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High School Death Mystery; Ted Cruz's Dad on Obama; Obama Approval Ratings

Aired October 31, 2013 - 14:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


I'm Brooke Baldwin.

We begin with breaking news.

CNN pursued answers and today breaking news in the case of the teenager found dead inside this wrapped up gym mat at his high school. This is a decision this teenager's parents have been waiting for months and months and month. Officials in Lowndes County, Georgia, ruled that Kendrick Johnson's death was an accident. That was the ruling back in January. But his parents claim he was, indeed, murdered. Their lawyers demanded the Justice Department investigate their son's death further. And moments ago, U.S. Attorney Michael Moore announced his decision. He says his office will reopen Kendrick Johnson's case.


MICHAEL MOORE, U.S. ATTORNEY: At this time, however, I am of the opinion that a sufficient basis exists for my office to conduct a formal review of the facts and investigation surrounding the death of Kendrick Johnson. I do this with an open mind, neither accepting nor rejecting the opinions of anyone who has previously investigated the circumstances of his death.


BALDWIN: A huge victory for Kendrick Johnson's parents. CNN's Victor Blackwell, chasing this story for more than six months. His ongoing investigation into Johnson's death uncovered new details as to how Johnson died. Here's a look at his report and how we got here.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Months of protests, sit-ins and marches have shaken the small south Georgia city of Valdosta. Demonstrators say they want answers in the death of 17-year- old Kendrick Johnson. In January, Kendrick was found dead at school. Investigators with the Lowndes County Sheriff Office said Kendrick squeezed his 19 inch shoulders into the 14.1 inch center of this rolled gym mat. They say he got stuck upside down while reaching for this shoe. After an autopsy, a medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations agreed. The official cause of Kendrick's death, accidental positional asphyxia. Kendrick was suffocated by his own body weight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We examined all the alternatives that were presented to us and the only one that fit the physical evidence and the forensic evidence and the testimonial evidence we received was, this is an accident.

KENNETH JOHNSON, KENDRICK JOHNSON'S FATHER: An accident? We just didn't' believe.

BLACKWELL: Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, believe the story about the shoe is a cover up.

K. JOHNSON: When I went and viewed his body that Sunday, you could see something happened. You could tell he was beaten.

BLACKWELL: In June, the Johnsons exhumed Kendrick's body and hired Dr. Bill Anderson to conduct an independent autopsy. Anderson says he found evidence of bleeding under the skin near Johnson's right jaw.

DR. BILL ANDERSON, PATHOLOGIST: 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: Just to be clear, you used the word several times, but in your view, this is a homicide?


BLACKWELL (voice-over): Also, Dr. Anderson says Kendrick's organs were missing. Instead, he was stuffed with newspaper. The Georgia secretary of state's office has launched an investigation into that.

Questions about the sheriff's office investigation have made the Johnsons more suspicious, including why these shoes, found yards from Kendrick's body, were not collected as evidence. And how did someone's blood end up on this wall in the gym. CNN laid out these facts for former FBI Special Agent Harold Copus.

HAROLD COPUS, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: I don't believe this was an accident. I think this young man met with foul play.


BALDWIN: And Victor Blackwell joins me now from Macon, Georgia. And, Victor, huge news, huge victory now for the family who you've been in touch with for months and months and months. Hearing from Mrs. Johnson she said, the only thing we ever wanted was the truth. And now for the family, at least this feels like one step in the right direction, doesn't it? BLACKWELL: It does. They've been waiting and hoping for this federal investigation, not just since we started doing this story six months ago, but since his death and since they got that report from the sheriff's office of Lowndes County that this was not the result of foul play. That's at least questionable to U.S. Attorney Michael Moore since he decided to open this investigation.

There's a couple of sentences in his remarks, and I have a copy here, that he made today that stand out, Brooke. And I want to read just these two sentences. "Should sufficient information be developed to warrant a criminal civil rights investigation, I will as the FBI to open a civil rights or any other appropriate investigation."

Now, that jumped out to me because almost immediately after that second autopsy from the independent pathologist came out that civil rights division of the Department of Justice said, we don't see any evidence of a civil rights violation. Michael Moore has at least opened the door that possibly, as he continues to investigate this case, there could be evidence of a civil rights investigation.

