Powering Up

Utilities Faulted on Cooperation

January brought a debilitating ice storm. A heat wave sapped electric power lines in July, and two hurricanes followed in the fall.

It all added up to powerlessness, literally and figuratively, for hundreds of thousands in the Washington area. After a three-month study, Maryland regulators have concluded that the outages, which lasted up to a week, could have been eased by a little old-fashioned cooperation among utility companies.

For example, after Hurricane Floyd left almost 500,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers in the dark, some local utilities didn't share repair crews. The reason? They hadn't been asked, the Maryland Public Service Commission said.

"Although the commission recognizes that personnel resources were stretched under these circumstances," its report says, "it finds the lack of cooperation unacceptable."

The panel also accused the utilities of failing to communicate well with customers. During the January ice storm, Potomac Electric Power Co. workers often were unable to tell callers when they could expect repairs.

So what are the power companies going to do to minimize future outages? The commission has given them until the end of next month to come up with answers. Pepco, for one, says it has spent "tens of millions of dollars" improving its customer-service system and shoring up power lines and substations.

Teen's Disarming Intent

Boy Took Knife to Protect Friend

Benjamin A. Ratner thought he was doing the right thing.

The Loudoun County 13-year-old took a kitchen paring knife from a girl who had passed him a note suggesting that she might kill herself. Without ever seeing the weapon, which was hidden in a notebook, he stored it in his locker because he "knew it would be safe there." He planned to bring it home to his mother, who would urge the girl's parents to get help for their daughter.

But instead of being hailed as a hero, the eighth-grader at Blue Ridge Middle School in Purcellville was suspended for four months for violating the school's weapons policy.

"It was correct to take the knife from her," said Roberta W. Griffith, an assistant principal at Blue Ridge. "We applaud that and have told him so many times." The problem, authorities said, was that Benjamin should have handed over the knife to a school official for safekeeping.

Benjamin's mother is worried that he is falling behind academically, and his attorneys say he should get a break.

"We're not saying he didn't have a knife, but when you disregard motive and intent, you have denied due process," said attorney Steven H. Aden. "You can be in possession of an instrument for an innocuous, good-faith reason."

'Miranda' Challenge

High Court to Decide Validity

You have the right--for now--to be advised of your rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer present in the event that you are a criminal suspect.

But the future of the "Miranda rights" is in question, after the Supreme Court announced it will consider whether the landmark 1966 court ruling is still valid.

The challenge arises from Richmond, where a federal appeals court ruled in February that Congress, in effect, reversed Miranda v. Arizona with a 1968 law that was never enforced. That statute enabled confessions to be used at trial even when criminals had not been warned of their right to remain silent.

The case will highlight the Richmond appellate court, known in recent years for bold conservatism. Neither side in the case before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had questioned Miranda's validity--the judges sitting in Richmond acted on their own to revive the 1968 law passed to abolish it.

The Supreme Court is set to hear the case in the spring.

Across the Region

Fairfax City's War on Schlock

* First came the wrecking ball. Next, with a little luck, Fairfax City will build up what it has knocked down, in a more tasteful fashion. Gone are an auto parts store, a package shipping center and a barbershop in a shopping center best described, says Mayor John Mason, as "1950s-style schlock." Yet to come as part of the downtown redevelopment plan: a trendy grocery store, restaurants and more stores. 1990s-style schlock? Check back in 40 years.

* Former D.C. mayor Marion Barry has been granted his request for a federal probe into his complaint that feds acted improperly in designing a sting to catch him trading a city job for cash. Investigations by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility typically include months of legwork. The planned sting, which was revealed two weeks ago, was not carried out.

* The health of the Chesapeake Bay has improved in the past 10 years, but it still has a long way to go. Now there's a plan to get it there. The District, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania vowed last week to sharply cut the runoff of harmful nutrients and sediments into the nation's largest estuary. If all goes as planned, the bay would work its way off the federal "dirty water" list within 10 years.

* Three suspects have been arrested--and a fourth is being sought--in the slayings of five women in Baltimore. Police suspect the victims were relatives of members of a drug-dealing gang that was feuding with another. Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley, who was inaugurated Tuesday after promising "zero tolerance" of crime, says the slayings "heightened the sense of urgency" to implement his initiatives.

-- Erica Johnston

FBI Launches a Civil Rights Investigation In Fatal Shooting on Kent County Highway

Germaine P. Clarkston was returning home from Christmas shopping when a Chevrolet pickup truck began to tailgate the car driven by her cousin's daughter.

The driver of the pickup wouldn't quit. He flashed its headlights and honked the horn again and again, officials said. The truck slowed after a few minutes but continued to follow the three women in the Plymouth Horizon for about 20 miles.

As the Plymouth approached the women's neighborhood in rural Kent County on the Eastern Shore, the truck raced forward and a passenger opened fire with a shotgun. Clarkston, 73, died at a Baltimore hospital two days after being wounded in the hip.

The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the case and is trying to determine whether the shooting was racially motivated. Clarkston was black; the two suspects are white. Brothers David Wayne Starkey, 24, and Daniel Robert Starkey, 19, were charged with first-degree murder.

"I just don't know what would move a human heart to do something like this," said Robert Strong Jr., the Kent County state's attorney. "What would motivate anyone to do such a horrible crime?"

Kent County Sheriff John F. Price said he had no evidence that the shooting was motivated by racial hatred. An FBI spokesman said the agency's findings will be turned over to Justice Department officials, who will decide whether to file federal charges.

"I've been crying every night thinking about Miss Germaine," said Michelle Y. Wilson, 38, who was driving Clarkston. "They took an innocent life, as far as I can tell, because I wasn't driving fast enough."

Maryland to Bank Its First $54 Million From Tobacco Settlement Tuesday

In two days, Maryland is set to get its first whiff of cash--$54 million, to be precise--from the national tobacco settlement.

But a cloud of uncertainty hovers over the money because Peter G. Angelos, the lawyer who handled the state's case, wants a chunk of Maryland's $4.2 billion share.

The state, on the other hand, wants Angelos--who moonlights as owner of the Baltimore Orioles--to go to cigarette makers to recoup his fees.

CAPTION: David Wayne Starkey, one of the brothers charged with first-degree murder in the death of Germaine Clarkston, was taken to the jail in Chestertown, Md.

CAPTION: "I've been crying every night thinking about Miss Germaine," said Michelle Y. Wilson, driver of the car that was fired upon.

CAPTION: Former Washington mayor Marion Barry will get the federal probe he sought.