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Schiavo Case; Jessica Lunsford Case

Aired March 21, 2005 - 14:00   ET


JANET RENO, FMR. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I made the decision. I'm accountable. The buck stops with me.

PAULA ZAHN, "PAULA ZAHN NOW": Plainspoken and tough, Janet Reno became the first woman U.S. attorney general. A star of the Clinton cabinet, she had the president's confidence. And ultimately took responsibility and heat for the Elian Gonzalez case and the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas.

She was attorney general for eight years, earning a spot in pop culture by being impersonated on "Saturday Night Live." Reno even made a guest appearance when she left office.

RENO: I just dance. Now hit it!

ZAHN: Reno is now 66 years old and living in Miami. She's currently working on various legal issues and supports Everglades conservation. Despite dealing with Parkinson's Disease, she hasn't slowed down or lost her sense of humor.

RENO: You just get used to the phantom wing shaking.

ZAHN: Reno ran for Florida governor in 2002. She doesn't plan on running for public office again. She enjoys spending time with her nieces and nephews, and is an avid kayaker.

RENO: Time to smell the roses, to appreciate kayaking, to listen to a symphony, to spend time with the people I love. And it's a good way to live.


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We are one hour away from the courtroom showdown as Terri Schiavo's parents and her husband are all expected to appear in front of a judge. We are on the story.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Is she or isn't she in a permanent vegetative state? That's the question that's at the heart of the Schiavo case. Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta weighs in with the medical facts.

SARA DORSEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Sarah Dorsey in Inverness, Florida, where we are waiting for charges to be filed against the man the sheriff said confessed to killing Jessica Lunsford. I'll have a live report coming up.

PHILLIPS: From the CNN Center in Atlanta, I'm Kyra Phillips.

HARRIS: And I'm Tony Harris, in for Miles O'Brien. This hour of CNN's LIVE FROM starts right now.

It has tested the skills of lawyers, the patience of judges, the limits of federal authority and, most of all, the inner resolve of the parents, siblings and husband of Terri Schiavo. And one hour from now, the issue of Schiavo's nutrition and hydration, her life and death, a years' long debate, will land in a federal court in Tampa which the U.S. Congress specifically authorized to intervene.

Our coverage begins in the nearby community of Pinellas Park, site of Terri Schiavo's hospice, and CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Later this afternoon, a federal judge in Florida will be hearing the issue of whether or not food and hydration should continue to be withheld from Terri Schiavo. Schiavo's been in a vegetative state for 15 years, ever since she had a lack of oxygen to the brain. And her husband says she wouldn't want to be kept alive on artificial life support, and so Friday afternoon, a feeding tube was removed.

However, her parents say that the feeding tube should be put back in. And after intervention from Congress and from President Bush, this federal judge will be hearing the case.

Now, there's a very basic dispute between the husband and the parents. The husband, Michael Schiavo, says that his wife is unable to respond to anything around her, that she is unable to feel emotion or feel pain or think the way that people think. However, the parents have said that she is able to show emotion and to respond to the world around her. They say that they -- that actually, they have seen her smile at them at times, and they want the feeding tube put back in.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Pinellas Park, Florida.


HARRIS: And if you've been with us for the past few minutes, you heard President Bush talk about the legislation he signed a little more than 12 hours ago after a momentous day in Congress.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A couple of issues I do want to talk about. Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together last night to give Terri Schiavo's parents another opportunity to save their daughter's life.


This is a complex case with serious issues. But in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life. (END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: At the heart of the Terri Schiavo case is a simple question with apparently no simple answer. Is she in a persistent or permanent vegetative state or not? Both sides have offered conflicting opinions by doctors as evidence. Earlier, I talked to CNN senior medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


PHILLIPS: What do we know at this moment? I mean, the last piece of videotape we saw was 2001. We haven't seen any medical reports, we haven't had a chance to interview any doctors. What do we know?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: And our frustration is the same that a lot of other people are feeling as well. First of all, a couple of things.

Everyone uses the term "persistent vegetative state," which is a pretty specific clinical thing here. You're talking about someone who is in a state of wakeful unawareness. Even the term itself is difficult to get your arms around.

You may open your eyes when you're awake, you may close your eyes when you're asleep. You may respond to certain touch, temperature. You may turn your head at the sound of a loud noise.

That, to a lot of people, means that they're aware of their surroundings. But if someone is truly in a persistent vegetative state, they're not.

Now, as far as what we know for sure, it's hard to know. A lot of people have based their testimony on looking at videotapes. Most doctors will tell you it's very hard to examine a patient just by videotape alone. You'd really like to be there, actually examining the patient one on one.

And five court-appointed neurologists that actually saw here -- these are neurologists, this is what they do for a living -- three of them said, yes, she's in a persistent vegetative state. Two said they could not say that for sure. So even they are having a hard time parsing this down a bit.

PHILLIPS: We've been hearing members of Congress come forward and say, look, I know that when people walk into the room she responds, when people leave, she cries. Other people are saying, you have no proof of that, that's absolutely ridiculous.

