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Judge declares mistrial in case of Philly mob boss who reportedly greeted juror by name

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A mistrial has been declared in the racketeering trial of a notorious Philadelphia mob boss who was reported to have greeted a juror by name while surrounded by members of his “crew” outside a courtroom in Manhattan earlier this month.

Jurors at the trial of Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino told U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan in a series of five notes Thursday they were hopelessly deadlocked after nearly four days of deliberations.

“Thank God for the jury,” a subdued Merlino told reporters afterward. He declined further comment.

Merlino, after the jury was picked, bizarrely predicted his trial would end in a “deadlock win” for him and offered what turned out to be a winning tip on the Super Bowl: “Oh, and bet the Eagles.”

A female juror told the judge in early February that she was waiting for an elevator in the courthouse following the end of testimony on Feb. 7 when Merlino approached her, according to court records viewed by the New York Post.

The juror said Merlino was “not close, but, like, he was on that side, on the opposite side over there, before you get to the exit, and he just said, ‘Hi, Sylvia,’ and I just turned my head, like, ‘Some nerve.’

She added: “There was some people. I guess his crew. I’m saying ‘crew’ because I don’t know what else to say, his crew that was all over that side, I guess waiting for somebody to come out or something.”

There was no word from the government Thursday on whether it would seek another trial, the Associated Press reported.

Prosecutors had alleged that instead of retiring, Merlino muscled his way into gambling and health insurance schemes run by crime families on the East Coast. He used his standing as a feared figure in the Mafia to demand protection payments from bookies and other underlings running a scheme to collect thousands of dollars of insurance claims by bribing doctors to write phony pain cream prescriptions for people who had no ailments, prosecutors said.

“Being with Merlino did not come for free,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Schorr said during closing arguments. “You pay tribute.”

Defense attorney Edwin Jacob countered by telling jurors that they were being misled by “compromised” turncoat mobsters who testified against Merlino, including one who made hundreds of hours of secret recordings of him.

“Have you heard anybody say Joseph Merlino is the boss of the Philadelphia mob?” Jacobs asked, referring to tapes played for the jury. “The answer is obvious — not a peep that he’s the boss of [the] Philadelphia mob.”

But prosecutors argued the tapes showed Merlino had full knowledge of the frauds. In one conversation played for the jury about bribing doctors, he is heard saying, “We do the right thing, make 20,000.” In another, he frets about “stool pigeons.”

Merlino, 55, once controlled the remnants of a Philadelphia organized crime family that was decimated by a bloody civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. Federal authorities said he was frequently targeted by murder plots after rivals put a $500,000 murder contract on his head.

In 2001, a jury acquitted Merlino and six co-defendants of three counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder that could have put him behind bars for life. He was convicted of lesser racketeering charges and served 12 years in prison.

Merlino claimed he retired from the mob for good and started a new life by running an upscale Italian restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida. At the time of the alleged conspiracy, he was a gambling addict who took money from a cooperator because he was always broke, his lawyer said.

There also was testimony from government witnesses, heard by his wife in the audience, that he drank heavily and that he had an affair with a pharmaceutical saleswoman.

After the testimony about the fling, Merlino approached a New York Post reporter outside court and told him, “Don’t put the girl in” a story, the tabloid reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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COVID-19: US president Joe Biden signs 10 executive orders to curb spread of coronavirus | US News

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Joe Biden has signed 10 new executive orders in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus across the United States.

On his first full day in office, the newly-inaugurated president launched new measures on vaccines, masks and testing.

He hit out at Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic, saying his predecessor lacked the “urgency, focus and co-ordination we needed”.

“We have seen the tragic cost of that failure,” Mr Biden said.

He warned that “things are going to continue to get worse before they get better”, predicted the death toll will reach 500,000 next month and said the roll-out of vaccines in the US had been a “dismal failure” so far.

The US has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths of any country in the world.

Mr Trump, who left the White House for Florida on Wednesday, was much-criticised for his handling of the pandemic.

He caught the disease in October, after hosting a reception where guests were seen not social distancing or wearing masks.

And when a US journalist said Mr Trump told him he knew how dangerous the virus was but liked “playing it down”, former first lady Michelle Obama accused him of trying to “gaslight the American people by acting like this pandemic is not a real threat”.

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COVID-19: Coffins stacked high in crematorium of German town ravaged by coronavirus | World News

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A crematorium is a sobering place to visit during a pandemic. Especially the one in the town of Meissen, eastern Germany, where coffins are stacked on top of each other in every available space.

