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Obama Presses Congress on Syria Strike; Anti-War Protests Planned Around the U.S.; Protesters Rally Outside the White House; Russia Stands with Syria; Dead Georgia Teen's Parents Speak Out; Obama Works to Build Syria Support; Videos on Syria Revealed

Aired September 7, 2013 - 13:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And of course, we have much more in the NEWSROOM. It all starts right now.

Welcome to the third hour this afternoon in the NEWSROOM. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. A look at our top stories that we're following in the NEWSROOM right now, President Obama is working the phones this weekend hoping to persuade members of Congress they should vote yes on military action in Syria.

And a new twist in the bizarre death of a Georgia teenager. A second autopsy indicates the boy may have been murdered. But police say the case is closed. The growing controversy coming up.

And a medical mystery in Denver. Dozens of people are getting sick from synthetic marijuana, but officials can't find where the drug is coming from.

We begin in Washington where President Obama is working throughout the weekend, trying to win over lawmakers who were not convinced that attacking Syria is the right response for alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Brian Todd is live now from Washington.

So, Brian, I understand that we just learned the president has lost yet one more potential supporter. Who's that?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Fredricka. He has just lost another Democrat. Senator Mark Prior of Arkansas has just issue d a statement saying he cannot support military action against Syria at this time. Senator Prior says some of the criteria he was looking for to justify a strike had not been met, so the balance tips further away now from the president.

In the Senate right now, updated numbers, 25 members have said they will vote yes to authorize a strike, 20 now will vote no, and you've got 55 undecided senators. In the House, this is looking a lot worse for the president. Twenty-four members say they'll vote yes, 119 will vote no, 270 are undecided and you've got 20 unknowns, so the president and his team making calls this weekend to members of Congress, trying to sell this.

Fredricka, it just ticked toward yet another kind of reminder that this is an uphill battle.

WHITFIELD: And so, Brian, I wonder, do we know whether Senator Prior has said anything about getting -- you know, being in those intelligence briefings and based on that information is still not persuaded? I mean, what changed his mind?

TODD: Well, he said he's read some of the classified material. He has observed, you know, some of the intelligence. He said he's basically been briefed on all this. And, you know, compile together. This just does not meet his own criteria. He said he's listened to the concerns of thousands of Americans -- excuse me, thousands of Arkansans, as he said, as he's traveled the state. So, you know, in his own constituency, in his own mind, and with the intelligence that he has received in briefings and in written material, this does not meet his standard to agree to a strike.

WHITFIELD: All right. Brian Todd in Washington, thanks so much. Keep us posted.

TODD: Sure.

WHITFIELD: So as Congress makes up its mind on whether to take military action against Syria, antiwar groups are getting ready to stage protests in Times Square today.

Rosa Flores joining me live now from New York.

So, Rosa, tell us more about the protests unfolding there in New York.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, those protesters are making their way here to Times Square. And I'm actually here with one of the organizers. Caleb from the International Action Center.

And I know that you guys are expecting dozens if not hundreds of people here, but first of all, explain to us kind of what is your mission. Why are you guys here?

CALEB MAUPIN, INTERNATIONAL ACTION CENTER: The last thing we need right now is a new war against Syria. Right now, they're cutting food stamps, hospitals are closing, schools are being shut down, there's a budget crisis in this country. We do not need more money for a new war against Syria.

Every one of the cruise missiles they would send would cost over $1 million. That could be teachers that could be hired. That could be hospitals that could be opening. But instead, it's blowing up and killing people in another country and that's not right.

FLORES: Now let me ask you about the support that you're getting because from what I understand, lots of organizations are coming out of the woodwork and asking to be involved. Tell us a little bit about the involvement of other organizations that perhaps would not be in this case participating in -- something like this.

MAUPIN: Well, 89 percent of the U.S. public is opposed to this war. People in this country overwhelmingly oppose an attack on Syria, but that won't mean anything unless people do something about it. If people aren't in the streets and organizing and demonstrating and making clear to the government that they will not let this war pass, that won't mean anything. Because we've seen so many times, the government not listen to people and go to the war.

I don't believe what's coming out about this chemical weapons attack. I have a lot of questions about it. There are a lot of facts that just aren't adding up. And we've heard about weapons of mass destruction before. There's so many lies to take us into war. We don't need a new war. We need jobs, schools, education, and not a new war against the Syrian people and these rebels that our government and our tax dollars are paying for, they're not good folks. And they're doing awful things there in Syria.

And we should not be supporting these rebels in Syria. It's not just Assad who's doing bad things.

FLORES: Caleb, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. We appreciate it.

And Caleb was also telling me that protests are not only going on here in New York City, but at least 24 other cities around the country.

