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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Fire Hits Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship; Cleveland Kidnappings Update; Zimmerman in Court Today; New Evidence For Zimmerman Defense

Aired May 28, 2013 - 08:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Our STARTING POINT this morning, after their cruise ship caught fire, more than 2,000 passengers return home today. What do these cruise disasters, why do they keep happening?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It's such a nightmare for an American family as a mother and grandmother sits in a Mexican jail cell accused of trying to smuggle marijuana. Could she go free today or she might force to stand trial?

ROMANS: Plus, incredible new video from inside a tornado. How the photographer was able to capture this powerful force of nature.

BERMAN: And then there is this. And that is actor Brad Carter, he is playing guitar there, but the really impressive thing. He is doing it during open brain surgery, my word. How is that even possible? Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It's Tuesday, May 28. Welcome to STARTING POINT.

BERMAN: Up first, a dream vacation up in flames at sea. This is happening right now.

Twenty-two hundred passengers stranded in the Bahamas, waiting to be flown to Baltimore, after this vacation took a terrible. Their cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Sea, it caught fire -- caught fire -- yesterday off the coast of Freeport.

Erin McPike now live from Baltimore/Washington International Airport this morning where some passengers will be returning. Good morning, Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. That's right. They'll be coming on chartered flights back to this airport later on today and tomorrow, some of them stayed on the ship last night. Others were put up in hotel rooms in Freeport, because, of course, that ship had pretty bad damage after it raged in fire more than two hours, Sunday night and early Monday morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The entire back end of a ship scorched. More than 2,200 passengers aboard a Bahamas-bound cruise were roused by a terrifying wake-up call early Monday morning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The lifeboats been lowered around 3:00 a.m. (ph) in our life jackets. Not a drill, not a joke. I was freaking out.

MCPIKE: For the third time this year, mechanical problems caused a major cruise ship to abandon a Caribbean vacation for thousands of passengers. This time, it was a fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas.

Passenger Kathie Coleman told CNN --

KATHIE COLEMAN, GRANDEUR FO THE SEAS PASSENGER: It's obviously the most terrifying thing in my life.

MCPIKE: In February, it was an engine room fire on Carnival Triumph, shutting down power and the ship's sewage system for days. One month later, Carnival's Dream lost power from a generator failure while in port. And now, rival Royal Caribbean has its own set of problems.

Royal Caribbean said in a statement, "On Monday, May 27th, at approximately 2:50 a.m., Grandeur of the Seas experienced a fire on the mooring area of deck 3. The fire has since been extinguished. But in an abundance of caution, the captain deemed it necessary to muster all guests at their assembly stations."

All passengers were found and safe, but some took to message board of cruise critic and complained there was fainting and vomiting as they waited for hours.

The Grandeur of the Seas was just renovated last year. It was rerouted on Monday to Freeport for evaluation. The Royal Caribbean CEO Adam Goldstein already surveyed the damage. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Cost Guard will investigate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCPIKE: Now, Royal Caribbean is giving a full refund to all of those passengers, as well as a voucher for another free cruise.

But, John and Christine, I don't know if you have ever read Tina Fey's 2011 book "Bossypants." I have. She talked about a cruise ship fire on the cruise she took for her honeymoon, and it's a pretty funny chapter. And she says she'll never take another cruise ship.

So, after a cruise ship fire, I don't know if I would want to take one either.

BERMAN: I don't know. We talked to some passengers, they said they may take it, they may go ahead and take the freebie. But I'm with you, Erin. I might think twice.

Erin McPike, Baltimore/Washington International Airport -- thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: An American wife and mother accused of smuggling pot in Mexico may find out today if she'll go free or remain in jail until her trial. Mexican officials arrested Yanira Maldonado last week as she and her husband, Gary, were returning by bus from a family funeral. The officials say they found marijuana under her bus seat. Maldonado says she was innocent, and a Mexican official believes here, saying she was framed.

Earlier, we asked Yanira's husband why someone would set them up?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GARY MALDONADO, HUSBAND: It's all about giving money here, so the military was the only one there at the checkpoint. So from what I hear, that's a regular occurrence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The family says the Mexican consulate is working on this case and that Arizona Senator Jeff Flake had several conversations with the deputy Mexican ambassador to try to bring Maldonado home.

BERMAN: Now, the latest developments on the story that's really gripped us all for so much time now -- the dramatic escape and rescue of three women in Cleveland from their home of their alleged kidnapper, Ariel Castro. The woman finally tasted freedom three weeks ago, you'll remember, after spending years essentially in prison, right under their neighbors' noses.

Pamela Brown talked with the neighbors of those trying to help the girls about how things are going now.

