

Italy has a bicameral legislature and a voting system which even many Italians say they find confusing.

Voters will be electing 315 members of the Senate, and 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Both houses hold the same powers, although the Senate is referred to as the upper house.

Under the country's closed-list proportional representation system, each party submits ranked lists of its candidates, and is awarded seats according to the proportion of votes won -- provided it passes a minimum threshold of support.

Seats in the Chamber of Deputies are on a national basis, while seats in the senate are allocated on a regional one.

The party with the most votes are awarded a premium of bonus seats to give them a working majority.

The prime minister needs the support of both houses to govern.

Who is likely to be the next prime minister?

On current polling, Bersani's bloc looks the likely victor in the Chamber of Deputies. But even if he maintains his lead in polls, he could fall short of winning the Senate, because of the rules distributing seats in that house on a regional basis.

Crucial to victory in the Senate is winning the region of Lombardy, the industrial powerhouse of the north of Italy which generates a fifth of the country's wealth and is a traditional support base for Berlusconi. Often compared to the U.S. state of Ohio for the "kingmaker" role it plays in elections, Lombardy has more Senate seats than any other region.

If no bloc succeeds in controlling both houses, the horse-trading begins in search of a broader coalition.

Walston said that a coalition government between the blocs led by Bersani and Monti seemed "almost inevitable," barring something "peculiar" happening in the final stages of the election campaign.

Berlusconi, he predicted, would "get enough votes to cause trouble."

What are the main issues?

There's only really one issue on the agenda at this election.

The eurozone's third largest economy is hurting, with unemployment surpassing 11% -- and hitting 37% for young people.

Voters are weighing the question of whether to continue taking Monti's bitter medicine of higher taxation and austerity measures, while a contentious property tax is also proving a subject of vexed debate.

Walston said the dilemma facing Italians was deciding between "who's going to look after the country better, or who's going to look after my pocket better."

He said it appeared voters held far greater confidence in the ability of Monti and Bersani to fix the economy, while those swayed by appeals to their own finances may be more likely to support Berlusconi.

But he said it appeared that few undecided voters had any faith in Berlusconi's ability to follow through on his pledges, including a recent promise to reverse the property tax.

What are the ramifications of the election for Europe and the wider world?

Improving the fortunes of the world's eighth largest economy is in the interests of Europe, and in turn the global economy.

Italy's woes have alarmed foreign investors. However, financial commentator Nicholas Spiro, managing director of consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says the European Central Bank's bond-buying program has gone a long way to mitigating investors' concerns about the instability of Italian politics.

Why is political instability so endemic to Italy?

Italy has had more than 60 governments since World War II -- in large part as a by-product of a system designed to prevent the rise of another dictator.

Parties can be formed and make their way on to the political main stage with relative ease -- as witnessed by the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement, the protest party which was formed in 2009 but in local and regional elections has even outshone Berlusoni's party at times.

Others point to enduringly strong regional identities as part of the recipe for the country's political fluidity.

READ MORE: Italian Elections 2013: Fame di sapere (hunger for knowledge)

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Charges filed in slaying of Clemente High School student

Authorities filed charges against a 34-year-old man in connection with the shooting death of an 18-year-old Clemente High School student killed on the West Side last week.

Larry Luellen Jr., 34, was charged with first degree murder in the death of Frances Colon. Luellen is due in court today.

Luellen lives in the 3900 block of West Division Street in West Humboldt Park, around the corner from where Colon was shot. Police don't believe she was the target.

Colon is the third student at Roberto Clemente to be killed this school year, according to the school's principal Marcey Sorensen.

Rey Dorantes, 14, of the 2400 block of West Augusta Boulevard, was shot and killed on Jan. 11. His death came about a month after another Clemente student, 16-year-old Jeffrey Stewart, of the 5200 block of West Race Avenue, was shot and killed on Dec. 9.

Colon was a senior who was preparing to attend college. Hours before the shooting, she had watched President Barack Obama speak at Hyde Park Academy on the South Side about gun violence, according to her father.

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Twitter: @peternickeas

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Iran announces uranium finds, days before nuclear talks

DUBAI (Reuters) - Days before resuming talks over its disputed atomic program, Iran said on Saturday it had found significant new deposits of raw uranium and identified sites for 16 more nuclear power stations.

State news agency IRNA quoted a report by the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) which said the reserves were discovered in northern and southern coastal areas and had trebled the amount outlined in previous estimates.

There was no independent confirmation. With few uranium mines of its own, Western experts had previously thought that Iran might be close to exhausting its supply of raw uranium.

"We have discovered new sources of uranium in the country and we will put them to use in the near future," Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of the AEOI, was quoted as saying at Iran's annual nuclear industry conference.

The timing of the announcement suggested Iran, by talking up its reserves and nuclear ambitions, may hope to strengthen its negotiating hand at talks in Kazakhstan on Tuesday with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

Diplomats say the six powers, known as the P5+1, are set to offer Iran some relief from international sanctions if it agrees to curb its production of higher-grade enriched uranium.

The West says Iran's enrichment of uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent demonstrates its intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability, an allegation the Islamic republic denies.


The enriched uranium required for use in nuclear reactors or weapons is produced in centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) at high speeds. The UF6 is derived from yellow cake, a concentrate from uranium ore discovered in mines.

Iran's reserves of raw uranium now stood at around 4,400 tonnes, taking into account discoveries over the past 18 months, IRNA quoted the report as saying.

In another sign that Iran is intent on pushing forward with its nuclear ambitions, the report also said 16 sites had been identified for the construction of nuclear power stations.

It did not specify the exact locations but said they included coastal areas of the Gulf, Sea of Oman, Khuzestan province and the Caspian Sea.

Iranian authorities have long announced their desire to build more nuclear power plants for electricity production. Only one currently exists, in the southern city of Bushehr, and that has suffered several shutdowns in recent months.

The announcements could further complicate the search for a breakthrough in Kazakhstan, after three unsuccessful rounds of talks between the two sides in 2012.

