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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

"Justice for Trayvon"; Houston Autopsy: Cocaine a "Factor"; Kim Kardashian Hit In Powder Attack; Interview With Chris Smith

Aired March 23, 2012 - 05:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning and welcome to Friday's EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

So, here are your top stories.

BANFIELD: And we begin with that shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. It sparked demonstrations all the way from California to Charlotte. All of this as the police chief in that slain teenager's hometown is stepping down temporarily in the face of the mounting criticism.

SAMBOLIN: Whitney Houston's cause of death revealed in a brand new autopsy report. The report finds Houston died of accidental drowning but cocaine was a factor, and it wasn't the only drug in her system.

BANFIELD: Charges could come today. The U.S. military about to begin the long process of prosecuting Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales who's accused in that massacre of Afghan civilians. He's expected to be charged with 17 counts of murder.

SAMBOLIN: An explosion at a silicon factory in Portland, Oregon, sends at least two people to the hospital. The fire was reportedly sparked by a chemical used to make silicon. Hazmat crews were called to the scene there.

BANFIELD: And Rick Santorum slamming Mitt Romney and raising a lot of Republican eyebrows while doing it with how he did it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk at what may be the Etch a Sketch candidate for the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: What we have? Stay with what we have? Really?

The fallout from a Republican candidate putting the president before his party.

SAMBOLIN: And up first, cries of justice for Trayvon Martin ringing out from coast to coast. There were protests in at least 10 cities yesterday, and this case has touched a lot of nerves. The anger triggering rallies from Los Angeles to Charlotte, North Carolina. Protesters demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman. That is a neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed the unarmed Florida teenager.

About 8,000 people gathered in Sanford, Florida, last night. That was not far from where Trayvon was gunned down last month as he was walking home with candy and iced tea.

His parents spoke to the crowd there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SYBRINA FULTON, TRAYVON MARTIN'S MOTHER: I stand before you today not knowing how I'm walking right now because my heart hurts for my son. Trayvon is my son. Trayvon is your son.

TRACY MARTIN, TRAYVON MARTIN'S FATHER: I'd just like to thank every one of you all for just showing us the love, the support, signing the petitions, and making sure that George Zimmerman pays for what he did to your son!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: And that rally taking place just hours after the city's police chief temporarily stepped down.

George Howell is live from Sanford, Florida, this morning.

What can you tell us about al of those protests? And also the sheriff stepping down?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the police chief certainly stepping down came as a surprise to the thousands of people who arrived here in Sanford. The police chief saying that his being in that position is coming as a distraction to the investigation. So that was a big deal for many people.

But they say that the police chief should either be fired or should resign. Many people were not satisfied with the wording that he's temporarily stepping down. Just before the rally, we also learned that the family, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, got to meet with members of the Department of Justice to start talking about this case. And we understand that the word was patience, to be patient as this investigation continues.

We also learned through the rally that a new special prosecutor has been assigned to this case. Angela Corey will take over investigating this case. She takes over from Norman Wolfinger whose district is in Sanford -- he says -- he represents Sanford, part of Sanford. He says he's stepping aside to avoid any conflicts of interest.

We heard from Corey about exactly how she plans to look into this case. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANGELA COREY: It requires a thorough investigation, extensive interviews of every witness, extensive review of all physical evidence, and then a determination of how we apply Florida's law to the facts of any case.

We don't worry about backlash from cases. What we worry about is seeking the truth. That's our mission.

That's the United States Supreme Court defined mission for prosecutors, is to seek the truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: So a lot happened yesterday. There were a lot of press conferences, a lot of news came out of that rally.

But as far as George Zimmerman, he has still not been seen. Zimmerman has not been charged with anything. And in fact, police say that they know where Zimmerman is if they have to reach him.

Again, a grand jury will convene on April 10th to decide whether Zimmerman could face charges in this case, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Hey, George, I have one other question for you. When we take a look at the crowds they look really large. There are conflicting reports as to how many people actually attended them.

Was it a crowd full of mostly young people or was it -- was it a mixed group?

HOWELL: You find all ages. You find many different colors. You find people there who really just had a problem with the way this case was investigated.

Many people saying, I am Trayvon Martin. People who are very upset about the way this case was investigated. They want to see George Zimmerman put behind bars.

SAMBOLIN: All right, George Howell live in Florida for us. Thank you very much.

And at 5:30 Eastern, we'll be joined by Florida State Senator Chris Smith. He opposed Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law in 2005 and is now trying to get it amended.

BANFIELD: It is now five minutes past 5:00 on the East Coast. And she used cocaine until the very end. That's what we're learning with new details on Whitney Houston's death this morning.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of people hoping that that simply would not be the truth. A Los Angeles County corner's office coming out with the results of that autopsy. An accidental drowning, but it's what was found in her blood system that has many people talking this morning.

