Atlantis blasts off after lengthy delay

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - After two months of delay, shuttle Atlantis blasted into orbit Thursday with Europe's gift to the international space station, a $2 billion science lab named Columbus that spent years waiting to set sail.

Atlantis and its seven-man crew safely roared away from their seaside launch pad at 2:45 p.m., overcoming fuel gauge problems that thwarted back-to-back launch attempts in December.

The same cold front that spawned killer tornadoes across the South earlier in the week stayed far enough away and, in the end, cut NASA a break.

Man suspected of stabbing wife at elementary school

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio - A man charged into a school where his estranged wife was a teacher Thursday morning, firing a gun before stabbing her as her fifth-grade class watched, police said. He later was found dead in his home after apparently shooting himself during a standoff with police.

The teacher, Christi Layne, was in critical condition at a hospital in nearby Huntington, W.Va., a hospital spokeswoman said.

Police originally said William Michael Layne shot his wife at Notre Dame Elementary, but Chief Charles Horner said it was unclear whether a gunshot fired in the school hit her.

Locomotive hits commuter train

WASHINGTON - An Amtrak locomotive hit a commuter train at Union Station on Thursday morning, knocking the train's rear wheels off the track and injuring seven people, officials said.

Cheron Wicker, a spokeswoman for Maryland's MARC service, says the train from Baltimore was hit from behind at about 10 a.m., dislodging two rear wheels. The train remained upright.

Seven people were treated after complaining of minor head and neck injuries, said D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter.

Prisoner punches his public defender

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - A public defender who was punched in court by a disgruntled client said Thursday he doesn't blame the man who gave him two black eyes.

The disorder in the court, captured on video, happened Monday at Scott County Circuit Court after the judge refused defendant Peter Hafer's request for a new attorney.

Hafer, 30, of Cynthiana, told the judge he didn't trust his court-appointed lawyer, Doug Crickmer. As Judge Rob Johnson began to tell Hafer he couldn't choose his public defender, Hafer landed the first punch.

At least 5 dead after standoff

LOS ANGELES - A man who called 911 and claimed he killed three relatives opened fire on SWAT officers Thursday as they entered the house where he had barricaded himself. One officer was killed, three others were wounded and the gunman died in a later exchange of gunfire.

A woman who hid inside the suburban house, which erupted in flames during the 11-hour standoff, survived the ordeal. But investigators found four bodies inside the burned home, including the gunman's, and believed they might find a fifth, Police Chief William Bratton said.

Randal Simmons, 51, was the first SWAT officer killed in the line of duty in the unit's 41-year-history, officials said.

'Jena 6' defendant faces new charge

CARROLLTON, Texas - A defendant in the Louisiana 'Jena Six' case was arrested after allegedly slamming a student's head into a bench at his new school in Texas, police said.

The defendant, Bryant R. Purvis, 19, was arrested on a charge of assault causing bodily injury Wednesday after an altercation at Hebron High School. It began because Purvis believed a student had flattened his tires, Sgt. John Singleton said.

Purvis was released from jail Thursday morning.

According to a police report, the student felt Purvis come behind him and 'grab his neck with one hand and begin to choke him.'

Mentally challenged man to remain on death row for now

YORKTOWN, Va. - A man in the center of a case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court banning execution of the mentally retarded will remain on death row for now.

A judge Thursday agreed to a request by special prosecutors to stay his order to commute Daryl Atkins' sentence to life in prison while they appeal the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Special prosecutor Melissa Hoy said that if the judge did not stay the order, she and special prosecutor Mark Krueger would have to ask the state Supreme Court for a stay before an appeal could be heard. A stay would make the process go more smoothly, she said.