"We are meeting all of our obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and we should be able to benefit from our rights. We don't accept more responsibilities and less rights," Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, was quoted as telling Saturday's conference.

In what Washington has called a provocative move, Iran is also installing new-generation centrifuges, capable of producing enriched uranium much faster, at a site in Natanz in the centre of the country.

Western diplomats say the P5+1 will reiterate demands for the suspension of uranium enrichment to a purity of 20 percent, the closure of Iran's Fordow enrichment plant, increased access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and agreement to address concerns on existing uranium stockpiles.

In return, the latest embargoes on gold and metals trading with Iran would be lifted. Iran has criticized the offer and says its rights need to be fully recognized.

"If the P5+1 group wants to start constructive talks with Tehran it needs to present a valid proposal," said Jalili. "It needs to put its past errors to one side ... to win the trust of the Iranian nation."

In a statement issued before the Iranian announcement, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the six-power group wanted to enter a 'substantial negotiation process' over Tehran's nuclear program.

"The talks in Almaty are a chance which I hope Iran takes," he said.

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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Pistorius granted bail pending murder trial

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — In an agonizingly slow announcement, a magistrate allowed Oscar Pistorius to go free on bail Friday, nine days after the Paralympian was arrested in the Valentine's Day killing of his girlfriend.

Pistorius' family members and supporters shouted "Yes!" when Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair made his decision after a more than 1 hour and 45 minute explanation of his ruling to a packed courtroom.

Radio stations and a TV news network in South Africa broadcast the audio of the decision live, and even international channels like the BBC and CNN went live with it, underscoring the huge global interest in the case.

Nair banned cameras from Friday's dramatic bail hearing and complained about cameras constantly "flashing" in Pistorius' face the previous three days of hearings, saying the spectacle made the athlete look like "some kind of species the world has never seen before."

Nair set the bail at 1 million rand ($113,000), with $11,300 in cash up front and proof that the rest is available. The magistrate said Pistorius must hand over his passports and also turn in any other guns that he owns. Pistorius also cannot leave the district of Pretoria, South Africa's capital, without the permission of his probation officer, Nair said, nor can he take drugs or drink alcohol.

The double-amputee Olympian's next court appearance was set for June 4. He left the courthouse in a silver Land Rover, sitting in the rear, just over an hour after the magistrate imposed the bail conditions.

The magistrate ruled that Pistorius could not return to his upscale home in a gated community in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria, where the killing of Reeva Steenkamp took place.

Pistorius' uncle, Arnold Pistorius said: "We are relieved at the fact that Oscar got bail today but at the same time we are in mourning for the death of Reeva with her family. As a family, we know Oscar's version of what happened on that tragic night and we know that that is the truth and that will prevail in the coming court case."

Pistorius' senior defense lawyer, Barry Roux, told reporters the defense is satisfied with the bail.

Nair made the ruling after four days of arguments from prosecution and defense in Pistorius' bail hearing. During Friday's long session in Pretoria Magistrate's Court, Pistorius alternately wept and appeared solemn and more composed, especially toward the end as Nair criticized police procedures in the case and as a judgment in Pistorius' favor appeared imminent.

Nair said Pistorius' sworn statement, in which he gave his version of the events of the shooting during the predawn hours of Feb. 14 in a sworn statement, had helped his application for bail.

"I come to the conclusion that the accused has made a case to be released on bail," Nair said.

Pistorius said in the sworn statement that he shot his girlfriend — a model and budding reality TV contestant — accidentally, believing she was an intruder in his house.

Prosecutors say he intended to kill Steenkamp and charged him with premeditated murder, saying the shooting followed a loud argument between the two.

Sharon Steenkamp, Reeva's cousin, had said earlier that the family wouldn't be watching the bail decision and hadn't been following the hearing in Pretoria.

"It doesn't make any difference to the fact that we are without Reeva," she told The Associated Press.

Despite the bail decision, prosecution spokesman Medupe Simasiku said: "We're still confident in our case," outside court.

Pistorius faced the sternest bail requirements in South Africa because of the seriousness of the charge, and his defense lawyers had to prove that he would not flee the country, would not interfere with witnesses or the case, and his release would not cause public unrest.

Nair questioned whether Pistorius would be a flight risk and be prepared to go "ducking and diving" around the world when he stood to lose a fortune in cash, cars, property and other assets. Nair also said that while it had been shown that Pistorius had aggressive tendencies, he did not have a prior record of offenses for violent acts.

He criticized Hilton Botha, the previous lead investigator in the case, for not doing more to uncover evidence that the Olympian had violent tendencies.

"There is ample room and ample time to do that by looking at the background of the accused," he said.

But while Nair leveled harsh criticism at former lead investigator Botha for "errors" and "blunders," he said one man does not represent the state's case and that the state could not be expected to put all the pieces of its puzzle together in such a short time.

Anticipating the shape of the state's case at trial, he said he had serious questions about Pistorius' account: Why he didn't try to locate his girlfriend on fearing an intruder was in the house, why he didn't try to determine who was in the toilet and why he would venture into perceived "danger" - the bathroom area - when he could have taken other steps to ensure his safety.

"There are improbabilities which need to be explored," Nair said, adding that Pistorius could clarify these matters by testifying under oath at trial.


AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray and AP writer Carley Petesch contributed to this report from Johannesburg.

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Northern Lights Dance in Spectacular Time-Lapse Videos


Jaw-dropping displays of the northern lights can be seen in a stunning series of time-lapse videos captured in Sweden this month by astrophotographer Chad Blakley.

Blakley has been filming in Sweden’s Abisko National Park, which offers a view of glowing aurora borealis over snowy mountains. Swooshing and swirling green northern lights can be seen glimmering in a deep purple sky in the videos, which were shot over a 13-day stretch.

“We have seen powerful auroras in the sky above Abisko for 13 nights in a row and it looks like there are more to come!” said Blakley, who runs the site ”Last night I witnessed one of the finest aurora displays I have seen in many months.”

Auroras are caused when charged particles from the sun are guided by Earth’s magnetic field and slam into neutral particles in our planet’s upper atmosphere. The magnetic field steers solar particles toward Earth’s poles, so the northern and southern lights are best seen at high and low latitudes.

