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Demanding "Justice For Trayvon"; Autopsy: Houston Drowned, Cocaine A "Factor"; Bank Of America Becomes A Landlord; Tennessee "Evolution Bill" Passes; Thousands Rally for Slain Teen; Santorum Supporting Obama over Romney?; Autopsy: Houston Drowned, Cocaine A "Factor"; Mississippi Pardons Challenged

Aired March 23, 2012 - 06:00   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And a great morning to you. A good Friday morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Everybody loves Fridays. I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z at 6:00 a.m. here in the east. So let's get started here for you.

The shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin is sparking demonstrations from California to Charlotte. The chief of police in Sanford steps down temporarily in the face of the mounting criticism while the governor appoints a new state attorney to investigate the case.

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

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

BANFIELD: Rick Santorum rattling the Republican hierarchy suggesting if it comes down to a race between Mitt Romney and President Obama, well, we may as well just stay with what we have. Newt Gingrich not going quite that far.


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


BANFIELD: The Republican race getting even nastier on the eve of the Louisiana primary. SAMBOLIN: A kerfuffle at Kim Kardashian's perfume launch last night. The reality star was attacked with a white powdery substance. Sheriff's deputies were called. They determined the powder was cooking flour. A female suspect was arrested. We're not sure why that happened though we're trying to figure out.

BANFIELD: And it's 1 minute now past 6:00 from coast to coast. The outrage is building over the shooting death of a Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin.

Protests in 10 cities across the country yesterday. This case has certainly touched a nerve nationwide, the anger triggering rallies from Los Angeles to Charlotte, North Carolina.

The protesters demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman, he's the neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed Martin. About 8,000 people at last count protesting in Sanford, Florida last night.

Not far from where Trayvon was gunned down last month while he was walking home with a bag of candy and some iced tea and his parents were there.


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 pay for what he did to your son.


BANFIELD: And the law that has so far shielded George Zimmerman from prosecution is under scrutiny in Florida. State Senator Chris Smith is pushing for changes to the stand your ground law, and I talked to him just last hour.


CHRIS SMITH, FLORIDA STATE SENATE: 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 saying that, 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 get into an altercation at a gas station in Orlando, am I going to be shot, because Florida has this archaic law that allows gunfights in the street?


BANFIELD: And there was a rally in Sanford, taking place just hours after the city's embattled police chief temporarily has left his post, citing it's too much of a distraction.

Our George Howell is live in Sanford, Florida, this morning. So George, there's been a lot of shifting around in the last 24 hours, not just the police chief.

But also the governor of that state has replaced the state attorney who's now helming this investigation. But so far, is it making any difference?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think people are just waiting to see what's next really. A lot of this news came as a surprise especially the police chief, and the wording that he used, "temporarily removing himself from office."

A lot of the people who were here, thousands of people that came to protest, some who I spoke with said that's not enough. They want to see the police chief either fired or resign all together. So that news came as a surprise to a lot of people.

We learned just before the rally also that the family, Trayvon Martin's family got to meet with members of the Department of Justice and the word of that meeting was basically patience, to have patience as this investigation continues.

During the meeting, we also learned Governor Rick Scott appointed a new special prosecutor to look into this case. Angela Corey will take over for Norm Wolfinger, whose district includes the city of Sanford and Corey explained exactly how she plans to look into this case. Take a listen.


ANGELA COREY, FOURTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT STATE ATTORNEY: It requires a thorough investigation, extensive interviews of every witness and extensive review of all physical evidence and then a determination as to 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 finds mission for prosecutors, is to seek the truth.


HOWELL: Let's talk about George Zimmerman. Again, he is not charged with anything, free to go wherever he'd like to go. Police, we learned, through the city manager, know exactly where he is.

And again on April 10th, that is the day that a grand jury will convene and that will be the day where we find out if George Zimmerman could be put behind bars after what happened.

BANFIELD: George Howell, interesting, especially when Angela Corey said those words "we don't worry about that backlash." Well that backlash is there all across the country, where you're standing there, too. Thanks very much, George.