Alina Cho is joining us now with the very latest.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You took the words right out of my mouth. I think a lot of people when they first saw this had said, oh, goodness.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

CHO: We had hoped there would not be drugs found in her system. But that was not the case.

Good morning.

This report is answering a lot of questions about Whitney Houston's death and the last moments of her life. You'll remember that Houston died on February 11th, the night before the Grammy Awards. She was found dead in the bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

Now, according to the coroner's report, the cause of death is drowning, but it also says that heart disease and cocaine use played a role. In addition, blood tests showed the presence of marijuana, Xanax, a muscle relaxant called Flexeril, and Benadryl.

At a news conference yesterday, a spokesman for the coroner's office talked about all of the drugs found in her system.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG HARVEY, CHIEF CORONER: Those drugs were all at the therapeutic or sub-therapeutic level. They're not considered to be related to the actual cause of death. Cocaine use indicated an acute use, and it appeared that the cocaine had been used in the time period just probably immediately prior to her collapse in the bathtub at the hotel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Unbelievable.

SAMBOLIN: Tough for the family to hear, I would imagine.

What does that report say about heart disease?

CHO: Right. I think a lot of questions were raised when we saw that on the report. It's called atherosclerosis, and what this is, medical term obviously, but what it means is that it was a narrowing of the arteries around the heart.

Now, in Houston's case, pretty serious, about 60 percent narrowed. That, of course, obstructs the flow of blood. Now, combine that with cocaine use and the results obviously can be deadly.

Last night on "ANDERSON COOPER 360," Dr. Sanjay Gupta explained just how cocaine can damage the heart.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You get this huge adrenaline surge. You also get this reaction where your blood vessels spasm, so instead of allowing blood to sort of flow through normally, the blood vessels that go to the heart, it's spasming and therefore the heart itself is not getting enough blood.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So, Alina, obviously the family had intimated before that drugs were the bane of this woman's existence. Are they talking about this now?

CHO: They are -- released a very short statement. The family, we should mention, was warned about what was going to be released in the report before it was taken out to the public.

Whitney's sister-in-law and former manager, Patricia Houston, did issue a short statement saying, quote, "We are saddened to learn of the toxicology results although we are glad to now have closure."

But you look at not just the cocaine but all of the other drugs that were in her system. I was speaking to a doctor last night. He said to me, you know, that's a lot to have in one woman's body.

We should also mention that the final coroner's report will be out within the next two weeks. That will be the next step in this case. And then at that point, the 911 calls will be released as well.

BANFIELD: What can of worms does this open up? How did she get the cocaine? Because Whitney Houston doesn't walk out on the street and get cocaine.

CHO: That's right. And a lot of people aren't sure, of course.

SAMBOLIN: We're also going to talk a little bit more about that medical component with Elizabeth Cohen coming up a little bit later, because it's really interest, is it?

BANFIELD: It is. And a lot of people want to know how long -- I mean, if this was heart disease, how long. We were talking about that just a minute ago. And so, sure, Elizabeth can hopefully shed some light on that.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you. Appreciate it.

BANFIELD: Nine minutes now past 5:00 on the East Coast.

Military prosecutors expected to announce those formal charges today against Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. You know that now he's facing 17 counts of murder in an Afghan shooting rampage. That's one more count than previously had been anticipated because up until now the death toll had been 16.

His attorney, John Henry Browne, believes proving the case against his client will be extremely difficult.

Legal experts say the quick burial of the victims in accordance with Islamic law could present a lot of forensic problems for the prosecution.

Browne suggests that his client suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. And last night, a former Army captain said the ticking time bomb is an outdated military stereotype.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL BREEN, FORMER ARMY CAPTAIN: There's no evidence that says that PTSD or TBI makes someone inclined certainly not a ticking time bomb but incline someone toward violence. This is one incident among millions who have served, among about a million who have served in these current conflicts, you know, if this were a civilian serial killer in a civilian situation, we wouldn't be asking these questions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: There are also charges this morning that before joining the military, Bales allegedly engaged in securities fraud while working as a financial advisor. According to financial records, he left for war without paying a $1.5 million judgment for defrauding an elderly client in a stock scheme.

SAMBOLIN: Wow.

Eleven minutes past the hour here. Just in, the latest gas prices. Do you think they're up or down?

BANFIELD: I'll bet they're up.

SAMBOLIN: The national average rising, yes, indeed, to $3.89 a gallon.

BANFIELD: It's just not fair.

SAMBOLIN: It's not fair. But --

BANFIELD: Well, you know what, again, it's up eight tenths of a cent.