The aurora displays depend on weather conditions both on Earth and on the sun, where solar storms can send waves of charged particles our way. In the Northern Hemisphere, the cosmic light show is known as the aurora borealis. In the Southern Hemisphere, the phenomenon is dubbed the aurora australis.

Whatever the name, the aurora displays this month have been unforgettable, Blakley said.

“February 2013 is turning out to be one of the best months for aurora watching I have ever seen!” he added.

Experts predict more and more stunning aurora shows as the sun ramps up toward a period of maximum activity this year, the peak of its 11-year cycle.

Follow Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz or @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Can Bersani-Monti work for Italy?

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader

Austerity-hit Italy chooses new leader


  • Bersani wins he may be forced to form a coalition with incumbent PM Mario Monti

  • Center-left leader Bersani says he plans to make the property tax "more progressive"

  • Berlusconi is using his showman charm to mount a comeback for his PDL party

London (CNN) -- Italy's electoral run-off between an ex-communist and a former cruise ship singer threatens to throw the country back into the spotlight of the European debt crisis.

The enigmatic leader of the center-left Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani, goes head-to-head with scandal-laden former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- back from the political grave following his resignation in November 2011.

Incumbent technocrat premier and eurozone darling Mario Monti, meanwhile, is lagging behind in the polls.

The cigar-chomping Bersani is favorite for Italy's top job and proposes to steer the country's battered economy through a debt crisis that is still plaguing the eurozone three years on.

Following six consecutive quarters of recession and with unemployment at 11.2%, Bersani is pursuing the euro area's latest fad to revive Italy's ailing economy; a pro-growth agenda.

Read more: Can the anti-Berlusconi pull Italy out of the mire?

Such policies are a stark contrast to Monti's cocktail of cuts and taxes served up to woo policymakers in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Read more: Berlusconi renaissance would be 'disaster' for Italian economy

Growth will be the "golden rule" to attract foreign investment, according to Democratic Party number two Enrico Letta. A similar sentiment was key in sweeping socialist French President Francois Hollande into the Elysee Palace in 2012.

But Letta stresses that Bersani will not follow Hollande's lead by proposing a 75% income tax for the country's wealthiest residents.

Read more: Beppe Grillo: Clown prince of Italian politics

Speaking to CNN, Letta said: "It will be different, we already have a very high level of taxation...the main point is not to increase taxes."

Bersani -- who promises to stick to the outgoing government's plans for pension and labor market reform -- will also keep Monti's reviled property tax, known as IMU. It's a policy that Berlusconi pledges to scrap if elected.

In an interview with CNN, Bersani says he plans to make the tax "more progressive" and focus on the owners of large properties if his party wins.

But for all Bersani's talk of change, bond strategist Nicholas Spiro dismisses the 71-year-old as no reformer and says he is "not up to the task" of hauling the Italian economy out of a "knee deep" recession.

Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, says "Bersani could very well go for taxes on the rich, but Italy has a massive tax evasion and compliance problem, that could be difficult."

Can a political marriage survive?

Politics in Italy is complicated and outright victory for any party is unlikely. If Bersani wins he may be forced to form a coalition.

An alliance with the flamboyant center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi is unthinkable -- which leaves Monti the most likely candidate to support a Bersani-lead government.

But Monti is viewed with suspicion Bersani's far-left partners, Left Ecology Freedom, who believe the technocrat would pull a left government too far to the economic right.

If the parties can strike a deal Monti would be offered "an important role" to be discussed "Monday afternoon," Letta told CNN. He refused to say if the technocrat would be appointed finance minister.

Monti, a former European Commissioner in financial services, wields the power to reassure European leaders that Italy is on the right track and can act as a counterbalance to a leftist government.

Bersani, by contrast, is a mystery on the international stage, according to Paola Subacchi, an economist at London-based think tank Chatham House.

"He is not known abroad and he doesn't speak English... But his whole agenda is pro-Europe and pro-euro."

A Bersani-Monti marriage is unlikely to be smooth. The two could clash over unpopular austerity measures implemented by Monti as part of a European agreement.

Filippo Cavazzuti, former Italian senator and economist at the University of Bologna, believes Bersani will be forced to maintain Monti's policies under the European fiscal compact.

He said: "Otherwise Monti leaves [the coalition], the spread [on bond yields] rises and the credibility with the eurozone will immediately disappear."

A coalition agreement is crucial to stifling a power-grab by Italy's political bad boy, Berlusconi, is gaining on Bersani's seemingly unassailable lead in the polls.

Berlusconi is using his showman charm to mount a comeback for his People of Freedom party and holds key regions in Veneto and Lombardy that could prove crucial, particularly in the battle for the Senate.

The election will hand down a "damning verdict" to the policymakers of northern Europe that Italians are fed up with austerity, according to Spiro.

The electoral campaign, Spiro added, has been: "Very ugly, devoid of substance and purely based on personalities."

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Drew Peterson: 'All aspects of my life have been destroyed'

Moments after screaming in court, "I did not kill Kathleen," Drew Peterson was sentenced to 38 years in prison for the 2004 murder of his third wife Kathleen Savio.

Peterson had faced as much as 60 years, but Judge Edward Burmila said he gave Peterson some consideration for his years as a police officer and his service in the military. Peterson is 59.

The sentence was handed down after Peterson, who did not testify at his trial, made an emotional appeal to the judge, at times appearing to choke up as he argued that he was convicted by "rumors, gossip, outrageous lies and, most importantly, unreliable hearsay."

"I don't deserve this," he told Burmila. "I don't deserve this."

Peterson, a former Bolingbrook police sergeant, was convicted last fall of drowning Savio in her bathtub. Prosecutors have said they believe Peterson also killed his missing fourth wife Stacy and could seek charges in that case.

Peterson began his appeal to the judge today by telling him, "Good day, my name is Drew Peterson. I hope I don't aggravate the situation here, but I have a lot of things to be said." Then he screamed, "I did not kill Kathleen!"

