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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Crisis in Syria; School Bus Beating Victim's Grandmother Speaks; Judge Apologizes for Comments About Rape Victim, 30-Day Sentence Stands

Aired August 29, 2013 - 11:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: World powers butting heads over what to do about chemical weapons in Syria; the United States and its Western allies weighing their options amid resistance from Russia, China and Iran.

President Obama says he hasn't decided whether or not to launch a military strike despite what he calls "decisive evidence" that that regime gassed its own people.

And Syrian hackers apparently launch a strike of their own, knocking the "New York Times" Web site offline.

Hello, everyone, I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Thursday, August 29th. Thanks for joining us.

The drumbeat for military action against Syria is growing louder this morning. In London, the British government has just released its intelligence assessment on Syria declaring that an attack would be justified on humanitarian grounds.

For the first time since last week's suspected chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus, President Obama now says there is no doubt Syria was, in fact, responsible.

In Syria this morning, President Bashar al-Assad again vowing to defend his government, quote, "against any aggression."

Our comprehensive coverage of the Syrian crisis begins in London this morning with Atika Shubert who's there live.

Atika, break down for us if you could exactly what is in this intelligence assessment in the U.K.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, basically, the intelligence assessment says that they believe, British intelligence believes, that Assad's forces are behind the alleged chemical attack on the 21st of August.

And here are the two key lines from that. Quote, "We have assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal chemical weapons on 14 occasions from 2012." Also, quote, "It is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks on the 21st of August." Now, those seem like strong statements, but the intelligence report doesn't actually detail what exactly that evidence was other than to say that regime forces appear to have used chemical weapons in the past

So for a lot of members of parliament here, that is not enough evidence. They say they want to see what the U.N. inspectors have before they make a decision on military action.

But the British prime minister, David Cameron, is pushing ahead saying action must be taken. Listen to what he said earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: The fact the Syrian government has and has used chemical weapons is beyond doubt. The fact that the most recent attack took place is not seriously doubted.

The Syrian government has said it took place, and the evidence that the Syrian regime has used these weapons in the early hours of the 21st of August is right in front of our eyes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHUBERT: Yesterday it seemed that the prime minister was pushing for a one vote today that would clear the path for a decision on military action. That does not seem likely to happen. There is too much opposition in parliament.

Instead, they're voting on humanitarian action today, and then they're hoping to get some more evidence from U.N. inspectors on the ground, talk to the U.N. Security Council, and then there might be a second vote before we hear anything on military action.

So we're talking about several days before we see a British decision at least, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right, Atika Shubert, live from London.

Meantime, those inspectors are still doing their work. They're still collecting material from in country and onsite, and there are more dire threats that are coming from the Syrian regime on what it would do if it finds itself under attack by the United States.

We're also hearing that some Syrian military commanders have left, gone from the capital of Damascus, as well, of course, as you would understand a lot of civilian residents.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has just returned from Syria, from Damascus, in fact. He joins us live from Beirut.

First off, is there any reaction we know of yet because this is all developing, Fred, from Syria with regard to what the British are saying this morning?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ashleigh, they haven't reacted yesterday to that report specifically from the Brits outlining what they think actually happened.

Of course, they've been saying the same thing continuously over the past couple of days. The Syrian regime continues to say it didn't use chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus.

They also say and this is probably the most important statement, that they believe that the United States is, quote, "fabricating evidence" to try and make a case for military intervention.

So they think this is all a case that's being built against them, something that we've heard from the prime minister's office.

We've also heard from the information minister of Syria who's quite a senior national that administration. He's saying if the United States and if the Brits have any sort of proof, they need to bring that forward. Clearly they believe that so far that isn't the case.

It all gets back to the weapons inspectors. That's sort of what the Syrian regime is hanging itself on. I keep saying the weapons inspectors need more time to do their work, to complete their work. We know that's supposed to happen by Saturday.

But now the Syrian regime has come and said it wants the inspectors to check out various other sites, as well.

BANFIELD: All right, Fred Pleitgen, live for us in neighboring Lebanon, in Beirut, in fact, thank you. And thank you for your incredible work all throughout last week. Fred put himself under immense danger to be in Syria for us.