HOWELL: Indeed, thank you.

SAMBOLIN: And late last night, the Los Angeles County coroner's office released a report indicating that Whitney Houston died from an accidental drowning, but heart disease and cocaine were also mentioned as contributing factors in her death.

And here to break it down for us this morning is CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen. She's in San Francisco. Elizabeth, exactly what did the report say?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Zoraida, the report really laid it out quite simply. It said that Whitney Houston drowned, but that cocaine in her system and pre-existing heart disease both played a role.

Now my colleague, Don Lemon, spoke yesterday to someone in the L.A. County Coroner's office and what he said was this appears to be how it happened. She already had heart disease. She had clogged arteries. She took cocaine. She had a heart attack that sent her under the water and she drowned.

SAMBOLIN: We saw a list there of drugs, I suspect, that were in her body. Can you talk a little bit about those that they found?

COHEN: Yes, right, let's go through that list. They found not just cocaine in her system, but also marijuana and Xanax, which is an anti-anxiety drug, and Benadryl, which can make you drowsy, and Flexeril, which a muscle relaxant, which can also make you drowsy.

Now officially the coroner's report says that these did not contribute to her death. You know, we certainly have spoken with experts who said, you know, they certainly can make you drowsy and make you sort of less likely to be on guard so to speak.

SAMBOLIN: And I want to get back to the heart disease because we got a lot of details about that specifically and so the question becomes we knew that she used cocaine and she's used it for years.

A lot of people were hoping that would not come up in the coroner's report, but it did, that she was still using cocaine. Could that affect her heart in a way or could it affect it as far as heart disease goes specifically?

COHEN: R ight, the cocaine didn't cause her heart disease, and it's a little confusing so let me sort of talk through that. The report found that she had clogged arteries. So she had plaque build- up in her arteries. Cocaine doesn't cause that.

Now that's actually probably more common in a 48-year-old woman than you might think. So she already had the clogged arteries and then the cocaine on top of that would aggravate the situation with those arteries, which could cause a heart attack. So the clogged arteries aren't from the cocaine, but certainly the cocaine aggravated those arteries that were already in, you know, not great condition. SAMBOLIN: All right, I just have one final question, and I know that we would be speculating here, but because of the combination of drugs that she had and then having the heart attack, do you think maybe her body was in a state where she could not even realize that she was drowning at that point?

COHEN: I mean, the experts we talked to said that those kinds of drugs like the Benadryl and the Xanax and the Flexeril that it certainly makes you more drowsy, makes you less aware of what's going on.

But the coroner's report was really quite clear that those did not contribute to her death, that the heart disease, the cocaine that appears to have given her a heart attack and that's what sent her under.

But it certainly obviously didn't help to have drugs that would make her less aware and out of it so to speak.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Elizabeth Cohen live in San Francisco for us. Thank you very much.

COHEN: Thanks.

BANFIELD: What a beautiful shot behind her, the bridge is looking gorgeous. It's 9 minutes now past 6:00 on the east coast. We're minding your business this morning because it's been a pretty rough week for the markets and that continued yesterday.

The Dow is falling for a third straight day. Look all the arrows down. Wall Street kind of worried that the global economy is slowing.

SAMBOLIN: Patricia Wu is here with us. Patricia, we are talking about Bank of America specifically. They're getting into the landlord business. Tell us about that.

PATRICIA WU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Well, this is all about getting to you before you get to foreclosure. It's called the mortgage to lease program and basically here's how it works.

You get a letter from Bank of America saying, listen, you're at risk of foreclosure. Here is an option. You hand over the deed to your house. You can stay in the home and rent it back at the current market rate.

Here's what the homeowner gets out of the deal, they get their debt wiped out. They also get to stay in their home by renting it and it's less damaging for their credit than a foreclosure. It's also good business though for the bank because they're collecting income from you.

If you go into foreclosure they're not getting any money. So now they're getting a rental check from you and they have someone in the home so the bank doesn't have to pay for someone to up keep it.