What do we know? There are so many members of Congress saying so many things, but where are the hard facts? And medically, do we know for sure right now at this moment that she's able to respond or has the chance to communicate like you and I do?

GUPTA: I certainly don't. I have not examined her. I've seen the same tapes that everyone else has. I will tell you this. Again, someone who's in a persistent vegetative state can smile. They can grimace, they may make noise, all those sorts of things. But is it in response to anything? Are they actually understanding? No.

If you're in a persistent vegetative state, you're not understanding. There's no higher brain function per se.

It was really interesting. I was listening to the father last night after the bill was passed. And he said, "I told Terri, and she gave me a big smile."

Now, that's very unusual, I mean, that she would actually smile in response to something like that. Unless it was just a reflex and she happened to smile at the same time.

I don't know the answer to that. And I think the problem here -- and you're hitting on it -- is most doctors don't know the answer either. Until you actually examine her yourself -- and as part of this bill, you know, there should be new doctors examining her again. So you'd have updated information.

PHILLIPS: Why isn't that happening? Why aren't we hearing from doctors? Why aren't doctors going in and examine her? Because wouldn't that help this case?

GUPTA: Part of the problem, I think -- and this is from talking to a lot of people -- is that the Schindler family has been -- has felt that the doctors have been too divided on this issue. They have not been able to come to a conclusion, so it's not been helpful.

Remember, there's not a specific brain scan or a specific blood test or a specific test like that that you can say for sure that someone's in a persistent vegetative state. It is a clinical diagnosis. And by virtue of that, even though it is a specific diagnosis, it's still open to some interpretation, some subjectivity.

PHILLIPS: How many people have you seen after 15 years come out of a vegetative state?

GUPTA: I'm a neurosurgeon, and when you talk about this -- and I actually did a literature search to make sure I wasn't missing anything. But when someone goes from a persistent vegetative state to a permanent vegetative state, which happens at about a year, one year goes by and no recovery is made, I've never seen someone recover from that. And there's been no documented cases that I could find in the literature of anyone coming out of a permanent vegetative state in terms of making gains neurologically.

PHILLIPS: Sanjay Gupta, thanks.

GUPTA: Thank you.


HARRIS: And the Vatican is weighing in on the Schiavo case. Today its newspaper questioned why anyone should be given the right to decide when nourishment and medical treatment should be withheld. The paper said, "Who can judge the dignity and sacredness of the life of a human being made in the image and likeness of god? Who can decide to pull the plug as if we were talking about a broken or out of order household appliance?"

Well, a lot of folks are sending in their thoughts about the Terri Schiavo case. We want to know what you think. E-mail us at, and we'll read some of those responses in about 30 minutes.

PHILLIPS: Well, last night Congress made history by taking on the Schiavo case.


REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: If we do not act, she will die of thirst.


PHILLIPS: But would the framers of the Constitution approve? We'll talk about the new fight that surrounds the fight that surrounds Terri Schiavo.

He's already got a lengthy rap sheet. More charges are expected today. We're live with new details of what could be John Couey's most heinous crime.

We're back after a quick break.


PHILLIPS: More details are emerging about the death of Jessica Marie Lunsford. Police say the man accused of sexually assaulting and killing the 9-year-old was in a drug-induced haze.

John Evander Couey could be charged today in connection with the girl's death. A Florida sheriff is calling on prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Lunsford's father has said that he'd like to mete out a little justice of his own.

Sara Dorsey is in Homosassa Springs, Florida, with more -- Sara.

SARA DORSEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, the Citrus County sheriff, Jeff Dawsy, is meeting with state's attorneys today to talk about murder charges against John Couey. Now, Couey is the man the sheriff's office says confessed to killing Jessica Marie Lunsford.

We are told that those charges could be filed as early as this afternoon. And as you said, the sheriff has already told us he's seeking the death penalty.

As for Couey, he appeared on a first appearance on unrelated charges on Sunday. He's being held without bond for failure to comply with a sex offender reporting and also a probation violation. Couey is being housed away from the general population, we are told. That is for his own safety because of the attention this case is getting.

Charlie Crist, the Florida attorney general, spoke out today, saying stricter laws should be in place against sexual predators.


CHARLIE CRIST, FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL: The best thing that can be done is more oversight by more incarceration. What we need to do, if he had gone, when he violated his probation back in August of 2004 before a judge, who would have had to say, you know, you've got to go back to jail, he wouldn't have been in that neighborhood at all.

He wouldn't have been in that neighborhood at all. He wouldn't have been able to commit the crime. He'd have been in jail if the judge had concluded that he was a threat to society, which probably he would have.


DORSEY: CNN has also learned some new disturbing details about the events surrounding this case. Investigators tell us John Couey walked into the Lunsford home the night of February 23, made his way into Jessica's bedroom, put his hand over her mouth, and told her to be quiet before forcing her out of the home.

