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Deadly Tornadoes Rip Through Texas; Jodi Arias Awaits Sentencing; O.J. Simpson Testified Yesterday; Search is On for the Missing After Texas Tornadoes; Scandals Occupy White House

Aired May 16, 2013 - 07:00   ET






JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: That is the sound, that is the sight of danger. Our STARTING POINT this morning, breaking news, tornadoes tear through Texas killing at least six people, injuring 100 others. Homes flattened, neighborhoods gone. We are live on the ground there.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Then, first on CNN, their integrity has been questioned and they've been accused of lying. Now, the two men responsible for the independent state department review on the Benghazi attack, they demand a public hearing to clear their names. Will Congress listen?

BERMAN: Plus, you still have a chance, the Powerball still up for grabs and the jackpot, perhaps, will reach an eye-popping $475 million by the winner.

Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It's Thursday, may 16th. STARTING POINT begins right now.

We do begin this morning with those dangerous deadly tornadoes. An outbreak overnight killing at least six people, more than 100 others injured in North Texas. And right now, this morning, 14 people are missing.

Terrifying funnel clouds bearing down on the hardest hit area. That would be Granbury, Texas. That is where these six people were killed in a Habitat for Humanity neighborhood. Most of the homes were destroyed, 120.

Victor Blackwell is in Granbury for us. Victor, what's the latest this morning.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's a rescue task force coming from Dallas to search for those 14 missing persons. Also here, look over here. The heavy machinery has just pulled up, some bulldozers over here, to start to clean up the mess left by what the sheriff calls a monster that created a war zone.


BLACKWELL: Take a look at this, video from a storm chaser in north Texas Wednesday night. And this -- this is what a tornado looks like in the dark, lit up by lightning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just hug them and pray to god as loud as you can.

BLACKWELL: That's what this man did when the storm hit. He rode out the storm with his family in his bathtub.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You and see the whole roof collapse and the twister just there facing you. It's horrible.

BLACKWELL: Officials say it hop-scotched through the area, touching down and lifting up as it cut through north Texas. As storm passed, reports of injuries and fatalities came in.

SHERIFF ROGER DEEDS, HOOD COUNTY, TEXAS: I've had information that people were found in homes, they were hard hit. Those homes I've been told were collapsed, destroyed, as they were probably hit by flying debris.

BLACKWELL: Those who could made their way out of their homes while crews worked to free people trapped inside buildings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On top of the hill, you could tell where the tornado went through directly because it's just wiped out. Trees gone, houses completely demolished.

BLACKWELL: Officials sent school buses to the hardest hit areas to help with evacuations, as residents cope with losing everything in an instant.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's just nothing left, I'm sorry. There's just nothing left.


BLACKWELL: And 250 people were taken out of the community that was hit hardest, and coming into the community, volunteers, firefighters from other communities in other cities. And there are now donations of food and clothing and offers for people to stay with relatives and friends now that this tornado and these tornadoes, we will get a final number from the national weather service, have created so much destruction. Back to you.

BERMAN: Victor, we're getting our first look at live pictures from the air of the damage there. It is still dark. But we do see roofs ripped off of homes there, lots of damage on the ground. Obviously as the sun does begin to come up there, we will get a much better sense of the scope of the damage there. We will come back to you because we want to stay with this all morning. Thank you, Victor Blackwell. ROMANS: We also want to look at where the storms might be headed right now. Meteorologist Jennifer Delgado is in the CNN center in Atlanta. Good morning.

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Christine and John. We're looking at the radar. Things have quieted down since yesterday. You can see just scattered showers well to the southern part of Texas. For areas hit by these tornadoes, things are going to be quiet as we go through the next couple of days.

But let's take a look. From north Texas down to central Texas, this is where we're hearing the three reported tornadoes came down. Those numbers could go up. Now we're hearing possibly ten tornadoes moved through central as well as northern Texas. This looks like the work of several super-cells.

Now, as we examine this a bit more, Granbury, Texas, that's the area we're following, this tornado right here or this storm actually took a right turn and then moved into Cleburne. Typically for the month of May, you usually see about 322 tornadoes. Right now we've only had reports of three confirmed tornadoes. And a lot of that is because it's been so cold. So we haven't had that severe weather.