SAMBOLIN: If somebody has equity in home then they lose that right?

WU: Yes, you have your debt wiped out, but you do lose your home. But these are for, you know, homeowners who are at severe risk of foreclosure. There are more than two months behind on their payments and they've exhausted the modification solutions.

BANFIELD: Well, the banks have been struggling a lot. In fact, with dealing -- not just banks but also realtors. I mean, they've had all this material on their books that they have to, like you said upkeep and then sell and they're always selling them at a loss.

WU: So it's good for housing values because, you know, when you have those vacant homes with all the foreclosed homes that drags down the values in the neighborhood.

BANFIELD: What a slap in the face, sure, you can have my home and I'll just continue to pay you. It's such a bummer to think of it, but I see the upside. Thank you.

It's 11 minutes past 6:00 on the east coast. Coming up a heated debate in Tennessee. Are topics like evolution and climate change OK to challenge in school? We're going to find out what's going on there.

SAMBOLIN: Take a look at this, two women in California fighting in front of a food market when one of them decides to run the other one over with her car.

BANFIELD: That's not a good idea.

SAMBOLIN: No, no, no. She's OK though. She is OK.

BANFIELD: And also "Hunger Games" fans lining up for hours. It is going to be a massive opening. Will box office records actually fall? You're going to find out. You're watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: So Pearl Jam for to you wake you up this morning. It's called "Do the Evolution," and it's apropos at 15 minutes past 6:00 because there's a heated debate in Tennessee about what your kids can and can't hear in school.

Should teachers be allowed to engage in debate and critiques of evolution and climate change when they're in the classroom? Think about it. Well, they thought about it in Tennessee and they voted on it, 24-8, in fact.

The Tennessee state senate passing a highly controversial academic freedom bill which protects teachers who can engage in challenging evolution and climate change with their students.

Tennessee State Senator Bo Watson is the author of the bill and he is kind enough to join us live from Chattanooga, Tennessee, this morning.

State Senator Watson, thank you for being with us.

But my first question to you has to be this: why this bill?

BO WATSON, TENNESSEE STATE SENATOR: First, let's be clear what the bill does not do. The bill does not promote, endorse, require or allow the teaching of non-conventional, non-scientific information in the science classroom. What it does do is say look, when you teach some of these subjects, students are going to dispute or challenge what you're teaching, and teachers need to know what's expected of them.

This bill came about when I first saw it, I didn't think very much about it, and then I had a person visit me from an organization who made some accusatory statements about some of the teachers in our county, which sort of gave me the impression that they were making judgments about what teachers were teaching. And I thought maybe we needed to make sure teachers were protected and that teachers understood what was required of them when these difficult subjects were taught.

BANFIELD: All right. Well, I'm glad you gave me the verification but I still think it's fascinating because it is unique, other than Louisiana at this point, your state is fairly unique in engaging in this kind of movement in education and I found it fascinating.

And I looked at your biography. You have a bachelor of arts in biology cum laude from University of Tennessee. So, this is an even more apropos conversation to hold with someone with your ilk.

WATSON: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: And what to ask you about some of your colleagues, Senator, because the National Association of Biology Teachers sent a letter to your governor that read something like this, "Concepts like evolution and climate change should not be misrepresented as controversial or needing of special evaluation. Instead, they should be presented as scientific explanations for events and processes that are supported by experimentation, logical analysis and evidence-based revision based on detectible and measurable data."

And while that might sound wordy and confusing, essentially, what this is saying is, oh, for heaven's sake, is this -- is this you questioning that the world is actually round?

WATSON: Yes. Well, you know, I'm kind of disappointed in the scientific establishment in terms of their approach on this bill. The bill really doesn't do any of the things that they allude to in their letter.

And quite honestly, you know, science should encourage critical thinking. Science should encourage challenging current realities. Science is about us debating and measuring, using empirical evidence to try and explain the world around us.

And when some subjects are taught students are going to bring the experience to the classroom in their home or community and they're going to have questions about the science curriculum in terms of how it measures up with what they're learning in their community at home.