So, Fredricka, we will say here. We will hopefully see more of these protesters here shortly and we will bring you those pictures as soon as they become available -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Rosa Flores, thank you so much.

Well, among the many protests taking place across the country, protests right outside the White House as the president continues to make phone calls trying to win some support. All he has to do is look out the window. Ordinarily he's going to see protesters in front of the White House because it happens all time, but this time, it's different. A very large crowd gathering to say they don't want any kinds of strike in Syria.

Emily Schmidt is there.

So, Emily, how aggressive is this crowd in making their point?

EMILY SCHMIDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, this crowd gathered in front of President Obama's front door basically, in front of the White House, for more than an hour talking.

Now when he looks out, he will not see them. That's because they have started marching down Pennsylvania Avenue on their way to Capitol Hill where they're going to continue to try to spread the message.

But one of the people who was here, Margaret Clark, and her 9-year-old daughter, they came from Virginia.

Why did you come here today?

MARGARET CLARK, OPPOSES MILITARY ACTION IN SYRIA: Because we don't want for Obama to have a military intervention in Syria. We'd like a peaceful negotiation.

SCHMIDT: Were you an Obama supporter?

CLARK: Twice for Obama. And we voted for a change. If he does a surgical strike or anything else with Syria, I don't feel it's a change. I feel it's a continuation of the Bush administration.

SCHMIDT: Do you feel that your message is still one that can be listened to by the members of Congress about the president?

CLARK: I think the U.S. public does not want a military intervention and I think that world leaders are not endorsing these proposals. I think there is still a chance and even in our church, the Pope called for a day of fasting today for a peaceful negotiation in Syria and that's what we'd love to support.

SCHMIDT: Margaret Clark and her daughter here is part of this march with the Answer Coalition.

Fredricka, it is symbolic in a way that that crowd is no longer here. They're making their way to Capitol Hill. Last week, they had a very similar march. They stopped at the White House, but now, because President Obama has called upon Congress to say how, do you believe we should act on this, the march is continuing down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill.

The story continues and we'll keep you posted throughout the afternoon.

WHITFIELD: All right. Emily Schmidt, thanks so much for that.

All right. Former pro basketball star, Dennis Rodman, well, he's wrapped up his second trip to North Korea this year. Rodman hasn't said why he returned to North Korea, but North Korea's reclusive dictator, Kim Jung-Un is known to be a big basketball fan.

There was some speculation that Rodman would help secure the release of Kenneth Bae, an American being held in a North Korean prison, but Rodman left the country empty handed.

All right. If you live on the East Coast and you're looking through the sky last night, you may have seen a NASA rocket on its way to the moon. The unmanned rocket was launched from Virginia at 11:27 p.m. Eastern Time and it is expected to reach the moon next month. October 6th. To study the lunar atmosphere and environment.

And Russia. It's supplying weapons to Syria and more apparently are on the way. So just what will the Russians do if the U.S. were to strike Syria? And what does this mean for the U.S. relationship with Russia.

Then, it first was ruled and accident. A Georgia teen found dead, rolled up in a gym mat. But now a new autopsy shows that his parents -- what his parents, rather, have believed all along. It was murder.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) WHITFIELD: A major player in the Syrian crisis is Russia, and its president, Vladimir Putin, is holding fast against any military action against Syria. Mr. Putin and President Obama met during the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, and afterwards Putin says Obama -- I'm quoting here now -- "does agree with me and I don't agree with him," end quote.

Joining me now from Washington is economist, Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, specialist in Russian studies. He's the co-author of the new book, "Mr. Putin Operative in the Kremlin."

All right, Mr. Gaddy, good to see you.


WHITFIELD: So what is Mr. Putin's motivation here for supporting Syria? Is it simple?

GADDY: It's not simple. There are a list of interests that Russia has in Syria, but there are two main reasons why Putin regards what's happening there in the threat of a strike as particularly risky for Russia.

WHITFIELD: What are they?

GADDY: That it's all about Russia. Russia first and Russia last. The first is the fact that the U.S. seems to be a serial interventionist for Putin, going around toppling regimes and not thinking about the consequences. None of these Iraq, Libya, even attributing what happened in Egypt to the United States has ended up well. It creates instability and leads to a strengthening of radical Islam, which is a real risk as Putin sees it.

The second risk that Putin sees is more to him personally and that is the precedent for interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Putin has a real project of his own for Russia. He wants to create a unique Russian identity with Russian values.

He feels that the United States proclaiming so-called universal values and defending universal values and human rights, democracy and the American version, and so forth, is setting a precedent for undermining his own attempt to create a specific Russian identity and Russian values and he wants -- as he put it in an interview just a couple of days ago -- to build up an immunity in the Russian population to this sort of -- this sort of thing.