"Yes, you did," a woman said.

"Ma'am, I'd like you to leave the courtroom," Burmila said. "And Mr. Peterson, don't make any outbursts that are designed to aggravate people."

"I'm sorry, your honor. I must have been woozy," Peterson said.

After the sentencing, State's Atty. James Glasgow dismissed the outburst as a "shrill, kind of feminine screech."

Peterson insisted to the judge he is the victim of an unjust and invasive police investigation that ignored or lost evidence that could have shown his innocence. He accused the state police of falsifying reports.

"What they did uncover was rumors, gossip, outrageous lies, and most importantly, unreliable hearsay. Hearsay that pierced three privileges that have stood for centuries," Peterson said.

Peterson bitterly complained that the Rev. Neil Schori betrayed his promise never to repeat anything that was said by Peterson or Stacy. Schori testified at trial that Stacy confided to him that she lied to state police about Peterson's alleged slaying of Savio.

"Out of the privileged information from Neil Schori, the state police was able to create" a case, he said. "I find it hard to believe that the state was able to take information that they obtained illegally and turn it to their benefit."

Kathleen Savio’s divorce attorney Harry Smith, who also testified at trial about a conversation he had with Stacy before she disappeared, "gave up privileged information from both Kathy and Stacy, like it was yesterday's garbage," Peterson said. "Ultimately, it led to my conviction.

"Hearsay is a scary thing. There's no proof. Anything can be said and nobody's accountable for the truth.

"In my experience, in divorce situations everybody lies, and everybody lies under the instruction of their attorneys.

"There was an incident where Kathleen exited the house ... and punched Stacy in the face. They went to trial, my 9- and 10-year-old sons were called to testify, and under oath they lied," Peterson said.

"On their next visit, I questioned them, 'Why’d you guys lie?' They said Harry Smith told them to. They didn’t want their mom to go to jail,” Peterson said, growing emotional as he spoke. “I couldn't be mad at them.”

"Stacy provided me an alibi for Kathleen's death. Then she later said she was lying about that. Seems like Stacy was lying all the time about everything. But the state's attorney picked and chose what they wanted to believe.

"Stacy clearly had a crush on the Rev. Schori, which I think was a factor in this.

"There was a constant and consistently illegal activity by the state’s attorneys, including the state’s attorney himself.

"So what did the state’s attorney do? They hire a skinny ... spokesperson (Stacy Peterson family spokeswoman Pam Bosco) to go out and say anything she wants. It buffered the state’s attorney’s office from anything the court might bring.

"And when it came time for a vote from the grand jury, only a handful of people were selected. Not the entire grand jury was brought in to do the vote. Pretty much guaranteed ... that I was indicted, which I was.

"There was a first investigation on this case, in which probably one of the most experienced investigators was the first one on the scene in this case, and he determined Kathleen's death was an accident.

"Dr. (Bryan) Mitchell looked at Kathy's body when it was in its freshest state. He determined her death was an accident."

So did the coroner's jury, Peterson said. "All this was done when the evidence was freshest."

Peterson then paused and asked for some water. He resumed by talking about his service in the military and lengthy law enforcement career.

"I was probably one of the highest-decorated officers in the Bolingbrook Police Department," he said.

"I always took my job seriously, I never violated the public trust," he said, his voice husky with emotions. "And I never beared false witness against anyone.

"I loved having a job that helped people," he said. "In my private life, I ran up to six companies at one time. I employed nearly 100 people.

"Until this happened, I thought I was a great guy," he said. "And in moments, the media turned me into a monster.

"As soon as I get a chance, I'm going to get a tattoo on my back, from shoulder to shoulder, that says, 'No good deed goes unpunished.' "

He said he loved Savio and called her a good wife and mother who did not deserve to die, but insited it was an accident. He then talked about Savio’s upbringing, calling it difficult and abusive.

"The most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen in my life was the night after our wedding, when I held Kathy and she cried because her father failed to show up and give her away on her wedding.

"At Kathy's wake, friends and family put money in cards and envelopes to help cover the cost of the funeral.

“I paid for the funeral."

"That's a lie right there," a man in court shouted.

"I paid for Kathy’s funeral at the request of her sister, who's sitting right there," Peterson said.

He then attacked State's Atty. James Glasgow.

"Mr. Glasgow, all aspects of my life have been destroyed. Everything from my personal life to my professional life to my social life -- all aspects have been destroyed. And I tell you this to give you greater cause for celebration, when you celebrate the fact that you perpetrated the largest railroad job in the history of this country.

"Since I've been incarcerated, I've had nine family members who have died, six of which were cousins," Peterson said. None of them made it past the age of 60, he said.

“And in telling you this, I'm not looking for any sympathy, but anything you sentence me to, you're sentencing me to the Department of Corrections to die!" Peterson said.

Peterson said he believes his constitutional rights have been violated.

"And I think the only thing left to make this case run true to form would be a cruel and unusual punishment. And I don't think anybody would care because nobody cares. I can't believe I spent 32 years defending a constitution that allowed this to happen to me. I can't believe people fought and died in wars protecting a constitution that allowed this to happen to me.”

America should be outraged, but nobody cares, he said.

"I take full responsibility for my relationship with the media," Peterson continued. "I just wanted them away from my home because they were scaring my kids. They hounded me. I agreed to go on TV and tell my story and ask for legal help.

"Everybody from busy bodies like Nancy Grace ... to that ridiculous movie that played repeatedly before and during my trial.

"It pretty much guaranteed that I would not get a fair trial. It's pretty clear that the state took part in that movie because things I remember saying only to the state police appeared in that movie," Peterson said, apparently referring to a Lifetime TV movie starring Rob Lowe as Peterson.

"I'm an obnoxious man by nature, truly. And after 30 years as a police officer, as is normal with a police officer, my defense mechanism is comedy. The media took that and capitalized on that, and my obnoxious nature showed through. But I want to ensure the court that at no time did I want to portray any insensitivity about Kathy's death. That was not my intention.

“I hope Mr. Glasgow looks me in the eye right now. Never forget my face! Never forget what you’ve done. 