Attached to each simple wooden casket is a small piece of paper giving the basic details about the body inside. The name of the deceased, date of birth and death.

And chalked on to the side of so many is the word COVID. We are standing amongst the victims of a virus which has hit Meissen hard.

In the basement, vast furnaces and workers are operating around the clock. They need to, such is the demand for cremations in a town which has experienced one of the highest COVID-19 rates in Germany.

A crematorium in the German town of Meissen
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Chalked onto the side of so many is the word COVID

We watch coffin after coffin disappearing into the flames knowing that family members, unable to be with their loved ones as they passed away, will be desperate to collect the urn of ashes to mourn.

Crematorium director Jörg Schaldach speaks of sadness for the families.

“For us, the problem isn’t storage. The problem is actually for the bereaved,” he says.

“The ambulance leaves the yard and they never see their relatives again. There are no hospital visits. People understand that this is a crisis and they accept that. But the psychological aspect of parting is very, very difficult.”

It is made all the more difficult by the fact that COVID restrictions mean normal funeral services aren’t possible.

Even the chapel at the crematorium is now a storage facility for the dead. The chairs, which before COVID would have accommodated mourners, have been moved out to make way for coffins.

At this, Meissen’s sole crematorium, they dealt with more than 1,400 bodies last month, double the number a year ago.

And Mr Schaldach worries that figure could be higher by the end of January.

The high COVID infection and death rate in Meissen has created nervousness amongst many residents, who ask why the town has been so hard hit.

A crematorium in the German town of Meissen
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Meissen’s crematorium dealt with more than 1,400 bodies last month – double the number a year ago

One elderly man said: “It’s because the old live here in eastern Germany. The young are in the west. And COVID affects the old much more badly.”

Another says: “We are near to the Czech border. There is high incidence there and traffic.” He struggles to speak as he says it is so sad, so upsetting to see what is happening.

There is genuine fear and worry here. The crematorium sits in the middle of a residential area and it must be unnerving for people seeing the constant stream of hearses and vans arriving.

Mr Schaldach is hoping that tough lockdown restrictions the German government has decided to keep in place will make a difference.

He lives in the community where he works and feels the loss shared by so many here.

COVID rates are now falling in Germany, but he agrees with the government that there is no room for complacency.

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Baghdad: At least 28 killed and dozens injured in twin suicide attack on Iraq’s capital | World News

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At least 28 people have died and dozens more are wounded after a double suicide attack in Iraq’s capital.

According to police in Baghdad, the explosions hit a commercial area in the centre of the city.

Many of the wounded – of which there are at least 73 – are reported to be in a serious condition and there was widespread damage to buildings.

The bombings are the first in years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial area and all of the city’s hospitals were mobilised to treat the injured, the health ministry said.

Iraqi security forces keep guard the site of a suicide attack in Baghdad, Iraq January 21, 2021.
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Iraqi security forces patrol the area after the blasts

They come amid heightened political tensions as Iraq looks to have early elections in October, while also battling a severe economic crisis brought about by low oil prices.

It is not clear who is responsible for the blasts, which left blood smeared across the floors of the busy Bab al-Sharqi market and piles of clothes and shoes.

The attack occurred as security forces pursued two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives in the market near Tayaran Square, according to military spokesman Yahya Rasool.

Iraq has seen attacks by both the Islamic State group and militia groups in recent months.

Militias have routinely targeted the American presence with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the US Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Attacks has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iran-backed armed groups in October.

The Islamic State group has carried out similar attacks in the past but has rarely been able to target the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition in 2017.

The last deadly suicide blast in the Iraqi capital took place in January 2018, killing at least 27 people.

An attack like this is rare these days making it all the more concerning
Analysis: Mark Stone, Middle East correspondent

Violence and Iraq may seem to be tragically synonymous, but in fact an attack like this is rare these days making it all the more concerning.

While the country is still deeply divided and troubled, bloodshed of this magnitude has not been seen since January 2018 when 27 people were killed in an attack.

The images, most of which are too horrific to broadcast, show bodies lying all around Tayaran Square.

Victims, some alive, but others clearly not, are seen being lifted into vehicles. One video clip shows the decapitated head of man.

It was mid-morning when the bombs detonated. It was a cruelly intentional “double-tap” attack – the second bomb detonated amid the crowd as casualties were carried away.

No one has yet claimed responsibility. The Islamic State terror group is still a threat in parts of the country despite a continued effort by Iraq’s security forces, with western coalition support, to defeat the group.

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