“Avatar” makes its world premiere in London


Updated:
Original:
Year
2009
Month Day
December 10

On December 10 2009, “Avatar,” a 3-D science-fiction epic helmed by “Titanic” director James Cameron, makes its world debut in London and goes on to become the highest-grossing movie in history. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver, the box-office mega-hit was praised for its state-of-the-art technology and earned nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director.

Set in the year 2154, “Avatar” tells the story of disabled ex-Marine Jake Sully, who is recruited to help conquer and colonize Pandora, a faraway moon that is home to a mineral deposit coveted by people on Earth, whose energy resources are almost depleted. Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, a group of nature-loving, blue-skinned, half-alien/half-human creatures intent on protecting their own eco-system. (Cameron hired a linguist to create a unique language for the Na’vi.) Using an avatar to explore Pandora because the air there is toxic to humans, Jake falls in love with a Na’vi princess and goes native, eventually working to save the Na’vi from the human colonists.

Cameron wrote the script for “Avatar” in 1994; however, at that point the technology didn’t exist to produce the movie he wanted. In the meantime, he penned and directed “Titanic,” the 1997 blockbuster that garnered 11 Oscars and became the first film to gross more than $1 billion internationally. Prior to “Titanic,” Cameron helmed such hit films as “The Terminator” (1984), “Aliens” (1986) and “The Abyss” (1989), and became known for his imaginative use of special effects. In 2009, he told The New Yorker: “[‘Avatar’] integrates my life’s achievements…It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.” Among the technologies used to make “Avatar” was performance capture, which turns an actor’s movements into a computer-generated image.

At the 82nd Academy Awards, held in March 2010, “Avatar” won Oscars for best visual effects, cinematography and art direction.

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“West Memphis Three” released from prison after 18 years

Year
2011
Month Day
August 19

On August 19, 2011, three men, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the murders of three boys in Arkansas, are released from prison in a special legal deal allowing them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict them. Echols, 36, had been on death row, while Baldwin, 34, and Misskelley, 36, were serving life sentences. Collectively known as the “West Memphis Three,” the men had always maintained their innocence, and questions about the evidence used to convict them had persisted for years. Their case attracted widespread attention and the support of a number of celebrities.

In May 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Michael Moore, were found naked and hog-tied in a drainage ditch in a wooded section of West Memphis, Arkansas. Investigators initially had few solid leads; however, because the bodies appeared to have been mutilated, rumors circulated about a possible connection to satanic cult activities. A tip eventually led investigators to focus on the teenage Echols, a high school dropout who grew up poor, was interested in witchcraft and regularly wore black clothing. Then, Misskelley, an acquaintance of Echols, confessed to the murders following a lengthy interrogation by authorities, and implicated Echols and Baldwin. Described as having a below-average IQ, Misskelley provided information about the crime that conflicted in key ways from details known to the police, and he soon recanted his confession. Nevertheless, in February 1994, he was convicted of first- and second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.

In a separate trial in March 1994, Echols and Baldwin were convicted of capital murder. During the trial, Misskelley refused to testify against the two, and prosecutors had no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking Echols and Baldwin to the crime. Instead, the prosecution presented evidence that Echols, the alleged ringleader, read books about witchcraft as well as novels by Stephen King and Anne Rice, and said he was motivated to murder the boys as part of an occult ritual.

The case gained national attention with the release of the 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which cast doubt on the men’s guilt. A movement grew to free the West Memphis Three, and celebrities including Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and film director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) spoke out in support of the three men and helped fund a legal team to fight the convictions. In 2007, lawyers for the West Memphis Three said new forensic tests showed there was no DNA evidence to link the men to the crime.

In the fall of 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a hearing for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to determine if they deserved new trials. However, before the hearing took place, the trio’s lawyers and prosecutors in Arkansas reached a deal allowing the men to enter an Alford plea and go free. With this little-used legal tool, a defendant is allowed to maintain his or her innocence but plead guilty because it is considered in his or her best interest to do so.

In a statement following his release from custody on August 19, 2011, Echols said, in part, of the plea deal: “I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars.”

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Self-help guru’s sweat lodge ceremony turns deadly

Year
2009
Month Day
October 08

On October 8, 2009, two people die and more than a dozen others are hospitalized following a botched sweat lodge ceremony at a retreat run by motivational speaker and author James Arthur Ray near Sedona, Arizona. A third participant in the ceremony died nine days later.