The sheriff says the medical examiner has evidence that a sexual assault occurred, and investigators say Couey might have held Jessica captive more than a day, possibly even two. But because of Couey's drug-haze investigators say, "his timelines were all over the place."

The question now is was anyone else in that house when Jessica was there? That question still remains unanswered, but we can tell you three people have been charged with obstruction of justice in this case. The sheriff says all were told by Couey himself that investigators were looking for him, and none called authorities.

The Lunsford family is spending the day making funeral arrangements for 9-year-old Jessica. The medical examiner said today they plan on releasing her remains back to the family within the next 24 hours, but final autopsy results and the official cause of death are still pending -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Sara, do we know if John Couey had a probation officer or anybody he was supposed to be checking in with to let them know his whereabouts, specifically because he was a convicted sex offender?

DORSEY: Well, because he is a convicted sex offender, he is supposed to always, for the rest of his life, register with someone each time he moves. He did not do that. And that is what alerted police to him in the first place.

They put out a dragnet of all the sex offenders in the area. He was not living where he was supposed to. That's when they went to question him, and that's kind of when this whole thing started snowballing and when he became a person of interest.

PHILLIPS: Sara Dorsey, thank you so much.

And CNN is taking an in-depth look at "Protecting America's Children." Our Aaron Brown focuses on the problem of child exploitation and what can be done to keep your kids safe. That special edition of "NEWSNIGHT" begins at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific.

HARRIS: And we're less than an hour away from a hearing in federal district court in Tampa, the latest battleground in the Terri Schiavo case. We began talking in our last hour with criminal defense attorney David Oblon. He rejoins us now from Washington.

And David, let's sort of recap just a little bit and then move the discussion forward if we can. What's the constitutional issue that this federal court will ultimately have to decide?

DAVID OBLON, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The ultimate decision is, who speaks for Terri Schiavo, the husband or the parents? The state court has already determined that it's the husband. But now that we have a start-over again, a do-over, so to speak, in the federal courts, this is something that can be relitigated.

HARRIS: So David, where do you stand on this question of whether or not the Congress overreached in this matter?

OBLON: Oh, Congress certainly overreached. They took a private controversy and an area that is typically not brought out into the federal system. And after the case has already been reviewed as high as the United States Supreme Court, to take it back and start all over again in the federal system as if everything in the state never happened, that's pretty extraordinary.

HARRIS: OK. So is there anything to suggest that the federal court system wants anything to do with this case at all? They've had opportunities.

OBLON: I know a lot of federal judges, and I have no doubt that they don't want cases like this in their system. They didn't have lots of opportunities. The only federal touch that we had was the Supreme Court when they denied a writ of certiorari, which they do in most cases that are presented to them.

But this is a state case. It's based on a state law. And it proceed through the state.

It is very surprising that Congress would go in and call a do- over and bring it back into federal court. But as President Bush said, death is different. And when in doubt, err on the side of life. That's what they did.

HARRIS: OK. Yes, let's move this forward, if we can. We're about I guess 45 minutes from this hearing in Tampa. What do you expect to happen? OBLON: I expect that the parents have asked for an injunction, which means they will be directing -- the federal court be directing the hospital to reinsert the tube on a temporary basis while they duke this out on legal issues in court. And I expect that the judge is going to grant that injunction, because if she dies while he's thinking about it, then obviously everything becomes moot. And so it's an easier decision for the judge to weigh the irreparable harm that would occur with death and allow the tube to be reinserted.

HARRIS: Right. Right. OK. Flip that around. If you're Michael Schiavo, what are you going to argue today?

OBLON: If you're Michael Schiavo, you'll argue that there is no possibility of prevailing in court, that this law is unconstitutional, that...

HARRIS: Unconstitutional, yes.

OBLON: Unconstitutional, that the courts will -- that higher federal courts will sustain the unconstitutionality of his objection. And as a result, there's no chance for them to win. If there's no chance for them to win, then you don't grant a temporary injunction.

HARRIS: David Oblon, appreciate it. Thank you, sir.

OBLON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thanks for taking the time.

And still ahead, he was late, but he got there. Michael Jackson is back in court today, looking kind of B-A-D. We're live from the courthouse with the very latest after a break.




PHILLIPS: Well, it's not just motorists feeling the pain. Higher energy costs are hurting other travelers as well. Valerie Morris joins us live from the New York Stock Exchange for that report.



HARRIS: Headlines "Now in the News," Israel hands over a second West Bank town to the Palestinians. The two sides today reached a deal over Tulkaram. However, Palestinians are outraged over Israel's plan to expand a settlement elsewhere in the West Bank.

Overhauling the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposes a larger Security Council and changes for dealing with human rights and terrorism. Annan says reforms are needed to tackle new global threats. World leaders will vote on them in September. Clearing the way for a trial in the 9/11 attacks. The Supreme Court rejects an appeal by terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui. He is charged with conspiracy, an acknowledged al Qaeda loyalist. Moussaoui has denied any role in the attacks on Washington and New York.

Among those hearing other cases at the Supreme Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He returned to the bench today for the first time since he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October.


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