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Fen-phen maker lied, lawyer says as suit begins

One of the makers of the diet-drug combination fen-phen misled doctors about the damage the pills could do, a lawyer said as opening arguments began Wednesday in a class-action lawsuit.

Three women are suing American Home Products Corp. on behalf of 94,000 New Jersey residents who are healthy but want money for a lifetime of checkups. Attorney Esther Berezofsky said the pills had increased the plaintiffs' risk of heart and lung problems.

It is the first class-action suit over fen-phen to come to trial, and the only one not seeking financial awards. If the company loses the New Jersey case, it could be forced to pay more than $1-billion over the next decade.

American Home made fenfluramine, the "fen" half of fen-phen, a drug that makes the brain trick the stomach into feeling full. The combination was marketed under the brand names Redux and Pondimin until 1997, when Pondimin _ fenfluramine _ was taken off the market after a study linked it to heart-valve damage in some patients.

About 6-million Americans took either fenfluramine or its chemical look-alike dexfenfluramine to lose weight. American Home faces thousands of other lawsuits.

The other half of fen-phen, phentermine, was never associated with heart valve damage when taken alone and is still on the market.

Suspect in O'Hair case

given 60 years for theft

AUSTIN, Texas _ A suspect in the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair was sentenced Wednesday to 60 years in prison for skimming more than $50,000 from her family's atheist organization.

David Waters had been on probation for that charge since 1995. He landed back in court after federal authorities found 119 rounds of handgun ammunition in his Austin apartment in March.

Waters, 52, faces sentencing on federal firearms charges on Aug. 20.

Federal authorities suspect Waters orchestrated the 1995 disappearance of O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray and adopted daughter Robin Murray O'Hair. He has not been charged and has denied any knowledge of their disappearance.

When O'Hair and her two adult children vanished from San Antonio along with $500,000 in gold coins, authorities questioned whether they were victims of foul play or had run off with their organization's money.

Waters' attorney, Patrick Ganne, accused authorities of trying to punish Waters for O'Hair's disappearence without having to bring him to trial.

Court orders hearings

on sex registry listings

BOSTON _ In yet another blow to the state's controversial 1996 sex offender registry law, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that anyone convicted of a sex crime is entitled to a hearing before being listed on the registry.

Wednesday's decision, which came in a case involving a 15-year-old boy accused of raping a 4-year-old girl, further expands the rights of those targeted for inclusion on the registry, which allows public access to information kept by police about convicted sex offenders.

Meanwhile, New Jersey's Supreme Court on Wednesday affirmed the conviction and death sentence of Jesse Timmendequas for killing 7-year-old Megan Kanka. The slaying led to "Megan's Laws" to keep track of convicted sex offenders after their release from prison and to provide communities information on the whereabouts of the most dangerous ones.

Republican delays decision

on N.Y. Senate race

BAY SHORE, N.Y. _ Rep. Rick Lazio bowed to New York Gov. George Pataki's wishes Wednesday and put his own Senate hopes on hold _ at least temporarily.

"Let me be clear about this: I am not leaving the race," Lazio said at a Long Island news conference.

Lazio said he would wait until Aug. 31 to see if New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani decides to face likely Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. If not, he said he would ask Pataki to "re-evaluate his position."

Pataki had asked Lazio to put off an announcement of his candidacy, planned next week, until Giuliani decides whether he will seek the Senate seat.

The congressman has raised $3.1-million for the race.

Elsewhere . . .

TEXAS EXECUTION: A junk dealer who abducted and shot a 9-year-old girl in 1987 was executed Wednesday, the fourth Texas prisoner put to death this month and the second in two days. James Otto Earhart, 56, was the 20th person executed in Texas this year.

SHUTTLE CHECKUP: The short circuit aboard space shuttle Columbia has been traced to a damaged wire and is holding up work on Endeavour, which is scheduled to lift off Sept. 16 on a radar-mapping mission of Earth.

NASA has ordered additional lab analysis of Columbia's wiring to make sure there's nothing wrong with the wiring in Endeavour.

RACIAL PROFILING: Joining a nationwide movement to end racial profiling, Houston leaders unveiled a plan Wednesday to study whether the city's 5,000 police officers are stopping people simply because of their skin color.

The new program, which will begin immediately, requires officers to enter information on the race, age and gender of all people they stop or arrest into their patrol car computers. The reports will be placed in a database for review by police Chief C.O. Bradford, police managers and the department's Internal Affairs Division.

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