Pamela, what can you tell us?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the girls continue to receive significant financial help. Meantime, there's a few weeks after Ariel 'arrest, the neighbors are trying to put a disturbing past behind them.

But Castro's home, right behind me, all boarded up, guarded by a fence, is a haunting reminder.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Anthony Westry (ph) lives just two doors down from the home where a decade-long secret came to a very dramatic end.

(on camera): Is it sort of a creepy feeling to think of, for all these years, they were two doors down?

ANTHONY WESTRY, NEIGHBOR: With the boogeyman.

BROWN (voice-over): He's talking about Ariel Castro, the man accused of kidnapping Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry, and holding them captive for years.

Now, neighbors, like Westry, say they are just trying to adjust to their new normal.

(on camera): If we were to spend a day with you after what happened right next door, what would it be like?

WESTRY: Almost like a Mardi Gras, a constant stream of cars.

BROWN (voice-over): But what's a tourist attraction for some is more of an eyesore for neighbors like Israel Lugo.

ISRAEL LUGO, NEIGHBOR: Every time you wake up, you see the same scene there. You got a big old 60-foot gate metal around house of horrors, as they say in Cleveland, and you know, it's the saying -- you know what I'm saying, it's my backyard, but it's like (ph). I wish they could knock it down.

BROWN: Though what allegedly happened inside these walls has left an indelible mark, the women's courage inspired people in this community and beyond.

CHRIS KELLY, JONES DAY LAW FIRM: The e-mails keep coming and coming, wanting to help. And we are trying to channel those now more towards contributions to the fund.

BROWN: Chris Kelly of the Jones Day Law Firm runs the Courage Fund, set up for the three women and little girl rescued earlier this month, raising more than $650,000, with the funds to be equally distributed into four separate trusts.

(on camera): What does it say about the girls when they chose to put the money in a trust rather than take the money directly now?

KELLY: They have the savvy and sense to know that they want to have the money protected.

BROWN (voice-over): Those who know the women say they are drawing on the same strength that helped them survive so many years in captivity.

KELLY: They are exceptional human beings, having gone through this ordeal and to be able to come out of it and start to heal and move forward so quickly is amazing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And if you would like to learn more about how to help the girls, you can just go to CNN.com/impact and click on the Cleveland Courage Fund to learn more.

Meantime, we did speak to Ariel Castro's attorneys this morning and they tell us that -- they confirmed, reiterated, that Ariel Castro will plead not guilty to any charges he faces and they said they expect an indictment sometime in the next few weeks.

BERMAN: So, Pamela, what about the man who helped rescue those girls? How is Charles Ramsey doing now?

BROWN: Well, Charles Ramsey has certainly become a global sensation, ever since he helped rescue Amanda Berry. In fact, he's been to Washington, D.C. He's been to Kentucky just recently, to look at a statue being built of him that will come here and be put in a Cleveland museum. There is a video game with Charles Ramsey in it.

But we have spoken to some of his friends and they tell us that Charles Ramsey is trying to now stay out of the spotlight. That perhaps he enjoyed fame a little while, but he now wants to go out of the spotlight and put the focus back on the girls.

BERMAN: All right. Pamela Brown in Cleveland for us this morning -- thanks, Pamela.

ROMANS: A U.S. fighter jet pilot has been rescued after bailing out of his plane over the Pacific Ocean. It happened about 70 miles east of the Japanese Island of Okinawa, where the U.S. has an Air Force base. The pilot was able to open his life raft and was pulled out by a Japanese coast guard helicopter. No word yet on the pilot's condition. The cause of the crash is now under investigation.

BERMAN: Happening now, an army of 700 firefighters getting ready to do battle with a wildfire near Santa Barbara in California. It started yesterday afternoon, possibly at a campsite. Since then, it has burned about 1,000 acres. It's only about 5 percent contained right now, just 5 percent.

It forced up to 6,000 people out of a popular camping area on Memorial Day. Firefighters hope doesn't weather will get them under control today.

ROMANS: New this morning, what it feels like, sounds like, and looks like in a tornado packing winds up to 175 miles an hour.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

ROMANS: These pictures taken yesterday in Smith County, Kansas, by storm chasers Brandon Ivey and Sean Casey. They are from hit IMAX movie "Tornado Alley." They drove their tornado intercept vehicle right into this oncoming twister.

This is what the specially designed vehicle looks like. It's designed to do exactly this. We're told the instruments on the roof were ripped away by yesterday's twister and a door and hatch were torn open, but everyone made it out safe and sound.

BERMAN: That is crazy.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, the man accused of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin back in court today. As the judge decides what jurors will get to see and get to hear, is there a chance that George Zimmerman's trial could be delayed?