Now President Obama has been under a lot of pressure from the members of Congress to get their approval for any kind of action, any sort of military attack against Syria.

They are all expected to be briefed today on a big conference call by the administration officials as pertains to the evidence that Syria, in fact, the administration there, used chemical weapons against its own civilians last week.

Our Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon. Barbara, I'm just wondering if the Pentagon is as much involved in the case for war or making the case at least as they have been just getting busy getting ready.

In the meantime, when you ponder that question, have look at this report on the entire scenario.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: President Obama says he hasn't decided what to do, but is determined to hold Syria accountable.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons against your own people, against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you're also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop.

STARR: In an interview with the PBS "Newshour," the president left no doubt who the United States believes concluded the attacks.

OBAMA: We have concluded that the Syrian government, in fact, carried these out.

STARR: Among the evidence, intercepts of Syrian commanders discussing the movement of chemical weapons to the area of the attack provided by Israeli intelligence.

The potential next step, cruise missile strikes, has put the U.S. at direct odds with Russia.

MARIE HARF, DEPUTY STATE DEPARMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We do not believe that the Syrian regime should be able to hide behind the fact that the Russians continue to black action on Syria at the U.N.

STARR: But behind the scenes, officials are signaling the U.S. may not wait for the United Nations to act.

The U.S. military is strengthening its position in the eastern Mediterranean with the addition of two more submarines.

And the Syrian regime is also getting ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are in a state of war now, preparing ourselves for the worst scenario.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: So, Barbara, that question -- is the Pentagon so much involved in the case to go to war, or are they just involved in readying the assets?

STARR: Well, probably a little bit of both, Ashleigh, but look, the military's number-one job is to be ready to go when the president makes that call and says he wants to do this, so that's where the real focus is right now.

The warships in the eastern Mediterranean, ready with those Tomahawk cruise missiles, ready to go whenever the president gives the order, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And Barbara, just quickly, you know, the Russians are sending assets to the Mediterranean, as well, but saying they're not necessarily for this particular scenario, that they were already on the way.

But, you know, anti-nuclear devices as well as missile ship, that's pretty serious.

STARR: You know, the Russian navy has maintained a presence in the eastern Med off Syria really for months and months now, since all of this began. At the moment, sources at the Pentagon say they don't see the Russians causing any trouble. They think the Russians want to have a presence in the region just as the U.S. does.

But I think it's really safe to say everybody's keeping an eye on everybody else.

BANFIELD: I should have said anti-sub, not anti-nuclear assets, the Russians are sending.

OK, Barbara Starr, thank you for that.

And then also coming up a little later, we're going to speak with the former United Nations weapons inspector, David Kay, about what the team could be doing now and if what they're doing even matters at this point.

And also, General James "Spider" Marks is going to join us on how the U.S. may be just preparing for what exactly Barbara Starr was just reporting on and exactly what it means to be in this predicament if you're part of those forces.

The collateral damage from this civil war in Syria and now this chemical attack and its reverberations is starting it show up in the United States.

Take, for instance, if you tried to log on to "The New York Times'" Web site yesterday or this morning. You're probably seeing this, "Server not found," an error message.

It's because a group called the Syrian Electronic Army has apparently hacked into this Web site, and our national correspondent, Deb Feyerick, live in New York, has been following this.

The Syrian Electronic Army, it almost sounds comical, but this is something no one expected could possibly happen with big reverberations.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Huge reverberations. As a matter of fact, nobody really knows exactly who this group is and where they're operating out of. There have been addresses that have been tracked to Syria.

This is a mysterious, pro-Assad hacking group that's claimed responsibility for a number of very high-profile attacks. They've gone after "The New York Times," Twitter, Huffington Post in the U.K.

So what they're doing essentially is they're trying to spread their message, a pro-Syrian message, a pro-Assad message. which they feel is not getting out there. What they're doing is instead of targeting the giants themselves, they're actually going after the huge supply chains, in this case of "The New York Times," the domain registrar.

Another attack, they targeted the search engine, so rather than hit the giant, what they're doing is they're going after the friends that surround the giant and getting in that way. It's not the integrity of the site that was ever compromised, "The New York Times." What was compromised was our ability to access that site.