SAMBOLIN: That's better than 2 cents or 3 cents.

BANFIELD: We had almost 2 cent rises.

SAMBOLIN: Good news, folks.

BANFIELD: There. It's Friday.

SAMBOLIN: We can spin this anyway.

So, we are minding your business this morning. It was another tough day for the markets on Thursday. The stocks posted modest losses because of concerns about the global economy. And this on news that manufacturing in China and Germany is slowing.

BANFIELD: Let's bring in Patricia Wu. She's watching mortgage rate, making a surprise move upward.

It's nice to see you stepping in for Christine.

PATRICIA WU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good to see you, too.

BANFIELD: Why are you coming in with this news?

WU: I know, you think it's bad. But let me finish, it could be good at the end.

SAMBOLIN: Let her finish.

WU: The 30-year fixed rate, yes, it has topped 4 percent. It's at 4.08 percent. But as I was saying, that's not necessarily bad news because it's a sign that the economy is improving. It means that people are feeling more confident, so you'll se increased demand for loans, mortgages, consumer loans, and that's what drives the rates up.

And to give you a little bit of perspective, yes, just two weeks ago, we hit the record lows at 3.13 percent. So we're used to those lows, but to give you a little perspective. In 2006, right before the housing bust, you were looking at 6.4 percent on the 30-year fixed.

So, guys --

BANFIELD: I'm doing the math though. That's a pretty big jump, isn't it? For the first jump, isn't that kind of a big one? Well, I don't know anything about it.

WU: It's about 10 bucks a month on a $100,000 mortgage.

BANFIELD: All right.

WU: But the good news is, this could actually spur those home buyers who have been on the fence like looking at it. It's all psychological. When prices are falling, interest rates are low -- ooh, you're thinking is it going to get any lower?

BANFIELD: Yes.

WU: But when you see that first jump, like your reaction, Ashleigh, oh, it's a big one. You're think, oh, I better jump on that house I've been eyeing before rates get any higher. So, that could get people buying which could help us pare down that glut of inventory of homes.

You know, we saw 11 months during the peak of the recession. We're now at about a six-month supply. And you definitely want to get that supply down so you can keep the firm price -- the home prices firming up instead of falling.

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: The problem is qualifying also, though, right? In this kind of economy, it's still difficult.

WU: It doesn't affect the standards. It's still tight but --

BANFIELD: I call it the technical business term for this is lighting the fire under your butt.

WU: Exactly. Kicking the butt.

BANFIELD: There you go. Patricia Wu, nice to see you.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

WU: Thanks.

BANFIELD: And Bonnie Schneider is doing the duty this morning for Rob Marciano. She's stepping in.

Hello there.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Ashleigh and Zoraida.

We're looking at some rain coming across the Southeast. But this is actually good news. Everybody wants relief from the pollen, so the rain coming in will make a difference. It'll help wash out the air and give us some better air quality.

Also, some rain moving into St. Louis this morning. Nothing too heavy. Lighter showers over Chicago. Chicago's really seen some incredible weather. Nine days in a row of record highs. Nine days.

And as you can see, yesterday was no exception, all the way into the 80s for much of parts of the Midwest and Columbus, Cleveland, even into Delaware and Central Park hit a record high of 78 degrees. That's not at all feeling like March weather.

On the big picture of today's forecast, we still have mild conditions. But notice the front pulling up that moisture from the Gulf. That will trigger showers and thunderstorms across places in the mid-South and Southeast. So, if you're traveling, watch out for delays. But it will usher in some cooler air for the upcoming weekend.

Here's a look at your airport delays, Chicago showers. Actually, I think today will be the first day in nine days you won't break a record. We're also looking at delays in Philadelphia due to fog. Across the South and Midwest, you do fog and possibly thunderstorms.

Back to you.

BANFIELD: Thanks, Bonnie.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

SAMBOLIN: And still ahead, a mystery solved. What made a Wisconsin town go boom in the night? We finally have some answers.

And extreme road rage ends with a pedestrian pinned between a car and a wall after a brawl.

BANFIELD: Amazing.

And Kim Kardashian, usually in the news for glamour and stuff. This time, though, flour-bombed. Look at that picture. You don't want that on the -- who wore it best list.

The authorities had to be called in on this one too. We'll explain what happened and how it was resolved.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Hi and good morning, Atlanta. A lovely tower cam shot of your fine city at 66 degrees.

SAMBOLIN: Your fine city. I like that.

BANFIELD: I do like Atlanta. I'll you what -- 66 ain't bad. It ain't half bad at 20 past 5:00 Eastern Time. But you are going to get some thunderstorms.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: And 77 degrees a little later on today. So there's that.

