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Former Texas Justice Makes Terroristic Threat; Day 48 of Jodi Arias Trial; More Students in Criminal Court, Study Shows; Interview with Ron Astor; Supreme Court Upholds New York Gun Law

Aired April 15, 2013 - 11:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks so much, Carol. Hey everyone. I am John Berman, in for Ashleigh Banfield today.

And we begin with the arrest of a former Texas justice of the peace for making what they're calling a terroristic threat. The big question, is the arrest of Eric Williams connected to the murders of two Texas prosecutors? Right now authorities aren't saying.

Kaufman County district attorney Mike McClelland and his wife were found shot dead it in their home last month. Mark Hasse, the County's chief felony prosecutor was gunned down in January.

Ed Lavandera has the latest developments


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This house belongs to a former Kaufman County justice of the peace named Eric Williams. On Friday, investigators spent hours combing through the house. Then on Saturday, those investigators descended on this storage unit 15 miles away.

Several local media outlets report investigators found 20 weapons inside the storage unit that was rented for Eric Williams.

And investigators also discovered this Crown Victoria, a police-style vehicle. Local media also reports this type of car was seen in the neighborhood the night the McLellands were murdered.

Eric Williams is now sitting in jail. Over the weekend he was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat. He's being held on a $3 million bond.

Williams and his lawyer have vigorously denied any involvement in the Kaufman County murders and insist they've cooperated voluntarily with investigators.

ERIC WILLIAMS, CONVICTED BY MCLELLAND AND HASSE: My heartfelt condolences go out to both the McLelland family and the Hasse family because they were in public office doing the right thing, and for some reason that we're not aware of paid the ultimate price for that.

LAVANDERA: Williams' connection to Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland dates back to last year. He was convicted on two felony counts of burglary and theft by a public servant.

This video played at his trial shows him stealing computers from a county building, and here he is during a police interrogation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So basically you just took the monitors and the memory?

WILLIAMS: That's what I can remember.

LAVANDERA: It was a big scandal in a little town. Prosecutors Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland were front and center on that case. This is a picture of both men from the courtroom during that trial.

Denise Bell covered the trial for "The Forney Post" newspaper.

DENISE BELL, REPORTER, "THE FORNEY POST": It was a mega trial for a little community. The sense of it was a big trial.

LAVANDERA: After the trial, McLelland told reporters that Williams' connection was a sign that the good ol' boy network is gone and that elected officials should be held to a higher standard.

Hasse ripped into Williams, calling the disgraced justice of the peace a "dishonorable liar" and that he was using Kaufman County as his own piggy bank.

Williams lost his job and his law sentence and was sentenced to two years probation.

Denise Bell says she spoke with Mike McLelland in the weeks before his death. She says after Mark Hassle's murder in January, McLelland was worried about Eric Williams.

Did McLelland tell you that he believed Eric Williams was responsible for that murder?

BELL: Yes.

LAVANDERA: He did? What exactly and in what context did he tell you this?

BELL: In a context of, be careful, Denise.

LAVANDERA: He told you to be careful?

BELL: Yes.

LAVANDERA: Why would he tell you to be careful?

BELL: Because I sat in the front row and covered this story for 10 days.

LAVANDERA: Despite Eric Williams now getting so much attention, investigators have still not officially named him as a suspect or filed murder charges against him.


BERMAN: All right, Ed Lavandera joins us live now from Dallas. Also with us our top legal team, attorney and legal analyst for, Lisa Bloom, she's here in New York, and defense attorney and former prosecutor Brian Silber is in Miami.

And, Ed, I want to start with you because this man Eric Williams has been well-known to you for some time as well as others who have been covering this case for a while right now.

Let's start with last year. What did he say about his initial conviction last year?

LAVANDERA: Well, this is interesting. We've gone through much of the court transcript from that trial a year ago. And it's interesting.

You look at what he said at the end, after he had been convicted, the court transcript shows that Eric Williams said that my life has changed drastically because of this. I'm not the one being punished, but his mother and father who he cares for as well as his wife.

Because, remember, in all of this, Eric Williams lost his job as justice of the peace, but, more importantly, he also lost his law license.

BERMAN: He is in custody right now, being held on bail, $3 million total.

Are investigators making any official statements at this time?

LAVANDERA: No. It's been very hard to get information. Investigators at least officially, you have the Kaufman County sheriff's department, Texas Rangers, the state police as well as FBI investigators and other federal agencies who have been assisting, and so far, with all of this movement on Friday and Saturday and over the weekend that you saw at his house and at the storage unit, they have not put out any kind of official statements about what is going on.

BERMAN: So the question I suppose is, is that unusual?