And the domain registrar, they fixed the problem, but what they said is that they really -- you've got to give it 48 hours until everything is back up and running.

BANFIELD: And even if you don't read "The New York Times," I think we worry that that can happen with banking and so many other kinds of site.

Deb Feyerick, thanks for that. And I know there's more to look at, seeing as they're not back up perfectly yet either.

FEYERICK: Yes. The Internet is the new theater of war when it comes to digital.

BANFIELD: Deb Feyerick live for us in New York.

And we aren't getting too far from the crisis in Syria because this is the tick-tock. We're going to keep you updated all throughout the day and this program, as well, on what's happening in Syria.

And there is other news to tell you as well. The video that shocked the nation just as school was starting, a boy beaten up on a bus. The accused are in court as the victim's grandmother speaks out.

Plus, the judge in a controversial rape case tries to make his amends as the community around him plans to protest and ask for him to be pulled off the bench.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: This afternoon, the three suspect in the Florida bus beating case are going to be in court.

And now the victim of the attack, the grandmother of that victim, says none of this would ever have happened if the authorities had actually listened to earlier complaints about the suspects in the case and maybe called the grandmother to pick the child up.

Pamela Brown has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PATRICIA YANKEY, VICTIM'S GRANDMOTHER: (Inaudible) he had to go through that.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Patricia Yankey still gets choked up as she talks about what happened in this video, showing three Florida teens brutally beating up her grandson on the school bus.

YANKEY: To hear him saying, "Stop, stop," it breaks my heart.

BROWN: The image of him after the attack still very vivid in her mind. YANKEY: He had bruises on his face. His whole body was bruised. It was horrible.

BROWN: Police say the victim told a school employee the teens had tried to sell him drugs. Later that day, his grandmother says they relentlessly taunted him on the bus before attacking him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leave that boy alone! Leave him alone now!

BROWN: She questions why the bus driver who called for help chose not to intervene, something he was not required to do under school policy.

YANKEY: I would have been in the middle of it, no matter what policy said. But that's me. I can't stand by and watch somebody get hurt. I -- I couldn't do it --

BROWN: He should have stepped in and helped your grandson?

YANKEY: I feel that he should have.

BROWN: Still, she puts the blame squarely on the three defendants who have been charged as juveniles with aggravated battery. One faces an additional robbery charge. A father of one of the defendants offered an apology.

JULIAN MCKNIGHT, DEFENDANT'S FATHER: I would like to apologize to the young man and his family. From my heart for my son because I know I didn't raise him like that.

BROWN: But he says his son is not a criminal.

MCKNIGHT: Peer pressure maybe. You know, in a bad mix. But I understand that, you know, what he did is really not what defines him, you know, as a child. You know, he's not a criminal.

BROWN: Yankey says she hopes the teens have learned their lesson.

YANKEY: Those children, for lack of a better term, have to realize that they can be up on other charges now. They could have killed him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: Our Pamela Brown joins us live now from Clearwater, Florida. Pamela, this is such an incredibly vicious attack. Yet, the state officials who are prosecuting this case are only recommending probation. What happened here?

BROWN: Yes, that's right. And they're saying a big reason for that is because these three 15-year-olds are first-time offenders. Now initially they recommended court-supervised probation. They have since recommended a stricter punishment which is Department of Juvenile Justice-supervised probation which would entail perhaps a juvenile record which is different from the initial recommendation. It also would include other measures like anger management, a strict curfew, and so forth. It's important to note here that these are just recommendations. When the three teens appear in court today, the judge will ultimately decide what their punishment will be. And he's expected to look at that beating video and perhaps hear from the defendants themselves in an apology.

BANFIELD: So weird. It's normally the prosecutors who shoot for the moon and the judge brings it down to the stars. So I'll await your report this afternoon. Pamela Brown, thank you for that.

George Zimmerman's wife is talking about her ordeal today. A day after she pleaded guilty to perjury related to the Trayvon Martin case. Shellie Zimmerman was talking to ABC's "Good Morning America" about the strain that the trial took on their lives.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHELLIE ZIMMERMAN, GEORGE ZIMMERMAN'S WIFE: We have been pretty much gypsies for the past year and a half. We've lived in a 20-foot trailer in the woods, scared every night that someone was going to find us. And that it would be horrific.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Despite all of that, she did lie about the couple's finances. For that, she's going to be on probation for one year and also have to perform 100 hours of community service.