ROMANS: Then, incredible new video of actor Brad Carter playing guitar, he's playing the guitar while doctors operate on his brain. We're going to talk to the surgeon who led this impressive surgery.

You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: So, in less than an hour, George Zimmerman will be back in a Florida courtroom. This is just two weeks before he's scheduled to go on trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman's attorneys expect to request a delay before starting trial. They're also going to request that jurors be allowed to visit the scene where Zimmerman shot and killed Martin last year. Also, they will attempt to block potentially damaging testimony from an audio expert who said he heard the unarmed teenager begging for his life in the background of a 911 call.

Victor Blackwell now joins us live from Sanford this morning. Good morning, Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Mark O'Mara, George Zimmerman's defense attorney, says that he needs more time to prepare his case. That's why he's asking for an additional six weeks. The judge in this case, Debra Nelson, has shown a commitment to stay on schedule and begin jury selection on June 10th. So, that may be the most difficult argument for the defense team.

We also will find out today if information from Trayvon Martin's past will be introduced during the trial. The state is trying to keep information about his history in school, his suspension history, and information from his cell phone out of the courtroom. They do not want the jury to see the photographs and text that were released by the defense last week.

And they show pictures of Martin breathing thick smoke out of his mouth, also with gold fronts, gold false teeth and holding up his middle fingers. There's also a photograph of a small marijuana plant and a gun.

Now, let's talk about those text messages. They reference marijuana, where he writes, "I hid my weed. It's wrapped."

There's also text messages that suggest that Martin was trying to sell a gun. Someone writes to him. "You want $150 for the .38?" And his response is, "Naw, I'm fixing to get it too late."

Now, we should say that the assistant state attorney here, Bernie de la Rionda, who will be arguing the case, has not spoken about this evidence, has not spoken about the trial. But Ben Crump, the attorney for Martin's parents has spoken. Mark O'Mara has spoken. Listen to what they have to say about the phone information.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK O'MARA, ZIMMERMAN ATTORNEY: Not sure if it's recreation or whatever, but he's very used to fighting, that hehas used drugs in the past. And again, many 17-year-olds have, but then he has as well.

BEN CRUMP, MARTIN FAMILY ATTORNEY: Are they trying to say George Zimmerman was just a justified in killing Trayvon Martin because of the way he looked? Is that same stereotypical mind-set that caused George Zimmerman to get out of the car and chase Trayvon Martin, and that's just isn't acceptable in America. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLACKWELL: And John, although the state is asking for that information to be inadmissible. There's no guarantee that the defense was looking -- I'm sorry, the defense is asking for it to be inadmissible. There's no guarantee that it was going to be introduced. Zimmerman's attorney says he just wants to make sure that if they attack his character, his client's character, that he thinks the jury should see this information about Trayvon Martin -- John.

BERMAN: It's a big chess game right now. A lot of people positioning before this trial begins against set to begin in two weeks. Victor Blackwell in Sanford, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: Let's talk more about this case with Jose Baez. He's the author of "Presumed Guilty: Casey Anthony, The Inside Story." He's a criminal defense attorney who counts Casey Anthony among his previous clients. What the defense trying to do here in its portrayal of Trayvon Martin through these pictures and these text messages?

I mean, are they hoping that a jury -- getting this admissible, a jury would be prejudiced against the dead teenager because of gold fronts and pot smoke?

JOSE BAEZ, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think what they're trying to do is trying to portray Trayvon in a certain way to kind of offset that this isn't the 12-year-old boy that we saw on the cover of "People" magazine. I think this only gets admitted by a very small, small percentage. It probably will get excluded. The only time any of this behavior becomes relevant is if Mr. Zimmerman was aware of this type of information about his fights and things like that.

So, the drug use might be relevant if they try to portray that he was on drugs that evening. I know in the 911 call from Mr. Zimmerman, he does mention that the suspect looks like he's on drugs or something. So, that's probably the best thing that will get admitted and the rest won't (ph).

BERMAN: -- at the other side. What about these audiotapes that indicate that, you know, on the one hand, it says that George Zimmerman was sounding like an evangelist, on the other hand, they say that they heard Trayvon Martin screaming. This will be good for the prosecution. Likely to get admitted?

BAEZ: It is, especially since Florida just moved from a fry to a Daubert state, though, I don't believe the governor signed off on that, but I still think it will get admitted. They're going to have a hearing challenging it. I'm surprised that it hasn't happened already since jury selection two weeks away. So, I think the likeliness of it coming in is very, very strong.

ROMANS: Can George Zimmerman get an impartial jury in Florida where while this case for a year has been a very, very big case in the public?

