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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Sequester Cuts Set to Go into Effect; Pope Benedict XVI Retires; Kids on Plane Do Popular Dance; Updates on Jodi Arias Trial; Horse Meat Processing Plant?

Aired March 1, 2013 - 07:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: -- and Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, is our guest. Plus will chat with Walter T. Shaw, the former jewel thief for the mafia that's now a movie producer. It's Friday, March 1, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Good morning, welcome, everybody. We begin with brand new information happening about the sinkhole, a terrifying story. Apparently the sinkhole opened right under the bedroom of a man. Right now, U.S. fire marshals telling us man is presumed dead. The home is expected to collapse at any moment. It happened 15 miles east of Tampa a brother trying to frantically save his other brother, but only a first responder could pull one of them out because the sinkhole kept growing and growing and growing. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. DONALD MORRIS, HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: The mattress, the bed, everything going in the hole where the first person had gone and now the second person in the hole trying to save the first and they are not being successful. He basically reacted and did what he had to do to get that person out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How deep did you say the hole was?

MORRIS: It was deep enough that the person he pulled out to safety was not able to fully extend their arms and reach the top.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: We'll take you live to the scene where that is happening in a few moments.

Also right now, crews battling a wildfire in southern California, 200 firefighters on the lines in Riverside County east of Los Angeles. At least 150 acres have burned. The smoke and flames forcing some evacuations so far, only one structure damaged. No injuries reported. Fire officials say they are investigating the cause.

And $85 billion worth of slicing and dicing is set to begin by midnight tonight. There are 17 hours remain before we reach that deadline for mandatory spending cuts once the president signs the order and the cuts kick in. It could be some people describe it as a slow bleed. You are likely to see cuts to national parks, forced time off without pay for federal employees. There is a meeting schedule at the White House this morning. Little hope though that anybody will be able to stop the ax from falling at this late hour. Let's begin with our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As President Obama meets at the White House with Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders, the capitol will sit empty. Congress the very people who voted for the $85 billion in forced spending cuts set to kick in at midnight, left town Thursday without finding a way to fix the problem. And now the finger pointing.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The Republican proposal is the worst of all worlds. It explicitly protects pork barrel projects and every single tax loophole the benefits the wealthy.

KEILAR: President Obama wants to avoid the forced budget cuts in part with tax increases. Republicans refuse.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R) HOUSE SPEAKER: We've done our work. They have not done theirs. The House shouldn't have to pass a third bill to replace the sequester before the Senate passes one.

KEILAR: But the Senate failed to pass two bills Thursday, one Democratic and one Republican, both members that were never expected to succeed, making it almost certain that President Obama will be forced to sign an executive order today that officials puts the cuts into effect. It will impact everything from our military, Medicare, education to food inspection and homeland security.

President Obama in a written statement accused Senate Republicans of voting, quote, "to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: That meeting between president Obama and congressional leaders takes place at 10:00 p.m. eastern in the Oval Office, and sometime after that, president Obama will set into motion forced spending cuts with the stroke of his pen. He is required to do that, Soledad, and we're told that he'll do so privately.

O'BRIEN: Brianna Keilar for us at the White House. Thank you, Brianna.

Coming up in our next we'll talk with Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes.

There's some new information this hour. Catholic cardinals will be meeting on Monday to set a date for the Conclave to pick the new Pope. It signals the very beginning of a new era for the church.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) POPE EMERITUS BENEDICT, FORMER POPE: I am no longer the Pope. But I'm still in the church. I'm just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Pope Benedict XVI began his retirement and is now in seclusion at Castel Gandolfo which is about 15 miles southeast of Vatican City.

Let's get to senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman in Rome this morning. Hey, Ben, good morning.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. The news here is that the Dean of the college of cardinals, Angelo Sodono has invited the cardinals to begin at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, 3:30 eastern time. A session beginning at 5:00 in the afternoon on Monday as well this is really a critical gathering of all cardinals. Not just the 115 cardinals who will be participating in the conclave, but also those who are over the age of 80, and obviously, the first business on the agenda, will be setting a date for the conclave.

O'BRIEN: Ben Wedeman updating us what happens next in Rome. Thank you, Ben.

Pope Benedict XVI the ever Pope to open a twitter account, and he now is the first Pope to close one. I guess he won't be tweeting as Pope emeritus. Yesterday he said this, "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives." You can see here, the account is now called, forgive my Italian, Latin, whatever this is, "empty seat." And all those tweets have been deleted. It's up to the next Pope to decide if he wanted to keep it. I guess, John, he could choose to have a different account.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: He could be "The real Pope Benedict XVI."

O'BRIEN: Pope one. Up next, we'll talk with Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago. He will talk about what lies ahead for the Catholic Church in the upcoming weeks and months.