“Originally I had some cute and funny things to say. But now in closing, it's time to be sentenced to a life of hardship and abuse in prison. I don't deserve this, I don't deserve this.

“Thank you.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Savio’s sister Anna Marie Savio-Doman told the judge that "my loss of my baby sister is beyond words. There will be no more birthday parties, backyard gatherings, holiday celebrations or other family activities to share. The laughter, hugs, guidance, advice, sense of security and those opportunities to say ‘I love you’ are forever gone.

“One of the hardest things for me is knowing the pain and fear that Kathleen must have suffered at the time of her murder. The horror and betrayal she must have felt when she realized that someone she had trusted and loved more than anything was actually killing her. I wonder if she could feel her heart breaking when she thought about leaving her two boys forever. The helplessness she must have felt knowing she was going to die.

“I have to say it hurts a lot. I hope it gets better, but I am not confident it will get better. I still talk to her. I hope she can hear me.”

Susan Doman described her sister as a “rock” and told the court she looked up to Savio, even though Savio was younger. She also expressed her anger toward Peterson.

“He showed no remorse,” she said. “For years I watched Peterson parade on TV, radio, photo shoots, and (that) radio promotion to win a date with him. That was a big joke to him. And he loved all the attention.

“Your honor, the defendant shows no remorse to this day for the horrible crime that he did to my sister Kathleen. This senseless action is inexcusable. I am placing my trust that you will give Kathleen justice once and for all.”

The judge also read a statement from Savio’s father, but not aloud.

In arguing for a maximum sentence, Glasgow reminded the judge about the damage done to his young children with Stacy. Prosecutors have said they believe Peterson killed Stacy and could seek charges in that case.

"Not only is their mother gone, but also their father is gone, as he sits before you," Glasgow said.

Glasgow said Peterson also should not get a break for living a law- abiding life because of his attacks on his second wife, when he threatened to kill her.

"There's a recurring them here with Mr. Peterson. He’s a police officer, and there's a number of occurrences with the victims here being afraid to call the police department.

"These are obviously very dangerous situation, and in this case, led to the demise of two young women."

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South African court grants Pistorius bail in murder case

PRETORIA (Reuters) - A South African court granted bail on Friday to Oscar Pistorius, charged with the murder of his girlfriend, after his lawyers argued the "Blade Runner" was too famous to pose a flight risk.

The decision by Magistrate Desmond Nair drew cheers from the athlete's family and supporters, although he appeared unmoved. Pistorius had broken down in tears earlier in the week-long hearing.

The court set bail at 1 million rand ($113,000) and postponed the case until June 4. Pistorius was ordered to hand over firearms and passports, avoid his home and all witnesses in the case, report to a police station twice a week and not to drink alcohol.

The decision followed a week of dramatic testimony about how the athlete shot dead Reeva Steenkamp at his luxury home near Pretoria in the early hours of February 14, Valentine's Day.

Prosecutors said Pistorius, 26, committed premeditated murder when he fired four shots into a locked bathroom door, hitting his girlfriend cowering on the other side. Steenkamp, 29, suffered gunshot wounds to her head, hip and arm.

Pistorius' defense team argued the killing was a tragic mistake, saying the athlete had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder. They said he was too famous to pose a flight risk and deserved bail to prepare for a case that has drawn worldwide attention.

"He can never go anywhere unnoticed," his lawyer Barry Roux told the court on Friday.

The 26-year-old Olympic and Paralympic star's lower legs were amputated in infancy and he has raced on carbon fiber blades.

The Olympic and Paralympic star faces life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder.

Prosecutors had portrayed him as a cold-blooded killer.

"You cannot put yourself in the deceased's position. It must have been terrifying. It was not one shot. It was four shots," prosecutor Gerrie Nel said on Friday.


In an affidavit read out in court, Pistorius said he had been "deeply in love" with Steenkamp, and Roux said his client had no motive for the killing.

Pistorius contends he was acting in self-defense after mistaking Steenkamp for an intruder, and feeling vulnerable because he was unable to attach his prosthetic limbs in time to confront the perceived threat.

He said he grabbed a 9-mm pistol from under his bed and went into the bathroom. He said he fired into the locked door of the toilet, which adjoined the bathroom, in a blind panic in the mistaken belief the intruder was lurking inside.

Witnesses said they heard a gunshots and screams from the athlete's home on an upscale gated community near Pretoria. The community is surrounded by 3-metre-high stone walls and topped with an electric fence.

In a magazine interview a week before her death, published on Friday, Steenkamp, a law graduate and model, spoke about her three-month-old relationship with Pistorius.

"I absolutely adore Oscar. I respect and admire him so much," she told celebrity gossip magazine Heat. "I don't want anything to come in the way of his career."

Police pulled their lead detective off the case on Thursday after it was revealed he himself faces attempted murder charges for shooting at a minibus. He has been replaced by South Africa's top detective.

The arrest of Pistorius last week shocked those who had watched in awe last year as he reached the semi-final of the 400 meters race in the London Olympics.

The impact has been greatest in sports-mad South Africa, where Pistorius was seen as a rare hero who commanded respect from both black and white people, transcending the racial divides that persist 19 years after the end of apartheid.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Wall Street falls after raft of weak data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks declined on Thursday as a ream of weak economic data did little to assuage some investors' concerns that the Federal Reserve may rein in its economic stimulus measures and amid uncertainty over ongoing budget talks in Washington.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week and consumer prices were flat in January, buttressing the argument for the Fed to continue its accommodative monetary policy.

On Wednesday, minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve's most recent meeting suggested the central bank may slow or stop buying bonds sooner than expected. The news sent shares lower and the benchmark S&P 500 index dropped 1.2 percent, its biggest decline since November 14.

The Fed has used quantitative easing, or QE, since 2008 in a bid to stimulate the economy. The policy, which involves expanding the Fed's balance sheet to buy bonds, has been credited with pushing money into the stock market, and its withdrawal would remove a ballast for the markets.