Lisa, I should ask you. There was all this activity at the storage unit, at the house. This man now under arrest, in custody.

Is it unusual that we don't have any official statement connecting him to the case? Is this slow?

LISA BLOOM, LEGAL ANALYST, AVVO.COM: No, because the police need to build their case piece by piece.

Look, anyone who was convicted by these prosecutors who were gunned down has to be ruled out as a suspect, and what they need is more than just animus, more than just motivation to kill.

They need physical evidence. They need to link the car to the crime scene. They need ballistics. They need all of that physical evidence pulled together, and they don't want to come forward until they're sure.

BERMAN: So, Brian, let me ask you. Initially after these two murders, there was a lot of talk that white supremacists might be involved. The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was a name, a group that was tossed around a lot.

Now there's this evolution. We're not talking about them so much. Is this an evolution or does this show perhaps inconsistencies or weakness in the overall case?

BRIAN SILBER, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: What our viewers to understand is that a criminal investigation is almost like a living thing. You know, you move from lead to lead, and you're ruling out one thing at a time.

It doesn't mean that the white supremacist theory has been taken off the table. I'm sure these investigators are making this case a number one priority and they're looking at everything.

So the fact that they come up with a new theory and a new suspect doesn't necessarily rule out the other.

BERMAN: And, Lisa, one of the striking things about this case to me is that we have sound or interviews of this man, Eric Williams, that took place after at least one of the murders.

That sound on tape, those pictures, could that come back to haunt him in court?

BLOOM: Absolutely. We saw that in the Scott Peterson case. We've seen that in many high-profile cases.

Sometimes defendants come forward. They're very brazen. They speak to the press. They want to create a good impression about themselves, and absolutely that can be Exhibit A in a trial against them.

BERMAN: All right, Lisa Bloom, Brian Silber, stick with us. Thanks so much.

Ed Lavandera, our thanks to you, terrific reporting on this story.

Now to Phoenix and the Jodi Arias murder trial. Another juror is off the case.

And check this out. See that look on Jodi Arias' face? What do you think? That's from Friday. Do you think she looks worried?

The jury's questions to her domestic violence expert may say a lot about what they're thinking and perhaps not good for Jodi Arias.


BERMAN: It is day 48 of the Jodi Arias murder trial, April 15th, three days past the time the judge told the jurors the case would be over, and it is far from over. The defense hasn't even rested its case and we've lost two out of 18 jurors. Juror 11, the only visible minority on the panel, was released Friday due to an illness.

So now there are 10 men and six women. Four of them will be alternates but what four, we won't know until it's time for deliberations.

We can, however, already tell a lot about them by the questions they've asked during the defense's domestic violence expert testimony.

The judge read all 159 of these questions in court.


JUDGE SHERRY STEPHENS, MARICOPA COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT: How can you say that Jodi and Travis' relationship was domestic abuse when there is no proof other than name-calling on paper and Jodi's word?

On the one side, we have demeaning multiple verbal slurs, a slap, a shove, a choke-hold and a lunge perpetrated on Jodi.

On the other, we have a gunshot to the head, a four-inch-deep slit throat and close to 30 stab wounds delivered from Jodi to Travis.

Is not the perpetrator of the greatest domestic violence Jodi?


BERMAN: CNN's Ted Rowlands and "In Session" correspondent Beth Karas join me now from outside the courthouse in Phoenix.

And truly one of the most interesting, fascinating and even strange things about this very strange case is the enormous number of questions from the jury, one question after another after another.

So, Ted, what do you think these questions tell us?

Beth, let me ask you that question to you. Beth, these jury questions right and there have been a great number of them, what do you think they tell us?

BETH KARAS, "IN SESSION" CORRESPONDENT: Well, of the jurors who, of course, are submitting those questions -- and you know, it's not all of them.

Not all jurors are participating in this, but those that do seem to have a skepticism about Jodi Arias' story and Alyce Laviolette saying that it was Travis Alexander was the abuser, especially that question the judge just read that you played shows that at least one juror is zeroing in on what the state believes is the key issue in this case. It was Jodi Arias was the abuser. She's the murderer.

Of course, the defense is saying this isn't a murder. It was a justified killing.

BERMAN: So you brought up the word " "skepticism." We have skepticism in the open courtroom.

What do you think will carry back into jury deliberations when they ultimately happen?

KARAS: There's no question that those jurors who are submitting questions will probably be very vocal in deliberations.

We know the jurors will consider at least one lesser charge of second- degree murder, which is an intentional killing, not much different from first-degree murder. It's just first-degree adds this premeditation, a little bit of thinking and reflecting on what she's about to do.