The sweat lodge exercise was part of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event held at a rented retreat center located six miles from Sedona. Participants paid more than $9,000 each to attend the retreat. At the time, Ray, who was born in 1957 and raised in Oklahoma, was known for such books as his 2008 best-seller “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret to Attracting the Life You Want,” and had appeared as a guest on a number of TV programs, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Ray’s sweat lodge ceremony, modeled after a Native American custom intended to purify the body and spirit, was held in a wood-frame structure covered with tarpaulins and blankets. Inside the enclosed space, water was poured over heated rocks to create steam and the temperature became dangerously high, causing many of the more than 50 participants (who had been encouraged to fast for 36 hours prior to the event) to develop breathing trouble and become disoriented. Witnesses later reported Ray had urged people to remain inside and endure the intense heat as a form of personal challenge.

Two people, Kirby Brown, 38, and James Shore, 40, fainted but were left inside the sweat lodge and perished from heat stroke. More than a dozen other people were hospitalized for dehydration and other medical issues. On October 17, a third ceremony participant, Liz Neuman, 49, died.

In February 2010, Ray was indicted on manslaughter charges. When his case went to trial the following year, the prosecution argued that the self-help guru had acted carelessly and shown no regard for the people who got sick during the ceremony. The defense claimed the participants were free to leave the sweat lodge at any time, and said the deaths were an accident and might have been caused by unknown toxins in the ground. During the four-month trial, witnesses claimed that people had become ill or injured at previous retreats run by Ray, and Native American groups expressed outrage over his misuse of their sacred sweat lodge tradition.

On June 22, 2011, a jury in Camp Verde, Arizona, found Ray guilty of three counts of negligent homicide. On November 18 of that same year, he was sentenced to three two-year prison terms, to run concurrently, and ordered to pay some $57,000 in restitution to the victims’ families. He was released on supervision on July 12, 2013. 

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Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords injured in shooting rampage


Updated:
Original:
Year
2011
Month Day
January 08

On January 8, 2011, Gabrielle Giffords, a U.S. congresswoman from Arizona, is critically injured when a man goes on a shooting spree during a constituents meeting held by the congresswoman outside a Tucson-area supermarket. Six people died in the attack and another 13, including Giffords, were wounded. The gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, was taken into custody at the scene.

Giffords, an Arizona native and Democrat who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006, arrived at the Casas Adobes Safeway store at 10 a.m. on January 8 to host a Congress at Your Corner event. The popular politician, just the third woman from Arizona ever elected to Congress, sat outside at a table, speaking with constituents who had lined up to see her. Ten minutes later, Loughner, an Arizona resident, approached the 40-year-old Giffords and shot her at point-blank range with a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol. He then opened fire on the people standing in line. A short time later, while Loughner attempted to reload his gun, bystanders tackled him and held him until police arrived. Giffords, who was hit with a bullet that fractured her skull and pierced the left side of her brain, was transported to a Tucson hospital. Some early news reports claimed she had not survived the shooting.

Investigators soon discovered evidence at Loughner’s home indicating he had targeted the congresswoman in an assassination plot, and that he had a history of posting anti-government rants on the Internet. It also came to light that in the fall of 2010 Loughner was informed by officials at Tucson’s Pima Community College, where he was a student, that after exhibiting disruptive, bizarre behavior in classes and in the library he would not be allowed to return to school until he got a mental-health clearance. Rather than complying, Loughner dropped out of college.

On January 12, 2011, President Barack Obama spoke at a large public memorial service in Tucson for the victims of the shooting spree. Among the dead were a 9-year-old girl, a 63-year-old federal judge and a 30-year-old member of Giffords’ staff. Later that month, Giffords was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Houston, Texas, where she would relearn how to walk and talk. Also in late January, Loughner pleaded not guilty to a series of federal charges against him, including the attempted assassination of a congressional member. In March, he pleaded not guilty to an additional 49 counts stemming from the shootings.

That May, Giffords traveled from the hospital in Houston to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the launch of the final flight of space shuttle Endeavour, commanded by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelley. The following month, the congresswoman was released from the rehab hospital and began outpatient treatment. On August 1, she made a surprise return to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since she was shot, in order to vote in favor of passing a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

In November 2011, Giffords and her husband released a memoir, “Gabby: A Story of Hope and Courage.” To coincide with the book’s launch, Giffords gave her first television interview since the shooting. During the interview, the congresswoman appeared upbeat but had difficulty forming complete sentences. On January 25, 2012, Giffords resigned from Congress in order to concentrate on her continuing recovery. In August of that same year, Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 of the crimes he was charged with, including killing six people. As part of the plea agreement, federal prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against him. On November 8, 2012, Loughner was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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