The benchmark S&P index has dropped 1.9 percent over the past two sessions but is still up more than 5 percent for the year. That's led many analysts to believe that the Fed minutes, the upcoming sequestration in Washington and sluggish consumer spending may be triggers for an overdue pullback in equities.

The sequestration - automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place as part of a larger congressional budget fight - are due to kick in March 1 unless lawmakers agree on an alternative.

"It's the sequester, it's the knee-jerk reaction to yesterday's Fed minutes and it's the realization the consumer is slowing," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist, at Federated Investors, in New York.

"I'd love to see a healthy 5 percent correction; let's wash out some of the weak hands and set up for a better move during the year."

Financial data firm Markit said its "flash," or preliminary U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index slowed to 55.2 this month from 55.8, which had been the best showing since April, 2012.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc , seen as a gauge of consumer spending, said U.S. sales weakness persisted into early February, as Americans absorbed the impact of higher payroll taxes and gasoline prices, along with slow tax refunds that put some spending on hold. But shares rose 2.2 percent to $70.73 to help curb declines on the Dow as earnings topped expectations.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 64.01 points, or 0.46 percent, to 13,863.53. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 10.33 points, or 0.68 percent, to 1,501.62. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> fell 25.93 points, or 0.82 percent, to 3,138.48.

In a positive sign, data showed home resales edged higher in January and left inventory of homes at its lowest level in 13 years as the housing market continues to steadily improve.

But the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said its index of business conditions in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region fell in February to minus 12.5, the lowest level in eight months, from minus 5.8 in January.

VeriFone Systems Inc tumbled 37.7 percent to $19.86 after the credit card swipe-machine maker forecast first and second-quarter profit that were well below analysts' expectations.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Thursday morning, of the 427 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 69.3 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.9 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Berry Petroleum Co jumped 16.5 percent to $444.95 after oil and gas producer Linn Energy LLC said it would buy the company in an all-stock deal valued at $4.3 billion including debt. Linn Energy shares advanced 3 percent to $37.76.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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Prosecutors: Pistorius top cop should be dropped

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Prosecutors reinstated attempted murder charges against a policeman leading the murder investigation into Oscar Pistorius, in the latest twist in a case that has captivated South Africa and threatens to bring down a national idol.

The announcement that detective Hilton Botha faces reinstated charges in connection with a 2011 shooting incident came a day after he testified for the prosecution in Pistorius' bail hearing, and by all accounts bungled his appearance. He acknowledged Wednesday that nothing in the world-famous athlete's account of the fatal Valentine's Day shooting of his girlfriend contradicted what police had discovered.

The spokeswoman for the nation's prosecutors urged that Botha be removed from the Pistorius case.

Pistorius, an Olympic runner whose lower legs were amputated when he was less than a year old, claims he mistook girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder when he shot her through a locked door in a bathroom in his home. Police said Pistorius fired four shots, hitting Steenkamp three times.

Bulewa Makeke, spokeswoman for South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, acknowledged Thursday that the timing of the attempted murder charges against the detective was "totally weird" but said Botha should be dropped from the case against the athlete. However, Makeke said the charges against Botha were reinstated on Feb. 4, before his testimony Wednesday and even before Steenkamp was killed. Police said they were notified Wednesday of the reinstated charges which stem from a 2011 shooting incident in which Botha and two other officers allegedly fired at a minibus.

Makeke indicated the charges were reinstated because more evidence had been gathered. She said the charge against Botha was initially dropped "because there was not enough evidence at the time. But then, obviously the investigation continued up to the fourth (of) February and the senior public prosecutor was in a position to make a decision to reinstate the case."

She emphasized that it is a decision for police and not prosecutors whether to take Botha off the Pistorius case, one that has riveted the world's attention and is bringing scrutiny on South Africa's justice system.

"Is he going to be dropped from the case? I don't know. I think the right thing would be for him to be dropped," Makeke said outside Pretoria Magistrate's Court shortly before Pistorius' bail hearing went into a third day. "Obviously there will be consultations between the two (police and prosecutors) to determine what is the best course of action."

Pistorius' main sponsor Nike, meanwhile, suspended its contract with the multiple Paralympic champion, following eyewear manufacturer Oakley's decision to suspend its sponsorship. Nike said in a brief statement on its website: "We believe Oscar Pistorius should be afforded due process and we will continue to monitor the situation closely."

Botha was summoned unexpectedly by the magistrate at the start of Thursday's proceedings and was questioned for around 15 minutes before being excused — but only after it took him around 40 minutes to get to the courtroom.

Pistorius' bail hearing began on Tuesday and is already running behind schedule, with it expected to have been completed on Wednesday.

Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair asked the defense of Pistorius' bail application: "Do you think there will be some level of shock if the accused is released?"

Defense lawyer Barry Roux responded: "I think there will be a level of shock in this country if he is not released."

Opposing bail for Pistorius, prosecutor Gerrie Nel painted a picture of a man "willing and ready to fire and kill," and said signs of remorse from Pistorius did not mean that the athlete didn't intend to kill his girlfriend.

"Even if you plan a murder, you plan a murder and shoot. If you fire the shot, you have remorse. Remorse might kick in immediately," Nel said.

As Nel summed up the prosecution's case opposing bail, Pistorius began to weep, leading his brother, Carl Pistorius, to reach out and touch his back.

"He (Pistorius) wants to continue with his life like this never happened," Nel went on, prompting Pistorius, who was crying soflty, to shake his head. "The reason you fire four shots is to kill," Nel persisted.

Earlier Thursday, Nair questioned Botha over delays in processing records from phones found in Pistorius' house following the killing of Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and budding reality TV contestant.

"It seems to me like there was a lack of urgency," Nair said as the efficiency of the police investigation was again questioned after Botha conceded to a string of blunders on the second day of the hearing.

They did not discuss anything relating to the attempted murder charges against Botha and if he should continue on the case. Police say that Botha and two other police officers fired at a minibus they were trying to stop, and will appear in court in May to face seven counts of attempted murder.