That's what premeditation is. It doesn't mean a week of planning, which is the what the state's evidenced shows if you believe the state's evidence.

Jurors are likely, though, to have a battle over what level of crime it is, not whether or not it's a crime at all, but just what do we call it, first-degree, second-degree? And they may even consider manslaughter.

BERMAN: What do we know about this jury at this point? Over the last few weeks, we've seen two jurors -- we've said good-bye to two jurors, one for questionable activity, one for illness.

What kind of a group does that leave?

KARAS: You know, when the jurors were selected last December, the questioning in open court didn't involve stuff about their backgrounds. It involved whether or not they could impose the death penalty if they ultimately get to that point in the case.

They filled out multiple-page questionnaires with all of that personal information. Those questionnaires are not public.

But for a jury to sit for what will ultimately be five months, maybe five-and-a-half months, it's likely that they are either retirees or, for those who are younger, between jobs, or they're government employees, so they can't lose their jobs when they're a government employee because of lengthy jury duty.

So these are jurors who have been able to roll with the schedule. They thought April 11th they would be finished.

None of them have a problem with extending this through May, apparently, and those two who were excused were not excused because they had scheduling issues. They were excused for other reasons.

BERMAN: Yeah, it is a long haul to say the least.

Ted Rowlands, I think you're finally with us now. What do we expect in court today?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're expecting in the morning session some motions are going to be heard by the judge. In fact, the jury has been told don't come until the afternoon.

Then the defense will continue its case. We expect there's only one more witness. We also expect that it is not going to be an Alyce Laviolette-type witness that goes on for weeks and weeks.

We expect they will rest their case at some point this week and the prosecution will begin a short rebuttal case.

The jury, theoretically -- and we've thought this before -- should get this case within about a week and a half.

BERMAN: We have a sense of what the rebuttal will focus on?

ROWLANDS: Well, we understand that there are four witnesses and one thing we can definitely predict is that there will be a psychologist or some sort of medical expert to come in and refute what the defense case basically tried to build up, and that was what Jodi Arias suffered from domestic abuse and that she had this memory loss because of PTSD.

That will be the bulk of their rebuttal case. And then we expect a couple of other witnesses to be recalled.

BERMAN: That on day 48 of the Jodi Arias murder trial, now a full three days past when the judge said it would be all over.

Ted Rowlands and Beth Karas, thanks to both of you. Really appreciate it.

All right, so things that some of us did that got us into the principal's office are now sending our kids straight to criminal court.

So what's changed? When we come back.


BERMAN: Playing hooky, getting in fights, bad-mouthing teachers -- it's the stuff that gets students sent to the principal's office, right? Well, more and more, students that act up are ending up in criminal court by the hundreds of thousands every year.

That's according to "The New York Times". "The Times" says this is due in large part to the greater number of police officers in school. "The Times" says that fact is a cause of alarm among both youth advocates and judges and, of course, this issue has gained greater attention in the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre.

Joining us now to talk about this serious issue is Ron Astor. He is the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in urban social development at the University of Southern California. Thank you so much for being with us, professor. "The New York Times" makes the case in their article, quotes a lot of people in this article, saying that we are seeing more and more criminal charges in court filed by these police officers in cases that are best handled or would be better handled by the school, by the principal, by the disciplinarian. What do you think?

PROF. RON AVI ASTOR, UNIV. OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: Absolutely. And this is not just the opinion of "The New York Times". We have years of research showing that when you have police officers there, who sometimes are trained and most of times are not trained to handle youth, adolescents, and they're not very well connected sometimes to the school setting itself, that you actually increase, by quite a bit, the number of referrals to courts, tickets, citations.

So rather than the principal or the teacher or the educators dealing with the students in the classroom from an educational perspective, the way we've been dealing with most of our history, it becomes a criminal offense. A school fight, instead of an educational opportunity to bring in the parents and to talk to the kids, could become a court case that follows the kids for a very long period of time. And it moves us away from the whole purpose of education in our country, which is partially to educate kids on how to get along with each other.

BERMAN: It seems to be two issues here and sometimes they're at odds: there's safety and there's discipline. In and of itself, do officers in schools, does it make it more safe?

ASTOR: Well, I think people after particularly Sandy Hook want to have, in some districts, police officers there. There's absolutely no research backing that these officers were able to stop any shootings in the past. There's been shootings in schools that have had security guards and police officers. And in fact, when you look at the data and you look at the research, the very best prevention we have is talking to the students, to the teachers, to the community members, because almost all of the situations that were thwarted, when you look at shootings in particular, or stabbings or very serious instances, come because other students come forth. They trust the educators. The community feels comfortable with the school. And they actually let them know beforehand.

