News brief: Crimea bridge blast, possible rail strike, Parkland shooter trial
Russia accuses Ukraine's military intelligence services of being behind the bombing of a strategic bridge that links it to Crimea and announced the detention of eight people.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The attack on a bridge Vladimir Putin symbolically opened himself four years ago is what prompted Russia to unleash a barrage of missiles across Ukraine.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Nathan Rott is in western Ukraine, in Lviv. Nathan, bring us up to date about what's been happening today.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Yeah. So as you said earlier today, the FSB, Russia's intelligence service, announced that they had arrested eight people that they say were involved in that bombing of the bridge which connects the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula to Russia. They claim that strike, which caused part of the bridge to fall into the sea, was directed by Ukraine's military intelligence service. Ukraine's government has not claimed responsibility, and they are dismissing these Russian claims. But Putin has warned that any strikes on Russian-controlled territory, like the illegally annexed Crimean peninsula, would lead to retaliation, like the kind we saw here on Monday and Tuesday.
MARTÍNEZ: Are there any more missile strikes today?
ROTT: You know, so far today, there's been a lot of air alarms across much of the country, but no, not the widespread missile strikes that we've definitely seen over the last few days. And those really have shaken a lot of people up here. I had dinner with one of our longtime translators here last night in Lviv, and he was saying the recent missile strikes felt like February 24, the start of the war, all again. And they were, in some ways, even scarier because he lost cellphone reception. He lost power after hearing explosions, which did not happen at the beginning of the war, at least not here in Lviv.
And during an air alarm we had here yesterday, I saw a bunch of people in a bomb shelter, which is something I hadn't really seen in the last couple of times I've been in Ukraine because sirens have become such a way of life here that many people have just sometimes ignored them. That is not the case anymore.
MARTÍNEZ: Have Ukrainians mentioned what the Russians were targeting?
ROTT: Yeah, so civilian and energy infrastructure. Ukrainian officials say very few military objects were hit or even targeted in all these missile strikes. Many of the missile strikes happened at power stations, at thermal power plant substations. And it's been knocking out power to a number of places. Here in Lviv, large parts of the city have been without power over the last two days. Yesterday, the mayor urged people to stock up on water because of potential disruptions to the city's water supply. The concern, obviously, for people here is that winter is nearly here. Temperatures are already dropping into the 40s at night. And without electricity, it's going to be difficult for some people to heat their homes, to charge their phones, do all the things that we all do in a modern world.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And yesterday, you know, the Group of Seven nations held an emergency meeting about this escalation, where they heard from President Zelenskyy, Ukraine's president. What came out of that?
ROTT: Yeah, I mean, what you'd expect. There were more pledges of unwavering support. There was a warning of severe consequences for Russia if it uses a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon here, which there have been growing concerns about. As you mentioned, Zelenskyy, he did speak. He appealed for modern air defense systems, which he's been doing since the start of the war. And he also asked for independent monitors along the Ukrainian-Belarusian border because there have been some troop movements on that front. And there are concerns that Putin is going to lean on Belarus to take a more active approach in helping Russia in this conflict.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Nathan Rott is in Ukraine. Nathan, thanks.
ROTT: Yeah, I appreciate it.
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MARTÍNEZ: Last month, a possible rail worker strike threatened the economy before the White House brokered a tentative deal.
FADEL: The 12 unions that represent about 115,000 workers are now voting on that agreement, and they all have to say yes for it to actually become an agreement. And this week, one of them said no deal.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's politics reporter Ximena Bustillo joins us now to tell us what this means for the agreement. So we all knew it wasn't necessarily a done deal, but, Ximena, what happened?
XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, there was always the risk that unions could vote against it. Even after the deal was reached, some members were still picketing. The thing to remember is that there are 12 different unions here involved in the rail system, and each individual union has to vote to accept or reject the deal. The first four unions voted to vote yes. But the deal did not address a major sticking point for many of the workers, which is the very strict limits on sick leave and other absence policies. And this is just one of the reasons this union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees union, voted no. And it's a really big union, too, representing more than 11,000 workers.
MARTÍNEZ: And, you know, I remember President Biden taking a bit of a victory lap over this deal, but now it looks like he'll have to walk it back?
BUSTILLO: Well, last month, we saw members of Biden's Cabinet helped broker this specific tentative deal. Things had stalled after months of negotiations, so Labor Secretary Marty Walsh worked literally through the night with unions and management. And here's what the president said from the Rose Garden the morning after they came to a tentative deal.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Together, we reached an agreement. You reached an agreement that will keep our critical rail system working and avoid disruptions of our economy.
BUSTILLO: This was really important for him because the midterm elections are coming up, and he didn't want a big strike that could make some goods hard to find or more expensive.
MARTÍNEZ: All right, so what happens now? I mean, are we looking at a strike now?