BALDWIN: He has now opened the doors. I mentioned we have now heard from both mom and dad of Kendrick Johnson. This is their reactions moments after the DOJ said what they did. Take a listen.


KENNETH JOHNSON, KENDRICK JOHNSON'S FATHER: We're happy that an investigations been launched. We're happy with their decision.

JACQUELYN JOHNSON, KENDRICK JOHNSON'S MOTHER: We're happy. The only thing we ever wanted was the truth.

BENJAMIN CRUMP, FAMILY ATTORNEY: This is a murder mystery that we have to solve. We believe it should be a matter of simple gestures. We know the videotape will not show Kendrick Johnson climbing into a mat, getting stuck and suffocating. That was a ridiculous conclusion. We really believe his parent have always maintained that their son was killed and the only question we want to know is why they're covering up for whoever killed their son.


BALDWIN: Let me ask you about -- that was Ben Crump, one of the attorneys there, Victor, and he was talking specifically about this surveillance video from inside that high school gym where Kendrick Johnson was found in that rolled up mat. But because of the court order, the -- bits of the surveillance video that had yet to be released had been released. What can be seen on that video?

BLACKWELL: Well, we have two clips that have been released thus far. There's much more coming. But if we have those clips, guys, I want to roll them.

BALDWIN: We have them.

BLACKWELL: We've got one of Kendrick outside. We do? OK, let's talk about the one of Kendrick in the hall first. Kendrick is walking through the hall and followed another student into that gym. Now, we blurred the faces of the other students. We do not have a time stamp on this, but he appears to be wearing the same thing he was wearing when he was found in the mat.

Now let's go to the video inside the gym. You can see Kendrick kind of run about the bottom right of the screen and there in the foreground are three students playing basketball. We know from the stills that were released of this that this is about 1:09 p.m., just minutes before, according to the sheriff's office, Kendrick went into that mat and then suffocated. We don't know exactly the time length between the -- going into the mat and this, but we know that it was just minutes because another class went in moments after that near the 2:00 hour.

So, there's a lot more coming. Forty-eight hours from each of almost 40 cameras in and around that gym. That's about 1,900 hours covered by that surveillance. The office of the attorney representing the sheriff, they've not released all of that yet. But when it is released, it will go to the family because of their lawsuit. It would also come to CNN because we joined that lawsuit as part of our public records request. And as soon as we get it, we'll start looking through frame by frame.

BALDWIN: OK. We know you will, Victor. Thank you very much. Victor Blackwell for us in Macon, Georgia.

I want to turn now to legal minds here to sort through really what this means and we're going to talk about that coming up here right now with Jeff Toobin and Midwin Charles.

So, let's - Jeff Toobin, let me just begin with you. Is this a surprise that we now know the U.S. attorney is taking a close look, they're now officially investigating this case in Valdosta, Georgia?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think it's a surprise. This case is so mysterious. And the circumstances are so bizarre it certainly calls out for further investigation. I think people should be - prepare themselves for not a lot of information coming from this investigation. Remember, he's -- unfortunately --

BALDWIN: Why do you say that?

TOOBIN: Well, he's been dead almost a year. The crime scene has obviously been, you know - it's gone. There is no longer anything to investigate at the scene. And the condition of his body and this bizarre circumstance where the funeral home appears to have removed his organs and replaced them with newspaper -


TOOBIN: I think that might limit the amount of forensic evidence that could come from Kendrick's body. So I don't know what they will get at this point, but you'll never know unless you do an investigation and it's certainly appropriate that they start one now.

BALDWIN: Just in watching our coverage of this story for the last six months, and, Midwin, my question is now to you, it's like the two big mysteries is what exactly happened, right? The obvious, how did he die? And secondly, as Jeff Toobin alluded to, the mystery after his death. The issue with the fact that, you know, when he - his body - Kendrick Johnson's body was exhumed they found, you know, Black Friday newspaper ads stuffed inside of him because his organs were missing from his pelvis to the top of his head and the fact that, you know, his nails appeared to be clipped short. So two big mysteries in my opinion in this case.