Pointing out to you as we go through the next couple of days, it's going to be very hot for people who don't have homes. And sun rise comes today at 6:28. Survey teams will be out there at 6:00 a.m. surveying the damage within four counties. So these numbers continue to go up.

ROMANS: Jennifer Delgado, thank you.

A first on CNN, a new development on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The two men who headed up the state department's review of the events are demanding a public hearing to defend their reputation. In a letter obtained by CNN's Jake Tapper to Congressman Darrell Issa, Admiral Michael Mullen and General Thomas Pickering say it's not in the public interest for them to be questioned behind closed doors. They write, "In our view, requiring a closed door proceeding before we testify publicly in an inappropriate condition." The letter concludes by saying, quote, "What the committee is now proposing is highly unusual in the context of senior officials who are not fact witnesses but instead are reporting on their own independent review."

BERMAN: Meantime, one head had rolled but that's not likely to stop the uproar over the IRS targeting political groups. President Obama is expected to face more questions today about the IRS scandal during a joint appearance with Turkey's prime minister. We're going to get more from Dan Lothian on White House control.


DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Trying to step out of a political sinkhole, President Obama expressed anger at misconduct within the IRS. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's inexcusable and Americans are right to be angry about it and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency.

LOTHIAN: The agency's acting commissioner Steve Miller was asked to resign, and President Obama bound to put in place new safeguards and work with congressional investigators.

OBAMA: I will do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again.

LOTHIAN: But this scandal threatens to run much deeper. The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation, and Attorney General Eric Holder was on the hot seat Wednesday, pressed for answers by the house Judiciary Committee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would strongly encourage this administration to get out front, get all the facts out, let the chips fall where they may.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Anybody who has broken the law will be held accountable.

LOTHIAN: The IRS scandal has drawn bipartisan outrage, but some top Republicans already seem convinced laws were broken.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R) HOUSE SPEAKER: My question isn't about who is going to resign. My question is, who is going to jail over this scandal?

LOTHIAN: This is a White House under siege, from the IRS case to the AP phone records probe to Benghazi, all threatened to overshadow the president's second term agenda. On the defensive, the White House released 100 pages of e-mails Wednesday as first reported by CNN Jake Tapper. It's part of an effort to prove politics played no role in crafting the so-called talking points that followed the deadly attacks in Libya.

But Republicans are seizing on all these scandals, releasing this tough new video using the president's own words.

OBAMA: The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable.

LOTHIAN: White House spokesman jay carney, battered in briefings all week, insisted the president has set a high standard and won't tolerate anything less.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He wants and instructs everyone who works in the government, whether they work for him or our civil service, to hold themselves to that standard. And when he finds out that there have been failures, he acts on it.

LOTHIAN: Dan Lothian, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROMANS: Attorney General Eric Holder grilled over why the Justice Department secretly tapped into the phone records of the associated press. Holder said he's removed himself from the investigation. And at times the hearing, which touched on other administration scandals, became heated, especially during this exchange with Congressman Darrell Issa.


HOLDER: I'm sure there must have been a good reason why only the to and from parts were --

REP. DARRELL ISSA, (R) CALIFORNIA: Yes, you didn't want us to see the details. Mr. Attorney general --

HOLDER: No, no.

ISSA: -- knowing the to and from --

HOLDER: That's what we typically do. I'm not going to stop talking now. Characterize something as something --

ISSA: Mr. Chairman, would you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee.

HOLDER: -- and it's too consistent with the way you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It's unacceptable and it's shameful.


ROMANS: During the hearing Holder was also accused of not taking responsibility for what happens at the Justice Department.