WHITFIELD: So, given all that, he doesn't want to interfere with other country's business. He doesn't necessarily like the idea that the -- you know, the U.S. is getting involved in other country's business. Does he -- does he lack an opinion altogether about these reported atrocities taking place in Syria and whether the world sees Russia as complicit in what's taking place?

GADDY: He has a very definite opinion about the chemical attacks. He's said it now several times very explicitly. He says, I am absolutely certain, other time, I have no doubt what happened. It was the rebel, he says, that used the chemical weapons. They were about to be completely destroyed. They had no ability to stand up to Assad, he said. Their only hope was to get -- active military intervention on their side from, as he put it, their patrons from the beginning. And this was a way to do it. So he has done this --

WHITFIELD: So he's placing blame on the rebels --

GADDY: That it was the rebels.

WHITFIELD: -- which means --

GADDY: Absolutely.

WHITFIELD: Which means Russia would in no way, shape or form, ever want to get involved here?

GADDY: Well, Russia doesn't want to get actively involved in any way, no matter what. His whole idea is to protect Russia from the -- from the spillover, from the fallout or blowback of what happens in the Middle East in general and especially here in Syria. So he -- he will not get involved militarily, for or against either side in -- in this conflict.

WHITFIELD: So then perhaps you can help us understand what is the plan? Russia says it has a plan if the U.S. were to get involved militarily. That Russia has a plan. What would that plan be in your view?

GADDY: Now he's explained that he -- there's no plan. He said we will do two things. We will give Syria military support and we will engage with them economically and on humanitarian aid, and then proceeded to say in a second sentence, these are things we are already doing, which is indeed true.

Russia is essentially the only major supplier of arms to Syria, selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of arms to Syria every year. It will continue to do that.

WHITFIELD: So essentially do nothing different.

GADDY: And of course -- no. There's really nothing he can do. I mean, it's going to cause Russia some real problems. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of Russian citizens in Syria, and if there's major military action from the outside in Syria, these people will be in danger and Russia has sent ships already to the area to be able to extract more of them.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right. Clifford Gaddy, thank you so much for your perspective. Appreciate that. For keeping us abreast of this relationship. Appreciate it.

All right. A teen's death was first ruled an accident, but his parents just couldn't accept it. Now, new information that confirms their fears that it was murder.


WHITFIELD: It was at first ruled an accident. A Georgia teen found dead rolled up in a gym mat, but now a new independent autopsy shows what Kendrick Johnson's parents have believed all along. That their son was murdered.

CNN's Victor Blackwell sat down with Kendrick's parents to find out what they've learned and how far they'll go to get answers.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kenneth and Jackie Johnson now say science supports what they thought all along. That their 17-year-old son Kendrick was murdered at his school in Valdosta, Georgia.

KENNETH JOHNSON, KENDRICK JOHNSON'S FATHER: A accident, we just didn't believe.

BLACKWELL: Soon after Kendrick's body was discovered upside down in the center of this gym mat, investigators determined there was no foul play and that Kendrick accidentally got stuck while reaching for this shoe. The official finding of the state's autopsy, positional asphyxia. That Kendrick was suffocated by his own body weight.

JOHNSON: When I went and viewed his body that Sunday, you can see something happened.

BLACKWELL: So could the first responders. In the report written the day Kendrick's body was discovered, paramedics considered the gym a crime scene and after a closer look at Kendrick, there was bruising noted to right side jaw.

At the Johnson's expense, Kendrick's body was exhumed, forensic pathologist Dr. Bill Anderson performed a second autopsy and checked the right side jaw. He found something surprising.

DR. BILL ANDERSON, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: That area where the trauma has occurred had not been affected. It was still intact. So it had never been opened at the time of the first autopsy.

BLACKWELL: And there's no mention of those bruises in the state's official autopsy or the local crime labs' report.

ANDERSON: There was hemorrhage, indicating trauma to the area, and that trauma basically causes blood to come out of the blood vessels into the soft tissues. By looking at that, we were able to diagnose the fact that there was indeed blunt force trauma to that area.

BLACKWELL (on camera): So he took blows to the neck.

ANDERSON: He took at least one blow to the neck.

BLACKWELL: So, just to be clear, you're calling this a homicide.

ANDERSON: Yes. BLACKWELL (voice-over): A spokeswoman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation tells CNN, "We have complete confidence in our medical examiners and stand by our autopsy report."

ANDERSON: I have never had a case that I can recall where the prosecution actually was told that this may well be a homicide, and the prosecution being the state, the police and so forth, and then the -- and then didn't bother prosecuting. And it's just -- it's mystifying.