MIDWIN CHARLES, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: No, you're absolutely right. And I think I'm glad that the U.S. attorney has opened an investigation into this because when you have a death like this that is under such bizarre circumstances, people need to be able to trust the process, right? They need to be able to trust that investigators are doing their jobs properly, not necessarily assuming that something is an accident or no foul play, without first collecting all of the necessary evidence, as you know. And as you pointed out in that intro piece, there was a sneaker found there that they didn't collect. There was some unexplained blood on the wall. Hello, this is a high school. Why is there blood just randomly on the wall? And that not drawing red flags. Also with respect to the coroner, how they handled the body. All these questions come into play and they have to be answered so that people can have trust in the process, Brooke.


TOOBIN: Brooke.

BALDWIN: Go ahead, go ahead, Jeff. Jump in.

TOOBIN: Well, I was just going to say, it's important to draw a distinction, I think. You know, if this funeral home behaved badly, that's something for the secretary of state to investigate, which regulates funeral homes. That's not the core of this case. What the core of this case is, how did he - how did he die?


TOOBIN: Was anyone else -- did anyone kill him? That's what we all want to know. And I think that's a very different and very much more important question than what happened at this funeral home.

BALDWIN: But to your point, just quickly, a lot of evidence wasn't collected at the gym. So, Jeff Toobin, is it too late?

TOOBIN: I think it is too late. Those shoes are gone. Those blood stains are gone. We can -- I'm sure they can use the photographs to try to determine what happened, but the evidence itself, you know, this is a high school gym, it gets used every day.

BALDWIN: OK. Jeffrey Toobin, Midwin Charles, thank you, and our correspondent there, Victor Blackwell, thank you as well.

Coming up, video surfaces of Ted Cruz's father saying President Obama should go back to Kenya, but he doesn't stop there. It's pretty outrageous. We're going to talk about that. Plus, it is the news every flier has been waiting for, every air traveler waiting for this, will you be allowed to use those electronic devices during takeoff? That decision is next.


BALDWIN: The pressure on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is mounting. Requests for her release -- her to release Obamacare documents have gone from formal inquires now to a full-on congressional subpoena. Today the head of the House Oversight Committee, Congressman Darrell Issa, announced he has subpoenaed Secretary Sebelius for paperwork relating to the, and I'm quoting him here, "troubled launch" of The congressman just talked to CNN about what kind of documents exactly he's seeking.


REP. DARRELL ISSA (R-CA), OVERSIGHT & GOV'T REFORM CHAIRMAN: We've had contractors give us proof that, in fact, briefings were made in a timely fashion that showed, and some of them have been aired, showed that, in fact, they weren't ready. And they knew they weren't ready. Just today Jay Carney said the president was shown this website ahead of time as though it was ready. So, figuring out who inside the organization knew but failed to communicate is important. But more importantly, because there is so many other areas, including the risk of private information coming out in a website that isn't ready, we really need to ask those questions and see the -- what's internally going on.


BALDWIN: Here is the department's response to the subpoena. "Since October 10th, the committee has made five separate requests for a wide-range of documents. Their timeline was not feasible given the vast scope of their request." It goes on, "we are disappointed that the committee believes a subpoena was necessary, however, it does not change our intent to continue to cooperate with them to produce documents as expeditiously as we were able to."

Sebelius apologized for that site's many problems during that House hearing for three and a half hours yesterday morning. So she will next go before the Senate Finance Committee. That is next Wednesday.

Senator Ted Cruz's father told supporters during his son's Senate campaign that he would like to send President Obama, and I'm quoting him, "back to Kenya." And he also called the president a "socialist." Now, this was back in April of 2012, but here he was.


RAFAEL CRUZ, FATHER OF SEN. TED CRUZ: We need to send Barack Obama back to Chicago. I'd like to send him back to Kenya. Back to (INAUDIBLE). Let me tell you, when Obama campaigned in 2008, it was very, very clear that he was a socialist. The problem is most of us suffered from ostrich syndrome and we purposely and deliberately stuck our heads in the sand. But he was very clear. He wasn't trying to fool anyone. He was clear from what he was saying that he was an outright Marxist.


BALDWIN: The left-leaning "Mother Jones" magazine first posted this story and a series of videos. Rafael Cruz is a Cuban immigrant and a pastor and a hero to some Tea Party groups. Let's go to CNN's crime and justice correspondent Joe Johns, who is on this for us from Washington.

And we are going to debate from the left and the right exactly these comments made a year ago in a minute. But, Joe, to you, that wasn't all Pastor Cruz said. What else did he say at this meeting?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: You know, when you're doing this bio there, you left out successful businessman. A pastor now, I think that's important, because in the next clip he really goes after the president on the issue of religion. Take a listen, Brooke.