I don't think this bill in any way --


BANFIELD: I'm sorry to interrupt but I still need you to answer that question. If I'm a student in classroom and I engage my teacher saying, I'm sorry but the world looks flat to me, should we be questioning that? Should we allow some kind of a debate on whether the world is actually flat?

WATSON: No, no. I think that's a great, teachable moment for a teacher, and that's the purpose of the bill. That's a great teachable moment.

How did the child come to -- the student come to that conclusion? And how can the teacher, using that, teach the student about how the world is not flat?

BANFIELD: How can you police what the teachers are going to say and do? I mean, lots of big issue here. Lots of teachers can teach in different ways. It is amazing what the role of an eye can do to a student who is learning something and you don't know the different philosophies of the teachers who are in those classrooms? And how are you as a politician able to police that and should you be?

WATSON: Well, there are two guide rails on this. One is the bill requires teachers remain within the framework of the state's educational curriculum. And number two, in Tennessee, we are leading the nation in educational reform, and our teachers are held more accountable to their test results than perhaps any other state.

And so teachers are not going to have a lot of time, nor are they going to take a lot of time to deal with questions that students have about non-conventional, non-scientific ideas they might have. Teachers are held accountable to the results on the tests their students achieve and teachers are going to be sure that students learn about the basic concepts of science, because that's what's going to be asked of students when they are asked to provide their knowledge on a test.

So, I think this is really as Shakespeare would say, much ado about nothing. The community overreacted to this and this is an opportunity for teachers to engage students and create teachable moments.


BANFIELD: I could talk to you all day about this but I unfortunately can't talk to you all day. But I certainly could, we didn't get to Scopes monkey, which would have been a wonderful thing to incorporate in this conversation as well. But I look forward to another opportunity to talk to you about it, Senator Watson. Thanks for being on.

WATSON: Sure, thank you.

BANFIELD: Zoraida, back to you.

SAMBOLIN: It is 21 minutes past the hour. Time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

A crowd of about 8,000 people hit the streets of Sanford, Florida, last night. They are demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. They want the neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed the unarmed teen arrested. Earlier yesterday, the chief of police in Sanford stepped down temporarily and the governor appointed a new state attorney to handle this investigation.

And 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 did play a role there.

Wild road rage caught on camera. Take a look at this. Two women throw down in a parking lot in California. A pedestrian, you're seeing her right there. She punches a driver repeatedly.

The driver gets her revenge. What did she do, she runs the pedestrian down in her van, pins her up against the wall. The victim was treated for non-life threatening injuries. The driver there was arrested.

It is a first big movie event of this year. "The Hunger Games" is expected to break box office records in its debut weekend. "Hunger Games" fans were lined up at theaters across the country to catch the midnight premiere.

BANFIELD: It's now 22 minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast.

And still ahead on EARLY START: a man pulls a gun on one of our own, a TV reporter, and all the while the camera man kept on rolling. You're going to see what it looked like from this vantage point in just a moment.

SAMBOLIN: And it is a mystery solved finally. Residents of a Wisconsin town know what is behind those booming noises and tremors they've been hearing and feeling at night while they're trying to sleep.

BANFIELD: Tremors, I told you, tremors. That's what it is. Those animals under the ground. It's not.

SAMBOLIN: Under the ground. It's something else. We'll tell you what it is. You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Ahead on EARLY START: demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Protesters saying young and black does not automatically mean suspicious. We are talking to the pastor who spoke at last night's rally.

BANFIELD: Wow! That would sound really, really loud if you had your volume turned up.

No, I'm kidding, it's our fault. That explosion and this gunfire, was super scary in San Diego Bay. But fear not. We'll explain why no one had reason to be concerned even though the pictures tell a different story.

You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: It is 30 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: Good morning. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

It is time to check the stories making top news headline this is morning.

SAMBOLIN: Demonstrators in 10 cities from Los Angeles to Charlotte demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Thousands of people jamming the streets of Sanford, Florida, not far from where the unarmed teenager was shot and killed last month. Earlier yesterday, Sanford's embattled police chief, Bill Lee, stepped down temporarily he said with Florida's governor appointing a new state attorney to oversee this case.