BERMAN: We're going to bring in CNN chief national correspondent John King. John, there was a whole lot of activity all at once last night, the president pushing out the head of the IRS, the White House all of a sudden releasing 100 pages of e-mails on Benghazi. It felt like the end of "The Godfather," taking care of all of the five families all at once here. How do you assess that sudden White House damage control?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Maybe Washington can learn some tips from "The Godfather." It was an abrupt, quick, pivot, you might say, about face in the White House. The night before the president released a statement saying Jack Lew was going to look into this. If there's wrong doing, we'll be mad about it. If, if, if. Then the president last night, bang, this guy is fired. I'm going to do more.

Earlier throughout the week, we're not going to release these e-mails. It's part of a deliberative process. No administration releases these internal conversations about big policy decisions. Bang, they release 100 pages of e-mail to try to put this down. Why this happened, it is trademark, classic Obama. He pushes things away. He's a bit detached me says let's not rush to judgment unless and until they reach a conclusion, this is beginning to hurt them and him personally. And then they act quickly. That's what you saw yesterday. ROMANS: So you think that on Benghazi they will act any differently than they have so far given they have been swift about the IRS scandal at this point?

KING: You mentioned at the top that Admiral Mullen, Ambassador Pickering want to go back and have a public hearing and defend themselves and defend the finding of their investigation which essentially says the administration got some things wrong but there was no cover-up, there was no plot to mislead the American people. So that's part of the administration's step.

But you also saw it was a question on another subject. But you saw the animosity between Attorney General Holder there and Chairman Issa on the government overnight and reform committee. That is what is driving this.

There are some legitimate questions. Four Americans died. We must never forget that. There are some legitimate questions about what happened in Benghazi, why security warnings were ignored, and how the administration acted in those early hours and days. Those are legitimate policy questions. At the same time there is a deep undercurrent of politics and animosity here. Benghazi is not going anywhere.

BERMAN: One other aspect of this sudden damage control, John, is it did seem like the White House was beginning to lose Democrats, particularly on the issue of the IRS and the scandal there. Do you think the actions here might put Democrats at ease and do you think now that there are more legs to this IRS scandal?

KING: There are more legs to this IRS scandal because everybody is going to want to know the tick-tock, exactly what happened, how far was it, how much of it was in the Cincinnati, how much was in California, how much was here in Washington. So this one has legs because of the scope of it and because of the outrage.

If part of the White House pivot was because Democrats were starting to walk away, in a second term when you already know the opposition party, the Republicans are standing up to you on just about everything, if you are starting to lose your own party in the second term, ask George W. Bush, it's over. That's what happened to Bush when Iraq War opposition grew and Katrina happened and he could get nothing done in his final few years. So that was part of the administration's urgency.

The question now, John, is do they turn the Democrat volume down enough to get the Democrats to get the answers to the IRS but let's not beat up our president and pummel the White House in the process. That would be a key first step in damage control.

BERMAN: John King, thanks so much. If you're going to watch one thing today in Washington, watch the Democrats on the IRS issue. That could be the canary in the coal mine.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, O.J. Simpson on the stand, the long shot bid for a new trial. Jodi Arias back in court has the jury offered the convicted killer another blow. HLN's Nancy Grace breaks down the legal case as only Nancy Grace can.

BERMAN: And then the video today that you have to see to believe, a deer crashing through the windshield of a bus. Find out how it ended. I'm talking for the deer. You're watching STARTING POINT.


ROMANS: The final phase of Jodi Arias' murder trial begins later today, with jurors ultimately deciding whether she receives a sentence of life or death. Yesterday they found that Arias was exceptionally cruel when she murdered her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander. That verdict means she is eligible to receive the death penalty. The prosecution hammered home its case.


JUAN MARTINEZ, PROSECUTOR: She made sure that she killed him by stabbing him over and over and over again, and then finishing him off.


ROMANS: The defense will try to convince jurors that Arias should not be executed. She will be able to make a statement asking that her life be spared.

BERMAN: So, with Jodi Arias waiting to find out if she lives or dies, with O.J. Simpson waiting to find out if he will get another trial. We want to bring in a woman who knows these legal issues like no one else, Nancy Grace. Host of HLN's "Nancy Grace," which airs at 8 and 10PM eastern. She'll also be hosting the upcoming "Nancy Grace Behind Bars." Nancy is joining us now. Thank you for being with us this morning. Appreciate it.


