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Across the Region: August 4

IOWA

Former inmate convicted in killing dies  

A former Iowa inmate who was sentenced to life in prison has died less than a year being granted compassionate release because she had terminal cancer.

Kristina Fetters died July 27. She was 34.

Fetters was diagnosed with Stage 4 inoperable breast cancer last September, when she was imprisoned at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women.

She had been living at a Des Moines hospice facility since her release in December.

Fetters was 15 when she entered prison for a 1995 first-degree murder conviction in the death of her great-aunt in 1994.

She was the first Iowa juvenile sentenced to life in prison to be released after the Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional for juveniles not to have a chance at parole.

Advocates hope for broader medical marijuana law

A narrowly focused medical marijuana law just took effect in Iowa, but advocates are already looking to see how they can expand access to the drug for the chronically ill.

State lawmakers this year approved legislation that allows the use of oil derived from marijuana to treat chronic epilepsy. The law — driven largely by advocacy from mothers of children with epilepsy — includes strict rules for acquiring the oil, such as requiring a state registration card and that the oil must be bought from another state that produces it.

Supporters hope the bill is a first step toward a more comprehensive medical marijuana law. A total of 23 states and the District of Colombia have public medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 11, including Iowa, have more limited access laws. Advocates contend the drug eases the symptoms of illnesses like cancer, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Gaining approval for even the limited marijuana oil law was difficult, and many Iowa lawmakers appear hesitant to go further.

A spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad said the Republican governor thinks the state must be cautious about expanding a law that just took effect.

NEBRASKA

Lawsuit targets Nebraska horse racing measure

A Nebraska anti-gambling group has filed a lawsuit to keep off the November ballot a measure that would allow betting on previously recorded horse races shown on machines that resemble casino slots.

Gambling with the Good Life said that it filed the lawsuit last month. Executive director Pat Loontjer says the measure violates the Nebraska Constitution’s provision against asking voters to answer two questions in just one vote.

The group’s attorney, Steve Grasz, says the filing asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to bar the secretary of state from putting what would be Amendment 1 on the statewide ballot.

If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment would clear the way for the video terminals at licensed tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Grand Island and Columbus.

Lawyers give 2 judges failing grades

An evaluation survey conducted by the Nebraska State Bar Association has given passing grades to all but two of Nebraska’s 137 judges.

Nineteen percent of active bar association members who live in Nebraska, Council Bluffs and Sioux City, Iowa, and Yankton, South Dakota, completed the electronic survey.

Association President G. Michael Fenner says the 2014 Judicial Performance Evaluation isn’t an absolute measure but it lets attorneys evaluate judges on a variety of criteria.

This year the lawyers gave passing grades to 94 percent of the state’s judges. The only two with retention ratings below 50 percent were Douglas County Judge Darryl Lowe and Douglas County Juvenile Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich.

NORTH DAKOTA

Stenehjem: NDSU foundation broke open records law

The state attorney general says the North Dakota State University Development Foundation broke the law when it failed to provide a citizen with a copy of the group’s expenditures.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says in an opinion that the foundation must release the records that conservative blogger Rob Port requested under the state’s open records law.

Stenehjem says the foundation denied the request “on incorrect legal grounds.” He says the foundation “delayed its response by months, even after acknowledging that it had responsive records.”

The NDSU Development Foundation is a nonprofit. But Stenehjem says the foundation “is a public entity subject to open records laws because it performs governmental functions on behalf of NDSU.”

State to get funding for sex offender registry

The office of the attorney general in North Dakota will receive more than $30,000 in federal funding for the implementation of sex offender registry programs.

The U.S. Department of Justice will grant the funds. The money is meant to help the state develop and improve programs mandated by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006.

The federal law established a comprehensive national system for the registration of sex offenders to prevent children and adults from sexual exploitation and violent crime, prevent child abuse and promote internet safety.

SOUTH DAKOTA

US attorneys turn up heat on health care fraud

The top federal prosecutors from South Dakota and North Dakota say they have increased their efforts to fight health care fraud.

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson of South Dakota said he has restructured his office to allow lawyers in the criminal and civil divisions to devote “significant time” to investigating medical fraud. He predicted it will be among the fastest-growing area of criminal investigation and wants his office to be in position to pursue increasing “complex and egregious” cases.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon of North Dakota said his office has added a special prosecutor — in concert with the Department of Health and Human Services — who works specifically on cases involving doctors and others who work with Fargo-based Noridian Healthcare Solutions. Noridian handles Medicare claims for many states.

Johnson’s office recently settled an alleged fraud case involving two doctors at Dakotas-based Sanford Health. Court documents show that Sanford paid $625,000 to settle the lawsuit, in which the doctors and the hospital did not admit wrongdoing. A whistleblower accused the doctors of defrauding federal health care programs. The government in the Sanford case alleged almost $375,000 in damages to Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs from May 2010 to April 2011, Johnson said. The damages were multiplied by 1.66, and Medicare received most of the damages, more than $432,000.

Purdon’s office recently prosecuted a case involving a Seattle doctor accused of turning in phony Medicare claims that included reports of nursing home visits to patients who were dead.

Tribal group asking for hearing on water rights

Native American leaders in the Dakotas are working to preserve water rights they say are guaranteed by a century-old treaty.

Representatives of the Standing Rock, Oglala and Rosebud tribes are part of the Great Plains Water Alliance, which is pushing for a congressional hearing to discuss the issue.

Dennis “Charlie” Spotted Tail, chairman of the Great Plains Water Alliance, says a doctrine dating back to 1908 establishes that all water on Native American land or that naturally flowed to Indian land should be held by the sovereign tribes.

Spotted Tail says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is navigating waters from the Missouri River that would naturally flow from the tribes to other users. He says that’s a violation of treaty rights.

WISCONSIN

Court dismisses case against UW-Stout official

A state appeals court has rejected a lawsuit filed against the University of Wisconsin-Stout head groundskeeper by a student who fractured her ankle after slipping on ice.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals last week dismissed the lawsuit brought by Amber Malean. She sued UW-Stout grounds supervisor Mike Smith, alleging he was negligent in not clearing an ice patch leading to a campus building on Jan. 30, 2012.

But the appeals court says Smith is protected from being sued by a law granting public officials immunity.

Additionally, the appeals court says there was no evidence that Smith knew of the ice patch on which Malean was injured. The court says it would be “manifestly unfair” to require a public official to react to a situation they didn’t know about.

Juror, witness confrontation leads to new trial

A 60-year-old Oneida man will get a new trial on a drunken driving charge after a defense witness got into an argument with two jurors.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Gerald Blasczyk.

Blasczyk was charged in May 2011 with operating while intoxicated with 10 or more previous offenses after another driver found him passed out in his Jeep, which was still running.

A third man, Frank Vandehei, testified that he had been driving the Jeep, not Blasczyk. After testifying, Vandehei confronted a juror in the parking lot about a question the juror asked during his testimony. A second juror was there during the confrontation.

The appeals court says that confrontation could have influenced the jurors during deliberations, and Blasczyk deserves a new trial.

Across the Region is compiled from Associated Press wire, staff reports and news releases.

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