BANFIELD: A brand new autopsy report reveals that cocaine played a role in Whitney Houston's death. That autopsy concludes that she officially died from drowning in the bathtub, but that cocaine and heart disease were factors.

SAMBOLIN: Residents in Clintonville, Wisconsin, now know the cause of the loud mysterious booms that have rocked their city. A shallow 1.5 magnitude mini quake is the culprit. City officials say they can't guarantee it won't happen again, but they think it's likely that it won't happen again.

BANFIELD: And check this out, folks.


BANFIELD: Oh, man! The Navy conducting a large scale anti- terrorism exercise in San Diego, designed to simulate an actual attack. There were explosive detonated on the beach and rapid gunfire, a high speedboat chase all happening in San Diego Bay. So, if you saw it, don't freak out.

And also, similar drills were conducted at other U.S. naval installations. So you might have seen something similar. Don't call 911.

SAMBOLIN: Unless you know it's a drill, you would freak out.

BANFIELD: You would freak out, forewarned.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thirty-one minutes past the hour here.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has replaced the prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin killing. The police chief in Sanford has stepped down temporarily he says. There's still outrage over the case. It is mounting actually.

Marches have been held in at least 10 U.S. cities from New York to St. Louis, Miami. Students in Trayvon's hometown walked out of class to demand the arrest of George Zimmerman. He is a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot that unarmed teenager.

And just last night, thousands attended a rally in Sanford where the 17-year-old was killed. Take a look at those folks. That is an aerial view.

Trayvon's parents had a very emotional message.


SYBRINA FULTON, TRAYVON MARTIN'S MOTHER: I stand before you today not knowing how I'm walking right now, because my heart hurt 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 pay for what he did to your son.


SAMBOLIN: Valerie Houston is a pastor of Allen Chapel, AME Church. She spoke last night and she joins us from now Sanford.

We are so grateful to have you with us this morning. Thank you very much.

You led the prayer vigil last night. Could you tell us who was in the crowd? Was it predominantly one age group, one race or gender?

VALERIE HOUSTON, PASTOR, ALLEN CHAPEL, AME CHURCH, STANFORD: It was everyone from babies to probably I saw people on -- in wheelchairs, on canes, to the oldest citizen probably around.

SAMBOLIN: And what about race? Do you think that this has crossed over, that this is just affecting everybody?

HOUSTON: It is affecting everybody, all races, all nationalities, all denominations were there last night to show their love and support.

SAMBOLIN: And so, let's talk about the case, right? The support is growing by the day. We are seeing these type of rallies happening around the country. Yours was incredibly well-attended. The police chief has now stepped down. A new special prosecutor has been named.

What is your reaction to these events?

HOUSTON: I think that's a marvelous. I think that gives the city a sense of hope that they can see some sense of justice being done, the investigation with the governor stepping in, the chief of police stepping down. I think that's going to motivate us but also keep us in a more peaceful, non-violent movement is what we want, but we still want the immediate arrest.

SAMBOLIN: Besides the immediate arrest, there's a lot of dialogue happening around the Trayvon Martin case. A lot of whites are feeling this is an incredible injustice and a lot of dialogue happening among the black community.

I want to get reaction to an op-ed piece here. Eugene Robinson wrote in "The Washington Post" this, "Whether Zimmerman can or should be prosecuted given Florida's stand your ground law providing broad latitude to claim self-defense, is an important question. But the tragic and essentially thing for me is the bull's eye that black men wear throughout their lives and the vital imperative to never, ever be caught on the wrong street at the wrong time."

Do you think that this is true?

HOUSTON: That is so true, has been a lifelong problem. And so, this will be a monumental, massive movement to say, as the people have been shouting and all of the rallies -- no more, no more, no more.

SAMBOLIN: But, Pastor Houston, we have seen this, right? It happens all the time, whenever a black teen gets shot and people rally and there's no change. It doesn't really effect change.