BUSTILLO: Well, the union's rejection of the tentative agreement means that now they're in what's called a status quo period. So it's back to the bargaining table for this one union. The union has already reached out to management to renegotiate the lack of paid sick leave. Here's the union's chief negotiator, Peter Kennedy.
PETER KENNEDY: Well, we're going to go back to the table, and we're going to talk to the railroads about increased paid sick days because our members have made it very clear to us that the lack of paid sick days is a very significant issue for them.
BUSTILLO: The group that represents the railroads for bargaining said in a statement that it's disappointed, but they also said that there's no immediate risk of disruption. These talks can go on for some time, and the union can't strike before November 19, so it really is not an immediate threat. Meanwhile, voting for the seven other unions is expected to last into next month. Kennedy also told me that it is customary for all railroads to strike if one of them does, even if they all reach a deal. But there's no telling in this case if they all would. And he said their goal is not to strike; everyone wants to reach a deal before then.
MARTÍNEZ: All right, so November 19 - that's the date to keep in mind. What's on the line here for getting an agreement?
BUSTILLO: Yeah, we have to remember that railroads transport 30 to 40% of goods in this country. When this issue first became a threat last month, there were major concerns over food and agriculture products because it would have coincided with harvest season. A November strike is not any better. It comes right ahead of the holiday season. The White House is also downplaying this vote. They say that there's still lots of time to reach a deal and that there is no immediate risk of a strike. Also on the line is the president's reputation for being pro-labor. He has long touted his support for unions and thanks union workers for helping him win the election. So this is a big test and also a test of his ability to fix supply chains and address inflation. So there's a lot on the line.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thanks a lot.
BUSTILLO: Thank you.
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MARTÍNEZ: A jury in Florida is expected to begin deliberations on whether the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gets the death sentence. Nikolas Cruz has pleaded guilty to the murders.
FADEL: Yeah, defense attorneys argued that Cruz, though, should be spared and given life in prison without the possibility of parole instead because of his troubled history and his mental health.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Allen has been following the trial. He joins us now from Miami. And some of what you'll hear in his report might be disturbing. Greg, how will the jury decide whether Cruz deserves the death penalty?
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, under Florida law, jurors can hand down a sentence of death if they find that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors. And prosecutors detailed several aggravating factors they think that apply here. Prosecutor Mike Satz says videos Cruz recorded on his cellphone, social media posts and even internet searches showed that he planned this attack on the school months in advance.
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MIKE SATZ: And what he did was to murder children at school and their caretakers. That's what he wanted to do. That's what he planned to do. That's what he wanted to do. And that's what he did.
ALLEN: And there are other aggravating factors - the fact that multiple murders were carried out, that they were done at a school and that they were done in a way that was especially, quote, "heinous, atrocious or cruel." On that point, the jury heard disturbing testimony from survivors about the terror they experienced that day. Jurors also watched surveillance videos showing Cruz returning to victims he wounded and shooting them again, killing them.
MARTÍNEZ: Now, as you mentioned, Cruz's guilt has already been established. He pleaded guilty. What's the case his defense has made for giving him a life sentence?
ALLEN: Well, I've spoken to experienced lawyers who say this is one of the most difficult death penalty cases for the defense they've ever seen in Florida. Yesterday, the jury once again viewed a 14-minute surveillance video from the school that recorded the entire attack. It's not been made public - very disturbing. But it depicts Cruz methodically shooting into classrooms and down hallways and then reloading his AR-15-style rifle several times with new magazines. Several weeks ago, the jury visited the building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where the shootings occurred, where they saw bloodstains, bullet holes and other evidence of the attack.
Defense lawyer Melissa McNeill has tried to move past the shooting, saying by pleading guilty to the murders, Cruz is accepting responsibility. She's tried instead to focus on Cruz's troubled history that began when - before he was born, when his mother abused drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant with him.
MARTÍNEZ: But how would that help him avoid the death penalty?
ALLEN: Well, McNeill spent a lot of time yesterday in her closing argument recounting all the problems Cruz had in school and in his interactions with others. She talked about testimony from experts who said Cruz suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She said he never received a proper diagnosis or treatment because everyone from his adoptive mother to school officials dropped the ball. And if at least one juror opts for life, the death penalty then is off the table. McNeill acknowledged, though, to jurors that vote would require courage.
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MELISSA MCNEILL: Your individual moral decision must not be based upon what you think that this community wants or what you think anybody else wants. This is your individual moral decision.
ALLEN: Many of the family members of those who've died have been outspoken about their desire to see Cruz receive the death penalty. Throughout the trial, many of them been in the courtroom. There have been some difficult days. And I'm sure they will be there when the jury finally comes in with the verdict, whenever that is.
MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thanks.
ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.