One of the interesting facts with most of these shootings, if you look over the last 10 or 15 years, is that almost always someone in the community, someone in the school or in the family, knows about these arsenals and sometimes knows about the plans themselves, including which day it is. And it's those situations that have been thwarted that the media doesn't cover very often. They usually cover after an event has happened and there's been shootings, but we've had thousands of events where kids, teachers, community members, even families themselves have come forth and told the school and averted massacres, shootings that could have happened but never did. And I think that ought to be our goal.

BERMAN: Let's talk more about these criminal charges that are taking place in some cases for minor offenses. It does seem that in some states a very large share of those students being charged are minorities, African-Americans, Latinos, in some cases disabled. How much of an issue is this to you?

ASTOR: It's a major issue nationally, and it's not something that people are just projecting or making up. We have historical data on this. When you put police officers and security officers -- and by the way, we won't be able to afford to put police officers in every school that are better trained and may have some community training; it's usually security guards -- then they tend to really hit hard inner city and minority populations because those are the communities that tend to hire, in large numbers, these security guards.

We've seen in Texas, for example, huge numbers of kids being ticketed and sent to the courts, and this is why the judges, the juvenile court judges, have come out against it. Most of them have, and they're not happy so many of these cases are being referred to the courts.

So it's something that's already happened and is continuing to happen and it's by far hitting hard low-income and minority populations for situations that shouldn't be -- they should just be in the principal's office and taken care of as an educational matter and not to the courts. So there's some that are concerned that this will increase the school-to-prison pipeline. And I have those concerns as well.

BERMAN: All right, Professor Ron Astor, thanks for coming in. Thanks for your help on this. Really appreciate it.

Twenty-three minutes after the hour right now. And a silhouette that could be used for target practice gets one police officer fired and now he's lashing out. We're going to hear from him next.


BERMAN: So in the ongoing debate on guns in America, are people in other countries concerned about the proliferation of guns in this country? CNN's Jill Dougherty is traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Japan, and she put that question to him.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We had an interesting discussion why fewer students are coming to, particularly from Japan, to study in the United States. And one of the responses I got from our officials, from conversations with parents here, is that they're actually scared. They think they're not safe in the United States, and so they don't come.


BERMAN: Kerry says officials tell him that Japanese citizens feel safe in their country because guns are not readily available there.

So you turn on the TV, you pick up a newspaper, or click through the Internet, and almost every day there are stories about gun violence. The U.S. outpaces every other country in the developed world in gun- related murders. And behind every one of these shootings, there is a story. On this show, we're committed to telling the stories.

There's a big development today, the U.S. Supreme Court said this morning it is not getting involved in an important gun case. Our crime and justice correspondent Joe Johns joins us now from Washington. Good morning, Joe. JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. The Supreme Court said it was letting New York's strict gun laws stand. The justices rejected an appeal from gun owners who argued the law was unconstitutional.

The issue was whether the Second Amendment allowed individuals to carry guns outside their homes for self-defense. New York passed some of the strictest gun laws in the nation following the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Since the high court refused to get involved, the state law will stay in place. John?

BERMAN: A lot going on today. And Joe, you have new details on a story out of Florida where this police sergeant was fired over the weekend because he had targets that resembled Trayvon Martin. What's the latest on that?

JOHNS: Absolutely. There are new details there. This police sergeant has taken to YouTube to defend himself after being fired from the Port Canaveral, Florida, Police Department for possessing shooting targets that some said looked like the Florida teenager gunned down last year.

Sergeant Ron King apologized to the Martin family and he's now trying to clear his name. He says he was using an image of an unarmed person in a hoodie as a "Don't Shoot" target. In other words, it was a target people in training were supposed to avoid shooting. It's a common practice in law enforcement. Listen.


RON KING, FIRED POLICE OFFICER: I'm being accused of using a Trayvon Martin silhouette target for firearms training in a manner that is less than professional. I take these allegations seriously and I find that others are accusing me of something that I just plain did not do.


JOHNS: So, an interesting little twist there to a story that we've been hearing so much about. As I said, "Don't Shoot" targets are pretty common in law enforcement, John.

BERMAN: And you can see the picture right there of that kid in a hoodie, apparently holding Skittles and an iced tea, much of course like Trayvon Martin did.

Another story this weekend, there was a gun death at a NASCAR race. A man died in Fort Worth. What do we know about this?

JOHNS: Authorities say this 42-year-old man's body was found in the back seat of a truck on the infield of a campground area of the race. This is near the back stretch of the Texas Motor Speedway.