BERMAN: Now we understand that in Jodi Arias penalty phase, the burden falls on the defense now. Explain to me what that means and what they will be trying to do.

GRACE: Well, now the state has carried the burden so far. As you know, the burden is almost always on the state. And they must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. That being guilt, innocence phase as well as the aggravation phase, to show that there was one aggravating factor, one or more, in Arizona. And this time they showed that this murder was conducted in an especially cruel way.

Now, the state is going to push for the death penalty. The defense is going to bring on mitigation to help convince this jury not to give Arias the death penalty. I expect that you will hear brief opening statements. Then you will hear from Travis Alexander's family. I predict his two siblings who have been in the courtroom from the get- go will speak to this jury. Typically they read from a victim impact statement that they have prepared and, interesting note, the defense filed motions to keep the family from testifying live to the jury. They wanted them to testify on video and only allow the jury to see that video while the family is sitting right there in the courtroom. How odd is that?

We'll hear from Travis' family. Then I expect a long parade of witnesses, kindergarten teachers, Sunday school teachers, you name it, to convince this jury that Jodi Arias is really a good person and should be spared the death penalty.

BERMAN: We have seen a mitigation expert, a so-called mitigation expert, sitting behind Jodi Arias for a long time now. I mean I think she's been involved in this case for a while. Where does this, expert play in this?

GRACE: The expert is somewhat like a jury consultant that speaks to certain lawyers that need help picking a jury. A mitigation expert has experience in death penalty mitigation and steers them along the way as to who they should put up. You'll probably see some of her friends. I expect childhood friends, former boyfriends, particularly Daryl Brewer, her live-in lover before she met Travis Alexander. I expect him to testify.

BERMAN: And these will be people who will try to convince the jury to spare the life of Jodi Arias. What about Jodi Arias herself? Do you think it will help her cause to take the stand again?

GRACE: Please. The last time she took to the stand for 18 days, she got a guilty verdict. Do I think it will help her? No. I think when you don't know a horse, look at the track record, last time she testified she got a guilty verdict. But I don't think there's any way you can keep Arias off the stand. Wild horses couldn't drag her away. Last night she was tweeting from behind bars again.

BERMAN: Part of the issue is that the jury needs to be unanimous to issue the death penalty. Part of the issue here is that there are very, very few women on death row in Arizona. So how likely do you think the death sentence is here?

GRACE: Well, statistically the likelihood is very, very low that arias will get sentenced to the death penalty. The last time an execution took place in Arizona was 83 years ago. It was Eva Dugan as I recall convicted of murdering a fellow rancher. There are two other women on death row right now in Arizona, coincidentally one of the women -- one was put there by Martinez, the prosecutor in the Arias case, but the likelihood in Arizona, as everywhere, is low to get, A, a conviction on a woman and, B, to get her on death row.

I think the most important thing for me and many others was the verdict, a verdict that speaks the truth, a true verdict. It's so distressful when the system fails and you can't even get a true verdict. Sentencing is very, very subjective, so we may see a hiccup in the death penalty phase.

BERMAN: I want to move on with the time we have left to the O.J. Simpson plea for a retrial in Las Vegas. We saw something very unusual yesterday which was O.J. on the stand himself. And what a sight it was. I want to play one clip of him explaining the legal advice he now says was bad advice and is the reason he deserves a retrial. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O.J. SIMPSON, SENTENCED TO 33 YEARS IN PRISON: The overall advice he gave me was -- is, you have a right to get your stuff. He gave me an example. That if you were walking down the street and you saw your laptop with your name on it in a car, you can use force to break the window of the car to get the laptop.


BERMAN: He's looking for a new trial in the robbery, kidnapping, burglary charges that he was convicted of. He's been in prison for four years. How do you think he did yesterday, Nancy?

GRACE: I think in his own mind he was very charming and did a great job. The reality is that I don't find him even remotely charming or attractive. You know, every time I look at him, I see the two murder victims with their heads nearly chopped off, lying in the front yard. So that kind of ruins the whole attractive former star thing for me.

