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Intriguing people for December 21, 2009

By Jay Kernis, CNN

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, pictured in 2005, was a key figure of Iran's Islamic revolution 30 years ago.
Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, pictured in 2005, was a key figure of Iran's Islamic revolution 30 years ago.
  • Protesters gather at funeral for dissident cleric in Iran
  • Philanthropist Brooke Astor's son is scheduled to be sentenced Monday
  • California professor reportedly creates tool to help people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border
  • Iran
  • Brooke Astor
  • Brittany Murphy
  • Vatican
  • Immigration

Editor's note: Every weekday, CNN focuses on a handful of people in the news. This is a chance to find out more about what they've done -- good or bad -- what they've said or what they believe, and why we think they're intriguing.

(CNN) -- Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri
One of Iran's most senior dissident clerics and a staunch defender of the nation's opposition movement died Sunday at 87.

His funeral took place Monday in the Iranian holy city of Qom, where thousands gathered, including opposition supporters who chanted anti-government slogans. There was a huge security presence in the city, and tension remains high. Montazeri -- a key figure in Iran's Islamic revolution 30 years ago -- was perhaps the most prominent cleric who publicly criticized the June elections that returned hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.

CNN: Dissident senior cleric dies in Iran

Anthony Marshall
The 85-year-old son of philanthropist Brooke Astor got one to three years in prison Monday for scheming to bilk millions of dollars from his late mother's estate. He was found guilty October 8 of defrauding the famous socialite out of millions of dollars and robbing her New York apartment. Astor died in 2007 at 105. Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann said the trial told the story of "how a son, an only son, would stoop so low to steal from his own mother in the sunset years of her life in order to line his own pockets and the pockets of his wife." Marshall was convicted of the most serious charges against him: first-degree grand larceny and scheming to defraud. But last week, close friends and celebrity acquaintances sent letters to the court in hopes of saving him from a lengthy prison sentence. Marshall's friends described him as a loyal, churchgoing man, a Purple Heart recipient wounded in Iwo Jima during World War II and a son who tried mightily but could never live up to the high ideals of his wealthy mother.

CNN: Brooke Astor's son sentenced to prison

Brittany Murphy
Fans of the free-spirited actress are still wondering how she died Sunday at 32. The Los Angeles County coroner's office said Murphy's death was apparently of natural causes. Capt. John Kades, a spokesman for the coroner's office, said that there was no sign of foul play or trauma. He added that it's not unusual for a younger person to die of natural causes. The coroner's office is looking into Murphy's medical history, and a final report could take up to eight weeks. Murphy appeared in such films as "Clueless," "8 Mile" and "Girl, Interrupted." She also voiced the character Luanne on the animated TV series "King of the Hill."

Actress Brittany Murphy dies at 32

Pope Pius XII
Pope Benedict XVI has signed decrees that bring two former popes closer to sainthood, John Paul II and Pius XII. While John Paul II is remembered as a beloved figure, Pius XII remains controversial. Some Jewish groups are protesting Saturday's decision to recognize Pius' "heroic virtues," according to Britain's The Independent. Jewish groups have asked the Vatican to open up its secret archives to outside historians who want to determine if Pius did enough to stop the Nazis when 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II.

The Independent: Anger as Pius moves closer to sainthood

Ricardo Dominguez
The associate professor of new media arts at the University of California, San Diego, has created what he calls an act of civil disobedience: a "Transborder Immigrant Tool," according to Sphere. It says Dominguez retrofitted a Motorola cell phone with GPS technology to help people cross the U.S.-Mexico border on the so-called Devil's Highway. Dominguez has collected $15,000 in grants to develop the tool, according to Sphere. It reports his plan is to have churches and groups such as Border Angels and No Mas Muertes pass out the phones and show people how to use then. The invention, which may not be ready for distribution until next summer, already has brought considerable criticism, Sphere said.

Sphere: Border crossings: There's an app for that

What makes a person intriguing?

There are people who enter the news cycle every day because their actions or decisions are new, important or different. Others are in the news because they are the ones those decisions affect. And there are a number of people who are so famous or controversial that anything they say or do becomes news.

Some of these people do what we expect of them: They run for office, pass legislation, start a business, get hired or fired, commit a crime, make an arrest, get in accidents, hit a home run, overthrow a government, fight wars, sue an opponent, put out fires, prepare for hurricanes and cavort with people other than their spouses. They do make news, but the action is usually more important than who is involved in the story.

But every day there are a number of people who become fascinating to us -- by virtue of their character, how they reached their decision, how they behaved under pressure or because of the remarkable circumstances surrounding the event they are involved in.

They arouse our curiosity. We hear about them and want to know more. What they have done or said stimulates conversations across the country. At times, there is even a mystery about them. What they have done may be unique, heroic, cowardly or ghastly, but they capture our imaginations. We want to know what makes them tick, why they believe what they do and why they did what they did. They intrigue us.