Speaking of service, a Montana judge is now having to apologize for his remarks about a rape victim. A very young rape victim. He's not backing down from his 30-day sentence for that rapist. You're going to hear what he has to say about this controversy coming up next.

Plus, as new evidence is gathered in Syria on the suspected chemical attacks, do we need that intelligence? most Americans say we don't need to go there at all.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Talk about law and disorder. A judge in Montana is apologizing now in connection with that 30-day sentence that he handed down in the rape case of a teenage girl who committed suicide. He's not apologizing for the sentence, but he is apologizing for the things he said in handing down the sentence. What did he say? That the 14- year-old victim was, quote, "older than her chronological age," and that she was "as much in control of the situation" as the 49-year-old rapist, her teacher. But here is what he's saying now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUDGE TODD BAUGH, YELLOWSTONE COUNTY, MONTANA: In the Rambold (pg) sentencing, I made some references to the victim's age and control. I'm not sure just what I was attempting to say at that point, but it didn't come out correct. What I said was demeaning to all women, not what I believe in, and irrelevant to the sentencing. I owe all of our fellow citizens an apology. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So he also had to say about people who are upset with the sentence, "I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is, just given her age, but it wasn't this forcible beat-up rape."

Today in Billings, Montana, there is a protest scheduled at the courthouse against the sentence and against the judge, as you could imagine. CNN's legal analyst Mark NeJame joins me live from Atlanta. Where to begin, but I want to begin here, Mark. That is judicial recall. Protesting is one thing. Actually yanking a judge from the bench is another. Is it possible?

MARK NEJAME, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's highly improbable. It was a legal sentence, as -- absurd as that might seem. If it's a legal sentence, and he was exercising judicial discretion, it's a legal sentence, so that's not going to pull him off the bench. What might pull him off the bench is some of the inappropriate comments. Trying to put it back in the bottle, but it's out. The fact is they were highly inappropriate. And they really basically in some ways justify the raping of a child.

BANFIELD: Who does that? Who does that? is it the A.G. who has to step in? Is it the voters who have to try for a recall, or is there some process in place for inappropriate comments coming from a person we have to respect in the system?

NEJAME: The Judicial Qualification Committee. If in fact he did something that was a violation of his judicial ethics, that would go to the Judicial Ethics Committee. If the elections are in fact voted upon, like any elected official, you can have a right to recall. So those would be the two avenues.

But you know, the situation is that what the judge said which is so offensive is that he goes ahead and says that he -- regrets his comments. Well, you know, whenever you get caught doing that, that's what people typically do. But judges make their comments in large part to sentences that are imposed. No matter what he said, he still imposed a 30-day sentence on a rapist and he in fact said that the 14- year-old, because it wasn't violent and it wasn't what people have in their minds, no. Legislatures say that the age of a child is enough to cause rape. So what generation, what century we came from is --

BANFIELD: That's it. Forcible rape, please. That was so -- so '80s. Mark NeJame thank you. We'll watch the case --

NEJAME: 1780s. 1780s.

BANFIELD: There you have it. I'm glad you cleared that up. This will go on today as the protests continue there. Nice to see you. Thank you.

Happening right now across the country, workers are walking off the job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CHANTING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Fast food workers are demanding more money for their hard work in the $200 billion industry.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Syria in the crosshairs. Strong evidence of chemical attacks and strong warnings from western powers. This as President Obama makes a decision on a possible military strike.

Also ahead, let's say you send a text message to someone who happens to be driving and they read it and they wreck. Are you liable? Don't believe me? Just ask the judge on this one.

And uploading nude photos of your ex to sleazy web sites and destroying their reputation. It happens, and there's a name for it. Revenge porn. Guess what -- now one very big state is about to try to pass a law to make sure you get punished if you do that.

I want to take you to our top story, and that is the possible military strike that could be looming against Syria. The British government has issued a report just this morning saying that an attack would be justified, and they say so on humanitarian grounds.

President Obama is also now saying for the first time that there is no doubt that the Syrian regime was in fact responsible for that horrifying chemical attack on its own people last week.