SAMBOLIN: Still a beautiful town.

All right. Time to check the stories that are making news this morning. About 8,000 people took to the streets of Sanford, Florida, last night. Take a look at that. Doesn't that look like more than 8,000 people?

They're demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. They want the neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed the unarmed teenager arrested.

Earlier yesterday, the beleaguered chief of police in Sanford stepped down temporarily, he says. The governor appointed a new state attorney to handle the investigation now.

BANFIELD: Newly released toxicology reports reveal that cocaine did play a factor in Whitney Houston's death, although coroners say Houston ultimately died from drowning in the bathtub. Marijuana, Xanax, Benadryl also found in her system. But the coroner says those drugs did not play a role in her death.

SAMBOLIN: And look very closely at your screen here. See that black object in the sky? That is a Syrian military helicopter and there are little flickers coming from it.

It's firing allegedly at anti-government protesters on the ground. Some of those protesters are reportedly directors in the Syrian army. And if you look closely, you can actually see return fire.

The U.N. Security Council has called for an end of the bloodshed.

BANFIELD: Former Philadelphia Priest Edward Avery pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse. That plea coming days before Avery was to stand trial in a landmark case involving Monsignor William Lynn, the first U.S. Catholic church official charged with concealing priest sex abuse.

The 69-year-old Avery was immediately sentenced to two and a half to five years.

SAMBOLIN: Wild road rage and it was all caught on camera. Look at this. Two women. One's a driver, one's a pedestrian throwing down in a parking lot in California. The pedestrian you can see reaching into the van punching the driver repeatedly.

So, the driver runs the pedestrian down with her vehicle, pins her up against a wall. The pedestrian was treated for non-life threatening injuries. The driver was arrested.

BANFIELD: I should hope so. Lord.

I wonder if that's over a parking spot. You know how it often is.

SAMBOLIN: Wouldn't that be terrible?

BANFIELD: Yes, it always is. Any kind of road rage is terrible. But look at those pictures. They sure tell the story.

So, guys, check it out. Fans of "The Hunger Games", they've been ling up from coast to coast to catch the midnight showing of this highly, highly anticipated movie. It's the first adaptation of the wildly popular book trilogy by Suzanne Collins. "The Hunger Games" is expected to break box office records, like big time break them, for a March movie release. And there are some bleary eyes on staff today because of that midnight showing.

Also, for an expanded look at all of our top stories, you can just head to our blog. It's all there for you, folks, CNN.com/EarlyStart.

SAMBOLIN: It is 21 minutes past the hour.

We're getting an early read on your local news making national headlines. And this morning, we have stories from San Diego, from "The Tribune," New Jersey's "The Bergen Record," and to the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"

We're going to start at San Diego, "The Tribune" there. U.C. San Diego finds genes that are possibly linked to autism. They're saying that the problem begins during the second and third trimester of pregnancy.

Neuroscientists say many genes misfire and actually produce too many brain cells affecting a child's social and communication skills. The findings lend hope that eventually drugs could be engineered to help remodel the brain.

BANFIELD: I'm curious about that. In what respect? In utero or once that child is born that they can actually reprogram that child?

SAMBOLIN: I don't know. I would suspect that it's something that's going to happen in utero, right, because that's exactly where this is all occurring. They say that maybe now we explain how and when the dysfunction starts to occur.

So they're pinpointing it, I'm hoping.

BANFIELD: I think it affects people just outside of the spectrum, too, because there are so many ailments that kids are suffering that don't fall right into the spectrum but that are really troubling.

SAMBOLIN: On the verge. Yes.

BANFIELD: Yes, that's great news. Great news.

SAMBOLIN: Good to see.

BANFIELD: Here is something that we've been waiting for. Dharun Ravi spoke to a newspaper but now is speaking to ABC News. So we've got the newspaper report from "The Bergen Record," and he's talking about how he feels about the death of Tyler Clementi.

But here's the deal, he hasn't been sentenced yet, people, and he's talking at length. Is he trying to effectively change how he might be sentenced? Is he trying to maybe cast light on an opinion or a feeling to try to mitigate his sentencing?

Don't forget that Dharun Ravi was convicted across the board of all sorts of charges, but not necessarily the jumping off the bridge that killed Tyler Clementi.

SAMBOLIN: It's an unusual move, right?

BANFIELD: It's a very unusual move. And a lot of people say it is just not smart. You keep your mouth shut until sentencing. So, who knows how it's going to go?