How do you think you can effect change in this case?

HOUSTON: I think it will be the beginning of a catalyst of change. Number one, they're already getting ready to review the stand your ground law, that's monumental. So, I believe that with everything that's going on, that we're going to have an internal investigation of the police department here in the city of Sanford.

And that's what we really want the world to know, that as some of the persons said during the week, that we expect the police to work for us and to make sure that justice is served, and we're not seeing that here in Sanford. And that's why we have the unrest and it has caught on all over the country.

SAMBOLIN: I want to talk about the NAACP. They were at your church yesterday. They collected stories of police abuse and the failure to investigate those cases. And they plan to turn it over to the justice department.

You preach in that community. Do you think that there are problems specifically there with law enforcement?

HOUSTON: Yes, it is. And there were 18 cases, and to hear their cases, many people were in tears, including myself. I'd hold back the tears.

Many young people have been shot and killed, some by policemen. And when they investigate, then they don't get back with the parents.

And it's nothing. It's nothing. It's not due process. It's just an injustice to the city.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Well, Pastor Valerie Houston, thank you so much for joining us this morning, and enlightening us. We appreciate your time.

HOUSTON: Thank you so much.

BANFIELD: And it is now 37 minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast.

And coming up on EARLY START: a shocker from Rick Santorum's campaign, saying if Mitt Romney were the nominee -- well, we might as well just stick with President Obama. Really? Is that the Republican way of thinking? You'll hear what the reaction was.

And then this reaction -- a gun pulled on a TV reporter who's following the story of a murder investigation. How did this one turn out as the cameras kept rolling? Hmm.

SAMBOLIN: But, first, let's get a quick check of your travel forecast with Bonnie Schneider.

Good morning to you.


We are looking at some wet weather across the Southeast. So, if you're traveling in this region, we are going to see some rain that will impact cities like Atlanta and now, we're also seeing rain sliding into Chicago. That will get you cooler, after nine days of record high temperatures in the 80s.

Temperatures really have been 20, 30 degrees below what they typically are this time of year. You could you see the temperature departures from normal by 30 degrees in many locations across the Northeast.

Stormy conditions through the mid-South today. It will be sunny to the West, but watch out for wet weather across the Pacific Northwest for today, with cooler temperatures as well and possibly some air travel delays.

That's a look at your forecast. EARLY START will be right back.


SAMBOLIN: Nice, and we love being in New Orleans. Good morning to you, but your weather not so good, 69 degrees right now. A little bit later, it's going to be 80. But I think I saw a little lightning there.

BANFIELD: Van Morrison for us this morning.


BANFIELD: Well, but here's why -- "Baby Please Don't Go" is perfect for this morning's story, not to downplay the whole New Orleans tower cam and the lightning that's playing but the "Baby Please Don't Go" is really a big deal, because at 6:42 this morning on the East Coast, it has come down to this -- the narrative in the race for the Republican nomination has been dominated by a toddler's toy.

But it's getting even uglier in the fact that Rick Santorum got up in front of a group of people and suggested the man in the middle of your screen, Mitt Romney, if he's your nominee, well maybe we'd just be better off sticking with what we got, which if you read into that means sticking with the Democratic president in the White House. Have a listen.


SANTORUM: We might as well stay with what we have instead of taking the risk of what may be the Etch a Sketch candidate for the future.


BANFIELD: Yes, I don't think you have to read too much into that.

CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser -- now you know why we picked Van Morrison's "Baby Please Don't Go."


BANFIELD: This must be like manna from heaven and Newt Gingrich and his campaign but not so much from Mitt Romney.

STEINHAUSER: Yes. Listen, we reached out actually to the Santorum campaign after Rick Santorum made those comments you just played yesterday at a speech in Texas and said is he really insinuating that if it is Romney is the nominee, is it better to vote for the current guy, Barack Obama? And they have not responded with anything.

Newt Gingrich definitely has responded. Here's what he said.