RAFAEL CRUZ, FATHER OF SENATOR TED CRUZ: If you have heard him recite the pledge, he skips (ph) "under God." Never says those two words, "under God." And then he says (INAUDIBLE) an oversight (ph) and it continues, though, over and over again. So, I'll tell you, we have to unmask this man. This is a man that seeks to destroy, destroy all concept of God. And I'll tell you what, this is classical Marxist philosophy.


JOHNS: Now, actually, it is easy to find video of the president reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and you do hear him saying the words "under God." And the issue of the president's faith was really put under a microscope during his first campaign for president. That question pretty much asked and answered.

We did ask Senator Cruz's office for a statement about the "Mother Jones" article. They declined, but referred us to a statement that was given to the magazine by Sean Rushton (ph), a spokesman for Senator Cruz. It said, "these selective quotes," not clear which selective quotes they're talking about, "taken out of context, mischaracterized the substance of Pastor Cruz's message. Like many Americans, he feels America is on the wrong track," Rushton said, and he also added that Pastor Cruz does not speak for the senator, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Joe Johns, thank you.

I want to talk about this here because the comments from Pastor Cruz, from Rafael Cruz, getting all kind of reaction. I want to bring in two people to break this down. Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis joins me from Washington, and "The Host List" anchor Amy Holmes joins me from New York.

So welcome to both of you. And, Chris Kofinis, let me just begin with - I mean shouldn't we just call this what it is? You flat out say this is racist. CHRIS KOFINIS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I mean I -- it's pretty hard to see it any other way. I mean, listen, politics is a hard-core business and you're going to get punched, you know, when you're running for office and I think we all kind of accept that when you're in this business. I think if you run for office, you kind of accept that reality. But there are certain lines that are consistently being crossed by this fringe, you know, with the Tea Party or the fringes in the Tea Party where it's not simply they attack the president on, you know, what -- in terms of what they dislike about his policy. They attack him personally. His belief in God. The notion that he's not American. I mean how else would you describe it? I mean it is beyond the pale that people think it is acceptable.

And I just don't - I just don't understand why you can't make your point. You can make your point in a very tough, critical way without crossing these lines. But it just tells you why there are certain folks in the Republican Party have no grasp of reality in terms of why they lose elections. This is why they lose elections.

BALDWIN: Listen, both parties are alienating voters and I know this is not -- these are not Ted Cruz's words. This is his father. He is not a public figure. He is not an elected official. But no matter - you know, whatever role this is, Amy Holmes, I want to ask you this, does this hurt the Tea Party?

AMY HOLMES, ANCHOR, "THE HOST LIST": I think that it serves to hurt those who do advocate for conservative and free market principals when it gets into these personal attacks. I agree with Chris on that basis. But both sides do it. They do it plenty. And it turns off the voters. It drives down voter turnout during elections when the attacks get nasty like this.

In terms of, you know, the go back to Kenya remark, I disagree with that. I believe President Obama was born an American in America, an American. I've seen the documentation. As far as, you know, charging him with not being a Christian, I believe President Obama at his word that he says he's a Christian. He's referred to it many times. Unfortunately, this becomes a distraction and it becomes a way of trying to characterize the GOP conservatives and the Republican Party and it's unfortunate.

BALDWIN: But, Amy, why - I have to jump in. I have to jump in. Why are so many people, though, still fixated on the president and the chronology and Africa. I mean he never lived there. Why are people still stuck on this?

HOLMES: Well, as a half African who was actually born in Africa, I have to say, I resent that Obama gets all this credit for spending time in Kenya when he didn't, which we all know. But I would disagree that it's a lot of people who believe this. I think it's a fringe group of people who believe this and try to keep this story alive. I'm not sure if Pastor Cruz believes that Obama was born in Kenya, but I do think that the remark was personal and inappropriate and I don't think he speaks for Senator Cruz.

BALDWIN: OK. I want the two of you to stick around because I've got to get a quick break in. there's this new poll we have to talk about. It shows President Obama's lowest approval rating since taking office. But it's not too much better for Republicans. So we're going to look at that on both sides. I want to talk about also how completely fed up Americans are and ask, is President Obama a bystander leader? That's next.