But what he said actually has no legal merit. He tried to explain to the judge that he was drunk out of his gourd off of Jack Daniels and Coke and Bloody Marys. Well, voluntary intoxication is not a defense under the law. You can't pull a pistol and say, oh, I was drunk, sorry. It doesn't work that way.

Yale Galanter is no idiot. I doubt very seriously he told Simpson that he was authorized under the law to seize items belonging to him, which I want to point out before you go to a commercial break, these items were removed from Simpson's home way back then so the Goldman family could not get them for that $33 million civil judgment. So that's where those items went. Simpson was trying to hide them from the law so sheriffs could not seize themm and now all these years later, that act comes back to haunt him.

BERMAN: Nancy Grace, thank you so much. It's a treat for us to have you on the show.

GRACE: Thank you.

BERMAN: Appreciate it.

Do not forget to watch "Nancy Grace, Behind Bars," a two-night special event coming soon on HLN. Nancy goes behind bars to talk to female inmates at the very same jail where Jodi Arias now awaits her fate.

ROMANS: All right, ahead on STARTING POINT, if you have $2 and a dream, it might be time to play Powerball but only if you are fully invested in your 401(k). No winning ticket last night. We'll tell you how big this jackpot could be by Saturday's next drawing. You're watching STARTING POINT.


ROMANS: Welcome back. You're looking at live pictures this morning of a tornado damage in Granbury, Texas. We've been following this story for you. There are fatalities. There are people still missing. There are at least 120 homes in Habitat For Humanity complex, I guess, that had been built, complex that had been destroyed by these storms that rolled through overnight.

BERMAN: Six people dead. We're told now 14 people still missing. More than 100 injured. These pictures you're looking at are of large homes. This is not the Habitat For Humanity area that was destroyed. So clearly, the scope of the damage here as dawn breaks in Texas, quite large. Perhaps larger than people expected overnight. You can simply see just the roofs torn off those homes. Shredded. Very large home there.

ROMANS: Rescue workers are searching at this hour for the missing. They're surveying the damage here. It is, as John said, the early morning hours. The sun is coming up. They know now, they're getting the visual impact, I guess, of what was a very terrifying night in Granbury, Texas. We should tell you that is in Hood county, Texas. It is slightly southwest of Dallas/Ft. Worth. There were a couple of other towns where there were reports of the sirens going off, the sounds of tornadoes, and some of the storm chasers say that it was just a terrifying, large, large system that went through here.

BERMAN: It gives you a sense of how powerful the storm was and how quickly it blew through. Victor Blackwell, our man on the ground there, was telling us a story about how one rescue worker was about to race outside to get in his truck to go survey the scene but he went outside and his truck was gone, completely gone. The truck had been lifted off the ground, blown away in the power of this storm here. Again, we're getting a sense of it from the air right now for the very first time as the sun comes up in Granbury, Texas.

ROMANS: May be up to 100 injuries. We know it wasn't just Hood county. It was Hood county, Tarrant county, Dallas, Parker counties. A tornado may have touched down several times. And other reports are there were at least three twisters that came down here. Winds up to 80 miles per hour. You can see how it skipped, a telltale sign John of tornadoes here, how it touches down, explodes a house, lifts a car, throws a silo, that's exactly what you're seeing here.

BERMAN: And you're seeing the debris littering the roads all around that area right now. You're going to want to stay with us for this because right now as we said, we're looking clearly at a neighborhood right now where there are a few homes pretty much obliterated right there. But we understand that a community -- a Habitat For Humanity community with about 120 homes, we are told that most of those homes were destroyed. So the scope of the damage there obviously very large.

ROMANS: All right. Ahead on STARTING POINT, we will continue to breaking coverage of these deadly tornadoes. Police, firefighters, all of the local officials on the scene are going to let us know what they're finding there this morning at dawn.

BERMAN: Plus, what exactly happened the night police and the Tsarnaev brothers engaged in that deadly gunfight. We have shocking new details. ROMANS: It's a video you have to see to believe. A deer crashes into the windshield of a moving bus. What happened next? You will be surprised. You're watching STARTING POINT.