Pistorius, in the same gray suit, blue shirt and gray tie combination he has worn throughout the bail hearing, had stood ramrod straight in the dock as the magistrate arrived Thursday and then sat calmly looking at his hands as Roux picked apart the prosecution's argument. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the athlete was slumped over and sobbing uncontrollably at times as detail was read out of how Steenkamp died in his house.

Roux continued to cast doubt on the state's case and the investigation, following up after lead investigator Botha conceded Wednesday that police had left a 9 mm slug in the toilet where Steenkamp died, had lost track of illegal ammunition found in the home and that Botha himself had walked through the scene without protective shoe covers, possibly contaminating the area.

"The poor quality of the evidence offered by investigative officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings of the state's case," Roux said Thursday. "We cannot sit back and take comfort that he is telling the truth."

Roux also raised issue of intent, saying the killing was not "pre-planned" and referred to a "loving relationship" between the two.

He said an autopsy showed that Steenkamp's bladder was empty, suggesting she had gone to use the toilet as Pistorius had claimed. Prosecutors claim Steenkamp had fled to the toilet to avoid an enraged Pistorius.

"The known forensics is consistent" with Pistorius' statement, Roux said. The lawyer said the evidence does not even show Pistorius committed a murder. In summing up the defense argument in the bail hearing, Roux asked that bail restrictions be eased for Pistorius.

Nel presented the prosecution's case before proceedings ended for the day, and said that Pistorius hadn't given guarantees to the court that he wouldn't leave the country if he was facing a life sentence. Nel also stressed that Pistorius shouldn't be given special treatment.

"I am Oscar Pistorius. I am a world-renowned athlete. Is that a special circumstance? No." Nel said. "His (Pistorius') version (of the killing) is improbable."

Nel said the court should focus on the "murder of the defenseless woman."

Botha also testified earlier Thursday — and after he was surprisingly recalled — that he had investigated a 2009 complaint against Pistorius by a woman who claimed the athlete had assaulted her. He said that Pistorius had not hurt her and that the woman had actually injured herself when she kicked a door at Pistorius' home.

Botha was only questioned briefly before he was excused by Nair, but South Africa's prosecuting authority and the police still had to make a decision over whether the 24-year police veteran would be removed from the investigation because of the charges against him.

The hearing was to continue Friday morning, with the possibility of magistrate Nair ruling then if Pistorius can be freed on bail before trial.


AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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Would the pope vote be hackable?

The Conclave of Cardinals that will elect a new pope will meet in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.


  • Bruce Schneier: Rules for picking a new pope are very detailed

  • He says elaborate precautions are taken to prevent election fraud

  • Every step of the election process is observed by people who know each other

  • Schneier: Vatican's procedures, centuries in the making, are very secure

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive." In 2005, before the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Schneier wrote a piece on his blog about the process. This essay is an updated version, reflecting new information and analysis.

(CNN) -- As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, security people like me wonder about the process. How does it work, and just how hard would it be to hack the vote?

The rules for papal elections are steeped in tradition. John Paul II last codified them in 1996, and Benedict XVI left the rules largely untouched. The "Universi Dominici Gregis on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff" is surprisingly detailed.

Every cardinal younger than 80 is eligible to vote. We expect 117 to be voting. The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, directed by the church chamberlain. The ballot is entirely paper-based, and all ballot counting is done by hand. Votes are secret, but everything else is open.

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

First, there's the "pre-scrutiny" phase.

"At least two or three" paper ballots are given to each cardinal, presumably so that a cardinal has extras in case he makes a mistake. Then nine election officials are randomly selected from the cardinals: three "scrutineers," who count the votes; three "revisers," who verify the results of the scrutineers; and three "infirmarii," who collect the votes from those too sick to be in the chapel. Different sets of officials are chosen randomly for each ballot.

Each cardinal, including the nine officials, writes his selection for pope on a rectangular ballot paper "as far as possible in handwriting that cannot be identified as his." He then folds the paper lengthwise and holds it aloft for everyone to see.

When everyone has written his vote, the "scrutiny" phase of the election begins. The cardinals proceed to the altar one by one. On the altar is a large chalice with a paten -- the shallow metal plate used to hold communion wafers during Mass -- resting on top of it. Each cardinal places his folded ballot on the paten. Then he picks up the paten and slides his ballot into the chalice.

Pope may change rules to allow earlier election

If a cardinal cannot walk to the altar, one of the scrutineers -- in full view of everyone -- does this for him.

If any cardinals are too sick to be in the chapel, the scrutineers give the infirmarii a locked empty box with a slot, and the three infirmarii together collect those votes. If a cardinal is too sick to write, he asks one of the infirmarii to do it for him. The box is opened, and the ballots are placed onto the paten and into the chalice, one at a time.

When all the ballots are in the chalice, the first scrutineer shakes it several times to mix them. Then the third scrutineer transfers the ballots, one by one, from one chalice to another, counting them in the process. If the total number of ballots is not correct, the ballots are burned and everyone votes again.

To count the votes, each ballot is opened, and the vote is read by each scrutineer in turn, the third one aloud. Each scrutineer writes the vote on a tally sheet. This is all done in full view of the cardinals.

The total number of votes cast for each person is written on a separate sheet of paper. Ballots with more than one name (overvotes) are void, and I assume the same is true for ballots with no name written on them (undervotes). Illegible or ambiguous ballots are much more likely, and I presume they are discarded as well.

Then there's the "post-scrutiny" phase. The scrutineers tally the votes and determine whether there's a winner. We're not done yet, though.

The revisers verify the entire process: ballots, tallies, everything. And then the ballots are burned. That's where the smoke comes from: white if a pope has been elected, black if not -- the black smoke is created by adding water or a special chemical to the ballots.

Being elected pope requires a two-thirds plus one vote majority. This is where Pope Benedict made a change. Traditionally a two-thirds majority had been required for election. Pope John Paul II changed the rules so that after roughly 12 days of fruitless votes, a simple majority was enough to elect a pope. Benedict reversed this rule.

How hard would this be to hack?

First, the system is entirely manual, making it immune to the sorts of technological attacks that make modern voting systems so risky.