BALDWIN: All right. Let's bring them back, Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis in Washington and "The Host List" anchor Amy Holmes from New York.

So let's just go ahead and flash the numbers up on the screen, Michael, let's put those up. So this is is - these are the latest poll numbers from NBC/"Wall Street Journal" polling. And you can see this is an all-time low for the president with those approval numbers now, 42 percent Americans approving the job the president is doing.

So, Chris, Chris, Chris, I mean, people are accusing the president of being - of being a bystander. I mean when you look at the NSA spying, when you see the mess that has been the Obamacare rollout, the answers, the butted together sound bites from President Obama, I didn't know, I didn't know. Now you have the poll numbers really to prove it. I don't want to get into what the president did know or not, but on a pure optics level, it looks bad, am I wrong?

KOFINIS: Yes. I mean --

BALDWIN: Tell me why I'm wrong, Chris Kofinis?

KOFINIS: No, no, I'm not - I don't think you are wrong. I think, obviously, the poll numbers are not good. I mean that's pretty self- evident. I mean I think there's a lot to explain. I think bystander president is a little harsh. I mean the reality is, you know, he is the president, he is accountable, the buck stops with him, we all understand that. But there are challenges and the realities of governing a country like the United States where he can't be on top and control everything. That means you've got to hold the people under you accountable. Now, I think what's happening there is that. There's also, I think, a bigger dynamic here --

BALDWIN: But he's not. He's not. People are saying he's not accountable.

HOLMES: Right.

KOFINIS: Well, no, I mean I think he's made it very clear -

HOLMES: He's not holding people accountable. Brooke -

KOFINIS: I think he's made it very clear that in terms of the website, that it's going to be fixed. He's made it very clear in terms of the NSA that changes have been made. Now, at the end of the day, I think the bigger problem here is there is a growing anger and frustration of the American people towards politics and political leaders in general. Republicans get more of that than Democrats, but Democrats are not - are immune and not immune and neither is the president.

BALDWIN: Hang on. And I want to get to Republicans in just a minute, Amy Holmes, I'm - just a second. But if the president of the United States is holding people accountable within his administration - I mean we saw Secretary Sebelius for three and a half hours on The Hill yesterday - if he's holding people accountable, should she be gone?

HOLMES: Exactly. What does this mean? The only person so far who's been fired --

BALDWIN: No, no, no, hang on, let me hear -- I want to hear Chris' - look at me, Amy, let me -- I want to hear Chris' answer to that.


KOFINIS: Listen, I think that if I was advising the president, I think that Secretary Sebelius has a window here -- a small window to fix the problem. If this problem gets fixed by the end of November, then we can move on and I think people will start focusing on the good things that are in the Affordable Care Act. If that doesn't happen, if these problems persist and we're talking about this into January, yes, I think the best thing for her would be to resign.

BALDWIN: OK, Republicans, Amy, if you look back at this - back to this NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, 22 percent of people polled say they see the Republican Party in a positive light. That is way worse numbers that we're seeing for President Obama. Given the mess that is, you know, speaking of Sebelius and this whole Obamacare rollout, given all of that, do you think that your camp -- did you at all, you know, regret the strategy here when we take it back a couple of weeks with the debt ceiling debacle and the government shutdown mess. You know, had that not happened, your party's numbers could be looking a bit better.

HOLMES: Well, I wouldn't call them my party since I'm a registered independent and I never did support the Republican strategy.

BALDWIN: Republican Party.

HOLMES: I thought that that was a loser. I thought that was a loser, a failure and it, you know, I think it's led in exactly the place that a lot of conservatives feared, which is for the GOP to, you know, suffer the backlash from all of that. But it's the other thing that it did, is that it obscured attention on the fiasco and the disaster that is the Obamacare rollout.

I mean, you know, Chris, I have - I have to, you know, admire you and shake your hand for saying at least that Kathleen Sebelius should go if this isn't fixed quickly. But so far the only person -- the only person who has been fired with this fiasco is a 1-800-operator who told Sean Hannity the truth, which is that nobody likes the website. So when the president talks about accountability, hold me responsible, I'm accountable, but then seems to basically dismiss the fact that 2 million Americans are getting cancelation letters from their insurance companies when he said that if you like your insurance, you can keep it. It seems that accountability has become a totally empty, meaningless phrase.