BLACKWELL (on camera): This is the first time you've called a case a homicide and everyone's backed away.

ANDERSON: Pretty much so. The only other times where a couple of case where there was a -- deliberate cover up of the case by people involved in the investigation or associated with people who just didn't want the facts to come out.

BLACKWELL: The U.S. Justice Department is considering whether to get involved.

K. JOHNSON: If they don't come in, that will send a message to the world -- you can kill as long as you can get away with it.

BLACKWELL (on camera): Do you still talk to Kendrick?


BLACKWELL: And what do you say?

J. JOHNSON: I ask him sometimes what happened. I wonder. Sometimes, I blame myself for not being there.

BLACKWELL: How long are you willing to fight?

K. JOHNSON: Until I die. If it take me until I die, I will fight until I die.


WHITFIELD: And that was Victor Blackwell reporting.

The U.S. Justice Department says it is aware of the concerns regarding Kendrick Johnson's death and the different autopsy findings, but they say they will not conduct a civil rights investigation.

Coming up, a Montana judge has become the target of national outrage after he sentenced a rapist to just a month in jail. He's now responding on the record. Hear what he has to say, straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: All right. Bottom of the hour now. Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

Here are five things crossing the CNN news desk right now. Number one, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Europe seeking international support for military action in Syria. Kerry met with European Union leaders in Lithuania today and afterwards, E.U. ministers insisted there is strong evidence the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. They also called for a, quote, "clear and strong response," end quote, but they stopped short of supporting a U.S. military strike.

And number two, a Montana judge admits he bungled when he sentenced a rapist to just 30 days in jail. The minimum sentence he now knows is two years. Todd Baugh says the error could have been avoided, quote, "if I had been more alert," end quote. A higher court stopped Baugh from reviewing the case Friday saying an appeal will move forward. The rapist's underage victim committed suicide.

Number three, Missouri police say two more men are seeking to press charges against this man, who confessed that he may have exposed more than 300 men to HIV. David Mangum is already charged with exposing his former partner to the virus that causes AIDS. Mangum told police that he didn't tell his sexual partners about his status because of his, quote, "fear of rejection."

And number four, Johnson & Johnson is voluntarily recalling 200,000 bottles of Motrin for babies. The company is worried tiny specks of plastic may be inside. The specific product is labeled "concentrated Motrin infants drops original berry flavor." Johnson & Johnson says the plastic likely came from one of its suppliers.

And finally, the host city of the 20 Summer Olympic Games will be announced before the afternoon is over on the East Coast. Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul are the candidates with betters favoring Tokyo.

And join me in the 3:00 Eastern hour, I'll have two Olympians with me. At 3:50 Eastern Time I'll speak with gold medalist Gail Devers and Jackie Joyner-Kersee about the picked city and we'll talk about other things, too, like getting adults to act more like kids. All that and more straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: The president will speak to the nation Tuesday to make his case on Syria and it's turning out right now, it's not Congress, but constituents who are stalling the president's momentum as he tries to gather the votes for a strike.

CNN's Athena Jones reports on the public backlash lawmakers are facing -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fred, this is the last weekend members of Congress will be in their home districts before they head back here to Washington to debate whether to attack Syria and boy, are they hearing from their constituents on this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we send you to stop the war. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If we shoot a, quote, "shot over the bough" and aren't willing to finish the battle, we're worse off than we started.

JONES (voice-over): Across America, people are showing up to have their voices heard on Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think we should stay the hell out of there.

JONES: And by and large, they're not happy.

From Arizona to Missouri to Alabama, senators got an earful from their constituents about whether missile strikes are a good idea.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We put missiles in there, it's not going to do anything. If you're going to -- boots are going to be on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what I think of Congress. They are a bunch of marshmallows.

JONES: It's their last chance to go face to face with the people who voted them into office before they head back to Washington and decide the country's course of action.

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions says he hasn't decided whether he'll support missile strikes. On the one hand --

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: We cannot, as a nation, take it upon ourselves to take military action or declare war anytime any dictator in the world violates some U.N., some treaty.

JONES: But on the other --

SESSIONS: To turn down the president's request is not a matter of being likely done.

JONES: Some in his town hall audience near Montgomery, Alabama, question the rationale for an attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure it was a chemical weapons attack. I think -- I think it was a pesticide attack. I think that the al Qaeda could get a hold of pesticides. I think it was set up to get the United States to come in there and do al Qaeda's dirty work.

JONES: It got more heated in Arizona while Republican Senator John McCain, who supports strikes, faced a skeptical crowd.