Second, the small group of voters -- all of whom know each other -- makes it impossible for an outsider to affect the voting in any way. The chapel is cleared and locked before voting. No one is going to dress up as a cardinal and sneak into the Sistine Chapel. In short, the voter verification process is about as good as you're ever going to find.

A cardinal can't stuff ballots when he votes. The complicated paten-and-chalice ritual ensures that each cardinal votes once -- his ballot is visible -- and also keeps his hand out of the chalice holding the other votes. Not that they haven't thought about this: The cardinals are in "choir dress" during the voting, which has translucent lace sleeves under a short red cape, making sleight-of-hand tricks much harder. Additionally, the total would be wrong.

The rules anticipate this in another way: "If during the opening of the ballots the scrutineers should discover two ballots folded in such a way that they appear to have been completed by one elector, if these ballots bear the same name, they are counted as one vote; if however they bear two different names, neither vote will be valid; however, in neither of the two cases is the voting session annulled." This surprises me, as if it seems more likely to happen by accident and result in two cardinals' votes not being counted.

Ballots from previous votes are burned, which makes it harder to use one to stuff the ballot box. But there's one wrinkle: "If however a second vote is to take place immediately, the ballots from the first vote will be burned only at the end, together with those from the second vote." I assume that's done so there's only one plume of smoke for the two elections, but it would be more secure to burn each set of ballots before the next round of voting.

The scrutineers are in the best position to modify votes, but it's difficult. The counting is conducted in public, and there are multiple people checking every step. It'd be possible for the first scrutineer, if he were good at sleight of hand, to swap one ballot paper for another before recording it. Or for the third scrutineer to swap ballots during the counting process. Making the ballots large would make these attacks harder. So would controlling the blank ballots better, and only distributing one to each cardinal per vote. Presumably cardinals change their mind more often during the voting process, so distributing extra blank ballots makes sense.

There's so much checking and rechecking that it's just not possible for a scrutineer to misrecord the votes. And since they're chosen randomly for each ballot, the probability of a cabal being selected is extremely low. More interesting would be to try to attack the system of selecting scrutineers, which isn't well-defined in the document. Influencing the selection of scrutineers and revisers seems a necessary first step toward influencing the election.

If there's a weak step, it's the counting of the ballots.

There's no real reason to do a precount, and it gives the scrutineer doing the transfer a chance to swap legitimate ballots with others he previously stuffed up his sleeve. Shaking the chalice to randomize the ballots is smart, but putting the ballots in a wire cage and spinning it around would be more secure -- albeit less reverent.

I would also add some kind of white-glove treatment to prevent a scrutineer from hiding a pencil lead or pen tip under his fingernails. Although the requirement to write out the candidate's name in full provides some resistance against this sort of attack.

Probably the biggest risk is complacency. What might seem beautiful in its tradition and ritual during the first ballot could easily become cumbersome and annoying after the twentieth ballot, and there will be a temptation to cut corners to save time. If the Cardinals do that, the election process becomes more vulnerable.

A 1996 change in the process lets the cardinals go back and forth from the chapel to their dorm rooms, instead of being locked in the chapel the whole time, as was done previously. This makes the process slightly less secure but a lot more comfortable.

Of course, one of the infirmarii could do what he wanted when transcribing the vote of an infirm cardinal. There's no way to prevent that. If the infirm cardinal were concerned about that but not privacy, he could ask all three infirmarii to witness the ballot.

There are also enormous social -- religious, actually -- disincentives to hacking the vote. The election takes place in a chapel and at an altar. The cardinals swear an oath as they are casting their ballot -- further discouragement. The chalice and paten are the implements used to celebrate the Eucharist, the holiest act of the Catholic Church. And the scrutineers are explicitly exhorted not to form any sort of cabal or make any plans to sway the election, under pain of excommunication.

The other major security risk in the process is eavesdropping from the outside world. The election is supposed to be a completely closed process, with nothing communicated to the world except a winner. In today's high-tech world, this is very difficult. The rules explicitly state that the chapel is to be checked for recording and transmission devices "with the help of trustworthy individuals of proven technical ability." That was a lot easier in 2005 than it will be in 2013.

What are the lessons here?

First, open systems conducted within a known group make voting fraud much harder. Every step of the election process is observed by everyone, and everyone knows everyone, which makes it harder for someone to get away with anything.

Second, small and simple elections are easier to secure. This kind of process works to elect a pope or a club president, but quickly becomes unwieldy for a large-scale election. The only way manual systems could work for a larger group would be through a pyramid-like mechanism, with small groups reporting their manually obtained results up the chain to more central tabulating authorities.

And third: When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

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Storm walloping Plains could dump half-foot here

A winter storm that is already walloping the Plains states will hit the Chicago area tonight and linger through the morning commute on Friday, possibly dumping up to half a foot of snow here.

A winter weather advisory has been issued for the Chicago area from 9 p.m. Thursday until 6 p.m. Friday, with snow falling at a rate of an inch per hour overnight and winds blowing at 25 to 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The snow will change over to freezing drizzle Friday morning, the weather service said.

Anywhere from 3 to 7 inches could fall here, but up to 16 inches are expected in Kansas and Nebraska, states expected to bear the brunt of the storm. Warnings have been issued from Colorado through Illinois, and many school districts have called off classes.

The storm could be the worst to hit the Midwest since a storm dumped 1 to 2 feet of snow from central Oklahoma to the lower Great Lakes and central New England between Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, 2011. The storm spawned the infamous Groundhog Day Blizzard that buried Chicago in 20.2 inches of snow.

The storm moving over the Plains now was first picked up by computer models as it left the Japanese coast more than a week ago.  Forecasts at the time suggested a potentially significant winter storm would develop from it across the nation’s mid-section.

Up to a foot and a half of heavy snow is expected over portions of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Snowfall of 5 to 8 inches will fall over Iowa and northern Missouri. A mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain is expected from southern Missouri east-northeast up the Ohio River Valley into southern and central Illinois, Indiana, Ohio into West Virginia. Severe thunderstorms are forecast in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

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