BAEZ: I don't -- I don't think the issue here is going to be that the publicity as much as it's going to be the community involvement in Seminole County. Now, the defense has sought out this case to be in Seminole County. I think what's going to be fascinating is the jury selection. This case will be won or lost in jury selection.

Defense is going to not want to have certain types of jurors on there, and so is the prosecution and I think that really is going to be the key to this case.

BERMAN: Sir, you can say certain types. Can you just spell out exactly what you mean for is so there's no confusion?

BAEZ: Well, I think we're going to want -- the defense is going to want people who are very strong advocates of gun rights and gun -- not gun control freaks or anything like that. I also think they're going to try and exclude African-Americans.

ROMANS: And others? You think mothers on that jury could be tough, too? Because a mother can see her son pretty easily in Trayvon Martin.

BAEZ: Mothers of all their children. Children who are in their late teens, yes. But it's usually the opposite way around. The defense usually wants more African-American jurors on their panels, and I -- well, it all depends on the case, but generally speaking, that is the norm when it comes to defense cases.

BERMAN: All right. Jose Baez, thanks for being with us. Really appreciate it.

ROMANS: Jury science so inexact, too. You know, sometimes, you hear in prosecutors or defense attorneys after the trials over, they say, we completely misjudged this jury. We thought we went in with all this science about what we thought this jury would do and they didn't do what we thought. That's what makes it so interesting.

All right. Ahead on STARTING POINT, President Obama facing a series of controversies in the White House. As Republican (ph) circling, can he get his momentum back?

BERMAN: And you ever wanted to know what a Krusty burger tastes like or have a duff with Homer Simpson? Now, you may get your chance, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: "Minding Your Business," this morning, Big open for stocks today. Dow futures up around 100 points. The S&P and the NASDAQ pointing higher as well. Markets open officially in about an hour. The bounce back after last week's losses. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan overnight signaling (ph) they will keep pumping money into the financial system, and that is news stock investors certainly like.

OK. Did you enjoy your three-day weekend? Guess what? Maybe you didn't get paid for taking the yesterday off. Did you know the U.S. is the only advanced nation that doesn't require employers provide paid vacation time? And employers aren't required to pay workers extra for working on official holiday. That's according to a new report from the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

Japan is the next closest with ten paid vacation days. At the other end of the scale, workers in France get 30 paid vacation days.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: You live in Australia -- no Austria, sorry, you get 22 vacation days, 13 paid holidays and a month's pay. What? A month's pay to put toward your vacation expenses.

BERMAN: Doesn't seem fair.

ROMANS: What's happening in the world?

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: All right. Twenty-four minutes after the hour right now. And there is no place like Homer, you might say. Universal Studios in Orlando now is opening its own Simpson's mini theme park called Springfield. They're opening it sometime this summer. It will be built around the Simpson's ride, which have been part of the park since 2008.

They're also going to have a second ride, Kang and Kodos Twirl and Hurl, which is basically (ph) the show's alien characters. It can be a Krusty burger. And adult fans will be able to grab a Duff's beer at Moe's Tavern. No doubt it will be expensive. I just want a doughnut.

ROMANS: Does the nuclear power plant leave?

BERMAN: I know. Where do you think (INAUDIBLE)

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: -- and the three-eyed fish.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: Can't wait.

All right. Ahead on STARTING POINT, a student accused of planning a Columbine-style attack on his high school. He will go before a judge today. What his family says this teenager suffers from, next.

BERMAN: And more than 2,000 passengers stuck in the Bahamas after their cruise ship caught fire. Look at that. When can they expect to return home? We'll tell you, coming up. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. Another vacation cruise from hell. More than 2,200 passengers stranded right now in the Bahamas, waiting to be flown back to Baltimore after Royal Caribbean's "Grandeur of the Sea" caught fire off the coast of free port yesterday. The cause of the fire still not known.

Earlier this morning on STARTING POINT, passenger, Danielle Miller, told us by phone, she thought the ship was going down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VOICE OF DANIELLE MILLER, STRANDED PASSENGER: The first thing I thought was the boat could have been sinking, because when we went to bed, it was extremely wavy. And we're rolling around in our -- we were just freaking out. And we saw a light sparking and catching on fire, but other than that, we didn't see any smoke coming from deck three and we didn't know that there was a fire until they announced it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Coast Guard are investigating the fire. Passengers have now been offered a full refund for this cruise and then a voucher for a free cruise in the future.

BERMAN: So, following new developments this morning in an alleged plot to blow up an Oregon high school. The 17-year-old suspect, Grant Acord, he'll be in court later today following his arrest. He's caused of planning a Columbine-style attack at West Albany High School. Police say they found numerous explosives and a journal detailing his plans. They found it in his bedroom.