I'll tell you what? My friend Chris Cuomo who I used to work with over at ABC News, sat down with Dharun Ravi. Here's what he had to say about what he thought Tyler Clementi felt about all of this web spying.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DHARUN RAVI, CONVICTED OF SPYING ON GAY ROOMMATE: After all this time and reading his conversations and how -- what was -- what he was doing before, I really don't think he cared at all. I feel like I was an insignificant part of his life. So that's given me comfort now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Well, we shall see because the sentencing is scheduled for May.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Our final story comes from the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel," We are switching gears here. You know, we've been talking for the last several days about things that go boom in the night in Clintonville. Apparently, the mystery has been solved. They're calling it a mini-quake, a 1.5 magnitude quake. This is from analyzing seismic data collective earlier in the week.

You know, originally, they said it was not an earthquake. This is confusing me. Geophysics professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wants residents to use Mac laptops and a free software program to help record anymore mini quakes.

BANFIELD: I'm glad there's an answer there, though, because it was really creepy.

SAMBOLIN: You know, I was talking conspiracy theory this morning because the first thing that I asked when I talked to them was, was it an earthquake? Did you check that out? They said definitely not an earthquake.

BANFIELD: At least they know.

It's 25 minutes now past 5:00.

And coming up on EARLY START, we're going to have more on the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. One of the state senators from Florida is going to join us. He is no fan of this law that might be protecting the person who shot Trayvon, the "Stand Your Ground" law. And he wants to have it changed.

SAMBOLIN: And a couple of clever gas thieves caught on tape though. How they got away with thousands of dollars worth of gas before getting caught.

You're watching EARLY START.

How clever are they?

BANFIELD: Is that an ice cream truck?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 29 minutes now past 5:00. And welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are happy you're with us this morning.

It's time to check the stories that are making news.

BANFIELD: Demonstrations in support of Trayvon Martin springing up in at least 10 cities across this country. With an estimation of about 8,000 people jamming the streets of Sanford, Florida, demanding justice for the teenager who was killed there.

Earlier yesterday, Sanford's embattled police chief, Bill Lee, stepped aside, temporarily though, while the governor appointed a brand new state attorney to investigate this case.

SAMBOLIN: And a brand new autopsy report reveals cocaine played a role in Whitney Houston's death. The autopsy concludes Houston officially died from drowning in a bathtub but says cocaine and heart disease were also factors.

BANFIELD: Gas thieves near Sacramento, California, were caught on tape doing something pretty clever, stealing thousands of dollars worth of fuel in an unusual way. Look at this. The surveillance tape tells the tale. That's the bred truck driving right over the tanks.

There's a whole in the bottom of the gas truck. And so what they did is they just went right through the hole in the bottom of the bred truck and pumped the gas right in. About a 1,000 gallon tank, too, in the back of their van. And one of the suspects was arrested. However, another one got away.

SAMBOLIN: Sheriff deputies and firefighters called to Kim Kardashian's perfume launch last night. The reality star was attacked. She was hit with a white powdery substance. Authorities say the powder was cooking flour. Take a look at her there. A female suspect was arrested.

BANFIELD: I wonder if they're worried about her testing on animals or something. Usually, there's some protest that goes along with that. It's not nice in any way.

SAMBOLIN: No, it's not.

BANFIELD: Let switch gears now at 30 minutes now past 5:00. Some very big developments in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. The governor of Florida has replaced the state attorney who was originally assigned to look at this case, and the Sanford Police chief has temporarily stepped aside. It doesn't seem to matter, though. The outrage continues to build. Demonstrations all over the country, in fact.

At least ten cities from New York to St. Louis to Miami. Look at your map. Tells the story. Students in Trayvon's hometown of Miami Gardens decided they would protest, too. They walked out of class to demand the arrest of George Zimmerman who's the neighborhood watch volunteer at the center of all of this. He shot Trayvon Martin, and he's being protected at this point by the stand your ground law in that state. Last night, thousands attended a rally in Sanford where that 17-year0old was killed. Trayvon's parents were there and had a very emotional message.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SYBRINA FULTON, TRAYVON MARTIN'S MOTHER: I stand before you today not knowing how I'm walking right now because my heart hurts for my son. Trayvon is my son. Trayvon is your son.

TRACY MARTIN, TRAYVON MARTIN'S FATHER: Just like to thank every one of you all for just showing us the love, the support, signing the petitions and making sure that George Zimmerman pays for what he did to your son!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BANFIELD: Well, there are these demands, can't be forgotten that there was a law in place that, so far, has shielded Zimmerman from prosecution, but it is now under scrutiny. Florida State senator, Chris Smith, is pushing for changes to the stand your ground law, and he joins me live now from Davie, Florida. Senator Smith, thanks for being with us. Let me get right to it.

CHRIS SMITH, FLORIDA STATE SENATE: Yes, ma'am.