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


STEINHAUSER: Here's what Mitt Romney said in a statement put out by his campaign. "I'm in this race to defeat Barack Obama and restore America's promise. I was disappointed to hear that Rick Santorum would rather have Barack Obama as president than a Republican."

So, yes, both campaigns quickly responding to what Santorum said.

Ashleigh, listen, I guess you can say this is almost if that's really what Santorum was saying, almost heresy because, you know, at the end, the Republicans want to coalesce around whoever the nominee is and try to beat Barack Obama come November.

BANFIELD: Yes, sort of heresy when say that. You mean, isn't that the adage by Ronald Reagan, that thou shalt not speak ill of a Republican. But this even goes beyond the pail and if that's the issue, then what is the future for Santorum either in this race or out of this race as he tries to navigate through the rest of his friends in the Republican Party?

STEINHAUSER: Yes, I guess let's talk first about tomorrow because the future is tomorrow. He needs to win Louisiana, the primary there tomorrow. It's a conservative state. But, let's be honest, that's still a very, very, very long shot. If you make comments like this and if that's truly what he was saying, then that does hurt his standing you would think down the road if Romney is the nominee. It puts him in a tough situation to say I'd rather vote for President Obama than the Republican nominee if that's what he was saying.

BANFIELD: And while I would like to serenade you with "Baby Please Don't Go," I actually do have to go, Paul. So, I have to say goodbye, Paul Steinhauser


BANFIELD: Have a good morning. Thanks for being with us.

SAMBOLIN: He probably should be serenading you.

BANFIELD: Yes. how about that?

SAMBOLIN: Forty-five minutes past the hour. It is time to check the stories that are making news this morning.


SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Demonstrations in ten cities across the country, have you seen this, is in support of Trayvon Martin. Thousands are hitting the streets last night in Sanford, Florida, not far from where the unarmed teenager was shot and killed last month by a neighborhood watch captain.

Earlier yesterday, Sanford's police chief, Bill Lee, stepped down, he says temporarily, while the governor appointed a new state attorney to investigate the case.

BANFIELD (voice-over): Newly released toxicology reports reveal cocaine played a factor in Whitney Houston's death, although the coroners say that Houston ultimately died from drowning in the bathtub. Marijuana, Xanax, and Benadryl were also found in her system, but they did not play a role in her death.

SAMBOLIN: Mississippi's attorney general, once again, asking the state Supreme Court to overturn 200 pardoned issued by former governor, Hayley Barbour, arguing that the case needs to be re-opened because the, quote, "private personal rights of the victims were violated by the pardons." Attorney General Jim Hood claiming that is a violation of Mississippi's crime victim's bill of rights.

BANFIELD: A reporter has a gun pulled on her while covering a story about a local man's killing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were just trying to find out what was going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody's lying, my best friend -- camera like --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can't touch the cameraman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: you really --

BANFIELD: Not turning out well at all after the man pulled the gun. Take a look. Holy cow. WREG's April Thompson (ph) and her cameraman sought cover in their news truck. Luckily, we are able to report no one was hurt. That man did flee from the scene, and police are hot on his trail trying to track him down. They've issued a warrant for felony aggravated assault in this case.

SAMBOLIN: Firefighters dressed in drag when duty called. This video posted on YouTube. It is funny, right? They were marching in a St. Patty's Day parade in Minnesota, wearing dresses as a goof, we understand, when a truck actually caught 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 get to enjoy the video.

BANFIELD: Again, St. Patty's Day doesn't necessarily mean that you wear dresses.

SAMBOLIN: They were acting like goofs but having a good time.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The meaning of St. Patrick's Day has changed over the years.



ROMANS (on-camera): How do I top that?

BANFIELD (on-camera): I was just going to say, Christine Romans, we decided that that would be the best way to introduce you this morning.

ROMANS: I will hike up my evening gown and tell you what we got coming up on Soledad's show today.

Coming up on STARTING POINT, Rick Santorum putting the president before his own party? The Republican candidate is suggesting if it comes down to a race between Mitt Romney and President Obama, well, we may as well stay with what we have.