First though, John has a look at some of the other stories making news this morning.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad. News overnight in Japan -- prison sentences handed down for two Navy sailors who admitted raping a woman while on duty at a U.S. base in Okinawa last year. Christopher Browning got a ten-year sentence, and petty officer Skylar Dosier Walker got nine years. The rape case sparked outrage in Japan. Violent crimes committed by U.S. service members stationed in Japan have long been a very divisive issue for the two countries.

New developments now in the search for the suspect in a deadly shooting and car crash that erupted in a fireball along the Vegas Strip. Las Vegas police saying they have their man. Amar Harris was arrested yesterday and police say he went peacefully. He's awaiting extradition. Investigators say last week Harris targeted 27-year-old Kenneth Cherry, also known as rapper Kenny Clutch, while both men were driving. Cherry's Maserati then hit a taxi and the crash and explosion killed the driver and a passenger.

Now back to that developing story we have been following, a man swallowed up by a sinkhole that opened up right underneath his bedroom. The man is presumed dead. Rob Munoz of our affiliate WFTS is live at the scene at Brandon, Florida. Rob, what is the latest?

ROB MUNOZ, REPORTER WFTS: Good morning. We're right now just waiting for an engineering firm to come out and establish how deep this is, how wide it is, but not only that see if we can get to the 36-year-old man trapped underneath the rubble, presumed dead at this time. It's been an intense game of waiting and watching.

As I stand here, we have all of these rescue crews on standby. We can't go anywhere near the house, can't go near the hole, because we don't know how -- again, how much this land could give away. It could continuously keep growing. The sound of the gravel kept coming in, which means it is just expanding.

The family -- one family member out here watching this entire scene unfold before her eyes, not knowing if her family member is alive or dead. I spoke to her not too long ago, and I said do you have a message for this family member? She says it's her nephew. She said if anything, hold on, we're coming for you. She's praying for him this entire time. She feels helpless right now, wondering not only will the home go. The home is in danger of collapsing, but wondering if her family member is still alive somewhere underneath the rubble.

BERMAN: It's 100 feet wide, 50 feet deep. The house could go at any minute. Did this family have any kind of warning?

MUNOZ: They had no warning, the only warning the sound they heard when the home started collapsing. They had this home checked by the county inspector last year. There were no cracks found in the home. And not only could this home go, by the way, neighboring homes are in danger. They have evacuated two neighbor homes as a precaution. Again, this thing -- the borders just keep growing.

BERMAN: Rob Munoz in Brandon, Florida watching this story of this huge sinkhole threatening that home as we speak.

Mitt Romney has been keeping a low-profile since the election. But all of that is about to change. The former Massachusetts governor will give a speech in two weeks at a CPAC conference in Washington. And in an interview with Fox News that airs this Sunday, Romney compared his failed presidential bid to take a ride at an amusement park.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's like riding on a rollercoaster, we were on a roller coaster, exciting and thrilling ups and downs. But the ride ends, and then you get off. It's not like can we be on the rollercoaster the rest of our life? No, the ride is over.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: I think the Romneys have been telling people they have a hard time getting back to reality right away. His wife, Ann, says life since November has been an adjustment, but one she believes they have handled well.

O'BRIEN: I'm wondering if they will come back to the spotlight as time passes.

BERMAN: He's speaking at CPAC, a big public moment.

O'BRIEN: And a big indication to the answer might be yes.

The sky may, in fact, be the limit for the Harlem Shake. The FAA is now looking into this. A viral video shows a dance craze in flight, this is Frontier Airlines. And CNN's Tory Dunnan has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TORY DUNNAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You have heard of snakes on a plane.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've had it with snakes.

DUNNAN: How about shakes on a plane? The Harlem Shake is the latest viral video dance craze, giving "Gangnam Style" a run for its money. It usually starts with one person dancing alone and others jump in. Now the FAA is looking into this video. It's a dance on a frontier airlines flight in midair, from Denver to San Diego organized by a group of students from Colorado college's ultimate Frisbee team.

MATT ZELIN, COLORADO COLLEGE STUDENT: It went from this joking around idea amongst the team to suddenly to reality and then it was on YouTube and then there were hundreds of thousands of views and now we're talking to you.

DUNNAN: The FAA wants to know if the plane was on final approach and if passengers should have been buckled up. A frontier spokeswoman says all safety measures were followed and the seatbelt was off.

JIM TILLMAN, FORMER AIRLINE PILOT: Worst-case scenario, we hit clear air turbulence and bodies start flying all over the place.

DUNNAN: Former airline pilot Jim Tillman says an airplane is not a place for fun and games.

TILLMAN: It is fun? Maybe. Is it cute? Maybe. Is it good judgment? No.