First off, a change in so many of the top leaders who are supposed to be looking into this case not to suggest you in politics would know, but I have to ask you. The police chief has stepped aside. The state attorney has been replaced. Why is all of this happening? And is politics playing more a part of this than investigation?

SMITH: Definitely. And by the way, good morning. Back in 2005, we foretold that this would happen while we debated this law and a lot of us voted against it. We told them that this is the type of situation that would happen. They turned a blind eye to it, but now, that America's looking at Florida, now people are starting to react and starting to really recognize what we were saying back in 2005 in the Florida house.

BANFIELD: OK. Well, I am no lawyer, however, I have poured over parts of the statute in your state, and as it appears to me, there is an exception to the stand your ground rule for the first aggressor. So, it means, basically, for anybody listening, if I'm the first aggressor and I don't like how things turn out, I don't get the protection of the stand your ground law.

So, what kind of changes are you proposing? And why isn't that exception good enough?

SMITH: Well, because you can still be a pursuer. Yesterday, in Miami, a case that's not getting a lot of attention, a judge threw out a case in which a gentleman saw someone trying to steal his car. He ran outside. When the thief ran, he pursued that guy for a mile -- I mean for a block and then stabbed him to death.

And the judge cited this law, because it's a non-rebuttable presumption had to release the gentleman, even after he pursued someone for a mile. And the first aggressor that you mentioned, that is not really being recognized in the Florida courts. The courts have routinely thrown out these cases.

And as you see from the last couple of years, the number of justifiable homicides has gone up three fold since passing this law. So even aggressors are availing themselves of this law as you see with Mr. Zimmerman right now.

BANFIELD: Well, let me throw out some of those stats since you touched on one of them, and that's three times now the justifiable homicide numbers have gone up. It appears that there have been about 130 cases brought under the stand your ground law since it was established back in 2005. Of that, 50 of the cases resulted in no charges at all. Twenty-eight prosecutions resulted, and of those 28 prosecutions, 19 convictions.

To do the math, you go from 130 cases yielding only 19 convictions. I don't have the statistic in place that would be the alternative if that stand your ground statute wasn't in place, but my thought is that it would probably be significantly higher. So, the question is, do you have a lot of dangerous people roaming your streets because of this?

SMITH: Yes, and especially the publicity off of this case. More and more people are hearing what about happened. And if nothing happens to Mr. Zimmerman, imagine what you're going to have in Florida. You're going to have a lot of homeowners association activists now arming themselves and seeing that, hey, I can avail myself of this law.

And in fact, Florida, a lot of our economy is based on tourism. If I'm a tourist outside of the state, I'm thinking if I go to Florida and I get into an altercation at a gas station in Orlando, am I, you know, going to be shot because Florida has this archaic law that allows gun fights in the street. If you look at other stats, you'll see gang violence.

People have used this in gang violence. In Tallahassee, a state capitol in 2008, there was a gang shooting in the streets of Tallahassee. And Willie Migs (ph), the state attorney, could not prosecute gang members, because they availed themselves of this law. We basically sanction gun fighting.

BANFIELD: So, let's you and me talk law for a second. Let's you and me talk law as it stands now. The law as it stands now, and you're a man who works law every day.

SMITH: Yes.

BANFIELD: Knowing what we know in this case so far, and it ain't much, do you believe that George Zimmerman needs to be charged or do you believe that everyone is jumping on a bandwagon way too fast before they know the facts under the current law?

SMITH: Well, I believe that he should be charged. At worst, what we have is an ambiguity in the law and his actions. And because of that, I think he should at least have to face his peers, say a jury. What I mentioned earlier about the non-rebuttable presumption that the stand your ground law has created, that's what they're standing behind in not arresting him, that he has a presumption that you did right.

But as you would see in the facts of this case as we know them, we're not investigators, at least, our peers should be able to sit there and look at a totality of the phone calls and everything and then decide. But because of this law, they're availing themselves that he has a non-rebuttable presumption that he was correct.

BANFIELD: And hopefully, as the facts begin to roll in, we will, at least, have some sunshine shed on them so that we'll be able to broadcast those and let people know all the way along this process what's happening. Senator Smith, it's good of you to get up with us this morning. Thanks.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.

SAMBOLIN: You know, I was really worried about violent crime in Florida. So, I looked at the stats, and actually, it's dropped. Violent crime in Florida has dropped by nearly seven percent in 2009 and 2010, because I worried about that, right? If people can carry guns, right?

BANFIELD: Yes. I wonder how that extrapolates --

SAMBOLIN: I don't know.

BANFIELD: Is that an abomination or is it an aberration or --

SAMBOLIN: Yes. But as you look specifically at Florida here and this case.