Plus, the Obama administration cracking down on China, taxing solar panels that come from there, take a look at rare earth minerals, starting to show some backbone, perhaps, about China and its trade practices, but is China having the last laugh?

And "Hunger Games," have you heard about it? You're going to, because thousands of fans lined up for midnight screenings. The themes of this movie, though, are a lot like our modern world problems, income inequality, maybe, the haves and the have nots only on a very, very different scale.

Plus, is this OK to take your kids to see? We'll answer that question for you coming up at the top of the hour.


SAMBOLIN: Fifty-one minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

U.S. military officials say Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will be formally charged later today with 17 counts of murder in the massacre of Afghan civilians.

BANFIELD: This case is really not playing well in Afghanistan where the Taliban is vowing revenge on American forces and saying that it has absolutely no faith in any American trial for this massacre suspect. CNN's Sara Sidner is live in Kabul with the latest development -- Sara.

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What we're hearing now is the charges have not been formerly announced, but there should be 17 charges of murder, six charges of attempted murder and assault. The 17 number has caused some confusion, because the local Afghan officials here say only 16 people were killed in the (INAUDIBLE) massacre.

So, we're trying to figure out where that extra number comes from. The six assaults and attempted murder charges comes from the six people who were injured during this massacre. What we can tell you is, yes, the Taliban has sent out a statement. They have talked about seeking revenge, but it's something they said a week ago as well right after the massacre happened, and it's not surprising.

What we are not seeing, Ashleigh, are more protests. The protests have stopped. We haven't seen them for days now -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right. Sara Sidner for us. Thanks very much. You know what's interesting, whenever you see discrepancies in charges like that, there couple of reasons that can be. There might be another victim. Someone may have died, and that message hasn't gotten through back to the public relations of the military or there could be a different theory on one of the persons who died, could be a pregnant woman. There could be all sorts of reason -- discrepancy.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of children there living in that house, also.


SAMBOLIN: So, it's perhaps, I think that makes a lot of sense.

BANFIELD: And also at 6:53, it's becoming a nationwide call for justice, folks. Thousands of people saying the arrest of the -- that they want an arrest of the man who shot Trayvon Martin. The local police starting to feel the fallout there as well. We'll have more on this. You're watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: A night of protests in cities across the country, Americans from L.A. to Charlotte demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.

SAMBOLIN: That is the unarmed Florida teenager that was gunned down by a neighborhood watch captain last month, and police have still not made an arrest. George Howell is live in Sanford, Florida. George, what should we be watching for today?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly, just the other day, we saw thousands of people here in Sanford all coming together to rally for Trayvon Martin, and we know even today, this will continue. We'll even see more rallies. In fact, today, we know that there will be a one-hour prayer vigil that will be at Allen Chapel AME Church here in Sanford, a one-hour prayer vigil.

And, you can expect many people will come together for that. We also know on the 26th, there will be a march, a march from a local church here from the first united Methodist church to the civic center. They are marching to the civic center for a regular city hall meeting. Now, the city hall meetings usually happen right here, the city commissioner meetings.

It will happen at a civic center here in Sanford on Monday, simply because the city commissioners expect big crowds. Obviously, this situation has drawn many, many eyes to this city and this situation.

SAMBOLIN: All right. George Howell live in Sanford, Florida, thank you very much for that. So, a piece of history comes crashing down.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fire in the hole.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): And people are cheering it.

BANFIELD (voice-over): Oh! That's a good angle. There's nothing like blowing stuff up.


BANFIELD When they blow it up really good, I love that.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, crews in Georgia exploding part of the eagle and phoenix dam in the Chattahoochee River. The dam has stood for 130 years since 1882. The blast marks the beginning of a new chapter. Part of the river will be transformed to a whitewater course.


BANFIELD (on-camera): And Molly (ph). I can see (ph) environmentalists who do not like that one bit. It is now two minutes to six o'clock, and that is EARLY START, the news from A to Z. I'm Ashleigh Banlfield.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "STARTING POINT" with Christine Romans starts right now.

ROMANS: Thank you, ladies.