DUNNAN: A YouTube search turns up plenty of other Harlem shakers on planes. This group of cheerleaders, headed to a competition and says it did its shake during a layover.

C.J. PUGH, COACH, PCT COBRAS: The plane moving a lot. It's not a big plane. A lot of people jumping around, it was definitely moving the plane.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DUNNAN: Back in Colorado, the team said they never felt unsafe, and they hope the FAA agreed. Soledad, I asked if they planned to do this again? They said no, sequels are never as good as the original. They wouldn't even do it for me when I asked them last night.

O'BRIEN: They're like OK, we're moving on to another medium on the Internet.

Still ahead this morning, we'll talk to three students who made and starred in the video. I'm not sure we'll get banana suit guy as one of our interviews. But I hope we do.

Up next, in a heated cross-examination room, Jodi Arias, who is accused of brutally murdering her ex-boyfriend, breaks down on the stand. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were you crying when you were stabbing him?

JODI ARIAS, ACCUSED OF MURDER: I don't remember.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Did the tears hurt or help her case? We'll have the latest on this dramatic trial.

And then Groupon CEO doesn't leave quietly. We'll share with you the memo he sent to his employees after getting the boot. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody, you are watching STARTING POINT. It's been a sensational trial that has captivated the country. And in one of the most dramatic moments, Jodi Arias, the Arizona woman who's accused of murdering her ex-boyfriend, broke down in tears on the stand during a marathon cross-examination. The prosecutor, Juan Martinez, was pushing Arias to the edge, demanding details, daring her to look at photographs of her ex-boyfriend's body at the crime scene. Here's how that went.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUAN MARTINEZ, PROSECUTOR: You are the one that did this, right?

JODI ARIAS, ACCUSED OF MURDER: Yes.

MARTINEZ: You're the same individual that lied about all of this, right?

ARIAS: Yes.

MARTINEZ: So then take a look at it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: It's been one of the most brutal cases. Travis Alexander was once in the head and stabbed 27 times. Happened on June 4 back in 2008. Arias says it was self-defense.

Joining to us talk about that is Mark Geragos. He's a criminal defense attorney, he's got a new book called "Mistrial," that comes out in April, also with us is a former prosecutor Anne Bremner.

Let's start with you Mark, you saw her on the stand. Right? The prosecutor is kind of pushing her and - look at the pictures, look at the pictures, and she's crying, crying, is this a smart strategy on part of the prosecutor or could it backfire by keeping her on the stand so long?

MARK GERAGOS, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, the defense first put her on the stand for eight days or nine days, whatever it was, which is unheard of. I think there is a method to that madness. As far as the prosecutor, the first day out, I can't imagine doing a worse job than he did. He was so over the top, so ridiculous.

O'BRIEN: It was like porn in the courtroom.

GERAGOS: It was. And then he dialed it back yesterday. I think infinitely more effective. I hate to give him advice from sitting 2,000 or 3,000 miles away. But I think he needs to dial it back even more. Get in, make his points, and get out. Less is always more when it comes to cross-examination. I don't really understand how he thinks it will help. In some ways, the defense here is not to try to obtain a not guilty verdict. It's to mitigate. Save her from death.

O'BRIEN: I would ask Anne that. This is ultimately about life or death for her. Right, they're not talking about did she - I mean she has had so many iterations of her story. This is, will they give her the death penalty? So do you think the strategy is working on not working if you are the prosecutor in this case?

ANNE BREMNER, FORMER PROSECUTOR: You mean is the prosecution effort working?

O'BRIEN: They want her to be put to death, that's what they are going for. I would imagine, and people have said, the more you let her sit on the stand and cry, you just get to know her better. And I would imagine as a jury member, I got it. Looks like she killed him. She's admitted that much, but the question becomes, do I want to put her to death, right? That's what we're arguing.

BREMNER: This is definitely a fight to death. And the fact is if you spend that much time on the stand, it is almost like you become family, and you don't convict family. With those jurors, I mean they know her, she seems sympathetic, everything else.

I agree with Mark. The Prosecutor was violating all the rules of cross-examination. What you need to do is be brief, be brilliant, be seated. Yesterday, he got a little further, because he got to what we are here for, which is the homicide. And in that, he was very direct with her, and he got some major concessions including some things about when he demonstrated, the homicide itself, she made it kind of a contact situation, which is wasn't, it was at distance. And she also talked about things she didn't remember in a fog, but the she talked about specifics that happened within the fog. And this whole thing about a gun going off. And if I had a dollar for every time in my prosecution days someone said a gun went off, I would be rich. Because these must be going off all the time.

O'BRIEN: Always going off. Without anybody ever involved.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Crazy. Last question for you. What happens Monday when they resume? The prosecutor moves along or does he keep going?