Thirty seven minutes past the hour here. Ahead on EARLY START, Rick Santorum is making headlines. He suggests if Mitt Romney gets the nomination, we're better off with President Obama.

BANFIELD: What?

SAMBOLIN: And a TV news reporter threatened -- we're going to talk about that a lot coming up. TV news reporter threatened on camera with a gun. Want to hear more about that? Stay tuned. You're watching EARLY START.

BANFIELD: Yikes!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Forty-one minutes past the hour. Good morning to you, New Orleans. Look at that lightening. Seventy degrees now, 80 degrees later, but lots of thunderstorms. Kind of makes you want to stay in bed, and perhaps, have a sick day today.

Welcome back. A child's play toy is now taking over the narrative in the race for the Republican nomination. It is the eve of the Louisiana primary, and Romney is getting attacked relentlessly for that Etch-A-Sketch remark made on CNN by his communications director. His rivals, raging Rick Santorum, with this eye opening remark while waging the Etch-A-Sketch warfare.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch-A- Sketch candidate for the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser is live in Washington this morning. So, Paul, we're going to start here with a little bit more sound, I believe. Do we have that ready on exactly what it was that Santorum said? He talked a little bit more. I want you to listen to this and then we're going to chat about it.

Oh, we don't have it. OK. So, let's talk about the fact that he said that, perhaps, Obama was a better option than Mitt Romney. How do you think that's going to fare as he heads into the primary?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: That comment which happened yesterday afternoon is definitely raising a lot of eyebrows on the Republican side a some pushback from the other campaigns, because that's almost, I guess, you could say heresy (ph) if that's truly what Rick Santorum was saying.

We've reached out to the Santorum campaign, Zoraida, and said, please, tell us, clarify for us what exactly he's saying. Here's what the rivalries are saying. Take a listen to Newt Gingrich first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is no doubt in my mind that if the choice were Governor Romney or Barack Obama, we will have no choice. Barack Obama's re-election will be a disaster for the United States, and we have an obligation.

(APPLAUSE)

STEINHAUSER: And Mitt Romney, himself, put out a statement yesterday as well saying this, "I was disappointed to hear that Rick Santorum would have rather had Barack Obama as president than a Republican." So, yes, a lot of push back from Romney, a lot of push back from Gingrich on this comment. It's definitely buzzing online as well.

You know, Zoraida, at the end of the day, regardless of who the nominee is, Republicans needs to coalesce around that person to try to beat Barack Obama come November. So, if that's what Santorum is really insinuating as he still fights on for the nomination, interesting words, no doubt about it.

SAMBOLIN: Well, let's talk about this fight, right, because he's headed to Louisiana. He's expected to win there. Do you think it will have an affect on that?

STEINHAUSER: It might. It might. Listen, anything that happens nowadays, the Etch-A-Sketch comment, as you mentioned --

SAMBOLIN: Crazy.

STEINHAUSER: -- from a top Romney -- yes. Everything nowadays goes viral online on the social networks as quick as possibly. So, any little thing could happen. As for Louisiana, yes, tomorrow, a southern state, a more conservative state where Rick Santorum, according to the polls, is supposed to be the favorite here. So, this really, you know, we talk about these must-win states.

This is a must-win for Rick Santorum if he has any prayer to try to win this nomination. And for Newt Gingrich, if he doesn't do well in Louisiana, does he finally drop out? He didn't do well in Mississippi and Alabama, and he didn't drop out. Stay tuned.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Paul Steinhauser, thank you very much. Ashleigh, back to you.

BANFIELD: All right. Thank you, Zoraida.

And still ahead at 5:44 eastern time, how about this, you're a TV news reporter on camera looking into a murder investigation and, shazam, a guy pulls a gun on you on camera. You're going to see it in just a moment.

And, first, they zipped each other up, checked their lipstick, and then went and fought a fire. This is no joke.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Honestly, this is not a joke. Firefighters in gowns at work. Hard at work. What is this about? You'll find out in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 48 minutes past the hour. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: Hi, good morning. I'm Ashleigh Banfield, and here are the stories that are making headlines this morning at 48 minutes past.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (voice-over): Demonstrations in ten cities across the country in support of Trayvon Martin. About 8,000 protesters at last count hitting the streets last night in Sanford, Florida, not far from where that unarmed teenager was shot and killed last month by a neighborhood watch captain. Earlier yesterday, Sanford's police chief, Bill Lee, stepped down temporarily while the governor decided to appoint a brand new state attorney to investigate this case.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): A new official report reveals cocaine was a factor in the death of Whitney Houston. A Los Angeles coroner says Houston drowned in the bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but heart disease and cocaine played a role.