GERAGOS: Look, if he was smart, he would get in, get out, be done with it, I don't see there is any -- at this point I agree with Anne, it's making her family, whether it's the black sheep of the family, whatever it is, it's harder to put somebody to death once you get to know them.

O'BRIEN: Mark, Anne, thanks. I can't believe it, my defense attorney and my prosecutor coming together on this. Thanks, guys. Appreciate it.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk of a horse meat slaughterhouse opening up in the United States? All this discussion about horse meat making its way into the meat supply. A new report says that's close to happening. We'll tell you where and why people are concerned about that. Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good morning. I'm Christine Romans "Minding your Business." So much for a record high. The Dow got super close yesterday but it didn't happen. Today stock futures looking like a lower open. Data out on manufacturing and construction that's due out next hour, that could influence trading.

And sometime today, President Obama expected to issue an official order for $85 billion in forced spending cuts. Most of us won't feel the effects for weeks, maybe months. Here's what it looks like: federal workers can be notified of furloughs any time after the president signs this order. Those furloughs won't likely take affect until after March 26th. On march 27th, by the way, another big deadline, funding for the government expires, Congress will need an official budget. So more big budget fights ahead.

Groupon's CEO isn't afraid to say it. He was fired. In a letter to employees, Andrew Mason said, quote, "I would like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding. I was fired today. If you wonder why, you haven't been paying attention." He is referring to Groupon's falling stock price. It's down about 80 percent since the company's IPO in 2011. It has only turned a profit once then. Groupon shares are rising today. Up 4 percent, and I have seen a lot of resignations, a lot of resignations and that was the most honest. Usually when they say I want to spend more time with my family, it means they got canned.

O'BRIEN: Or work on my next project, by book.

ROMANS: He got $300 severance.

O'BRIEN: $300?

ROMANS: Yes, but he has 47 million shares at $2 and change a share. So he's a multi, multimillionaire.

BERMAN: And he's 32.

O'BRIEN: And he's 32. It's all going to work out for him. He will be just fine. Thanks, Christine. I want to introduce our team. Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," and Washington bureau chief for "Newsweek" "Daily Beast" is with us. And Lauren Ashburn, contributor for "The Daily Beast" and editor in chief of "The Daily Download" joining us on the panel this morning. Nice to have you on this side of the table.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: That's all right. John will give you a shot at it a little bit later. I

n the next two months, the U.S. agriculture department is expected to approve a horse slaughter plant in Roswell, New Mexico, so equine meat suitable for human consumption can be produced here in this country. The decision comes after the Valley Meat Company sued the USDA last fall over the lack of inspection services for horses going to slaughter. According to a Agriculture Department spokesperson, the Obama administration has been trying to get Congress to reinstate a ban on the production of horse meat for human consumption since 2011. All of this considering a lot of the conversation we've had over the past week, plus, has been about this horse meat showing up in products that were not supposed to have horse meat in them.

HOWARD KURTZ, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, NEWSWEEEK - DAILY BEAST: What is the market for this? I understand buffalo was the hot meat for a while. But I mean are lots of people dying to go to McDonald's to get a horsey burger? It seems like there wouldn't be much of a market for this.

O'BRIEN: Here in this country, we have a huge "ick" factor on horse meat. But in lot of countries, people have horse meat. I think the bigger issue is horse meat is, depending on how they get these horses, which often are horses that are taken right off the track. They're full of steroids. All these racehorses are shot up with steroids so they can run, and a lot of horses that get any kind of antibiotics or painkillers, those are carcinogens for people.

LAUREN ASHBURN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, DAILY DOWNLOAD: But also with the sequester, one of the things that is going to be cut is meat inspection. And so, if this does go through, we're talking about issues with having that kind of meat inspected.

KURTZ: This conversation makes me want to be a vegetarian.

O'BRIEN: I know. It really does, the "ick" factor is the problem for me. We'll talk about that more. Also ahead, if forced spending cuts do happen and guess what? They are going to happen. How will it affect American businesses and ultimately how will it affect all of us. We'll speak with Bob Moritz, he's the chair of Price Waterhouse Coopers, and he's been touring the country to talk to other CEOs about this. He breaks it down for us coming up next.

Plus, the magical and potentially dangerous moment where a surfer swims with killer whales all captured on camera, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. In a few minutes, we continue to approach the deadline when those $85 billion in subpoenaing cuts go into effect. How will this affect the company are you working for?

Bob Moritz, chair of Price Waterhouse Coopers, and he tells is the secret of the spending cuts the country's top CEOs have been telling him. That's just ahead in a couple of minutes.

First, though, John Berman's got a look at some of the day's top stories. Good morning.

BERMAN: Thanks Soledad.