BANFIELD: Mississippi's attorney general is not backing down. He's again asking the state Supreme Court to overturn 200 pardons that were issued by former governor, Haley Barbour. He's arguing that that case needs to be reopened because of the, quote, "private personal rights," end quote, of the victims.

He says they were violated by these pardons. Attorney General Jim Hood claims it's a violation of Mississippi's crime victim's bill of rights.

SAMBOLIN: A reporter in Arkansas, look at this, has a gun pulled on her while covering a story about a local man's death.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were just trying to find out what was going on. That's all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody's fine. (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look, you can't touch the camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You really --

SAMBOLIN: So look at that. After the man --

BANFIELD: Oh, my Lord.

SAMBOLIN: -- pulled the gun, WREG's April Thompson (ph) and her cameraman sought cover in their news truck. No one was hurt. The man fled from the scene. Police are still trying to track him down and issued a warrant for felony aggravated assault.

BANFIELD: That is not a good scene.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (on-camera): But there is the evidence, though.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): Yes.

BANFIELD: If they do end up in court.

SAMBOLIN: Keep the camera rolling.

BANFIELD: Fifty minutes now past 5:00 a.m. on the east coast. Are you ready for this, a Boston cat surviving a fall and not just any fall. Sugar fell 19 stories. Sugar the cat.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my gosh!

BANFIELD: Nineteen.

SAMBOLIN: Puts that in perspective, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Doesn't it? The owner opened a window of her apartment to let the cat get some fresh air while she was at work. Brittany Kurk (ph) she probably regrets that, because she received a phone call from the Animal Rescue League of Boston saying they had Sugar.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my gosh.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cats were able to relax, orient themselves so they actually sort of in a flying squirrel position with the legs spread out, slowed their descent down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: It is very odd, but, 90 percent of cats usually survive these kinds of falls. The animal rescue league is trying to remind pet owners today and every day, make sure that you have screens on your windows because not everybody's as lucky as Sugar.

SAMBOLIN: Well, and this time of year, a lot of children also take those falls.

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: So, that's another good reminder because they don't survive the falls.

BANFIELD: And not just screens on your windows. If you have kids, you got to have those bars if you're up high.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: Coming up next on EARLY START, when duty called, these hero firefighters answered the call in drag.

SAMBOLIN: Going to be the best video of the day.

BANFIELD: Why are they in drag fighting a fire? We'll tell you. It's all coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: All right. We are keeping you in pop culture loop this morning by taking a look at what's trending on the web and in social media, on Yahoo! This is a cookie (ph) one. An elementary school in North Carolina is under fire for its Black History Month Letter to parents. So, if I asked you to wear your best African- American attire, what would you wear?

BANFIELD: This is it, I think.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you very much. Yes. Yes. So, this is what students were told, that they could wear that or they could wear animal print clothing or shirts with animals native to Africa, zebras, giraffes, lions, elephants, etc. The school is responding saying, "while it was well-intended, it was poorly worded."

BANFIELD: I think they should have put African-American, maybe just African attire.

SAMBOLIN: Of course. Yes. I asked the question this morning to some of the ladies who work here who are African-American, and they were puzzled. Like, what are you asking me?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: All right. So, here's another one that's straight out of the what, are you kidding me. Rebook is having to pull its ads. Look at this, "cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout."

SAMBOLIN: Huh?

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Didn't go over so well.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, that's going to work.

BANFIELD: Yes, really, honestly, the biggest anger coming from a website called cheaterville.com, but Twitter sort of lit up. Places like #laymad and customer (INAUDIBLE) freaking out over this one, and Rebook yanking it.

SAMBOLIN: OK. We've been showing you this. We're going to show it to you again on YouTube. Firefighters dressed in drag when duty called. Listen to this, they were marching in a St. Patty's Day parade in Minnesota. They were wearing dresses as a goof when a truck actually catches fire.

They were hiking up their evening gowns, pulling them up, revealing their fire boots while hosing down the truck. The fire was put out. No one was hurt, and we got this fabulous video.

BANFIELD: How incredible is this. It does beg the question why are you marching in a St. Patty's Day parade dressed like that, anyway.

SAMBOLIN: I know.

BANFIELD: It's a bit odd, isn't it?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, it's a big question.

BANFIELD: So, from the interweb -- SAMBOLIN: -- right?

BANFIELD: Nothing like the interwebs. There's your trending for this morning.

It is now 56 minutes past the hour, and still ahead on EARLY START, growing national outrage over the killing of a Florida teenager rallies across the country. Was your city one of them? We're going to take you live to Sanford, Florida in a moment.

SAMBOLIN: And something rotten at the launch party for Kim Kardashian's new perfume. The star gets flour bombarded. We're not talking roses here. You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)