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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

New Info on Ethan Couch Teen DUI Court Case; AP Confirms Robert Levinson Was CIA; Newlywed Pleads Guilty to Husband's Murder

Aired December 13, 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 HOST: 911 tapes released in the affluenza drunk driving case. The crash that left four people dead and most everybody wondering, since when did being rich become a legal defense.

Plus, we've now learned that a missing American in Iran may in fact have been working for the CIA.

And the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto is now facing a lawsuit after a reporter says Rob Ford suggested that that reporter in fact was a pedophile and said so on TV.

Hi, everybody. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's Friday, December 13th. Welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

And I want to begin with this, this morning. The injustice files, something pretty shocking and some brand-new details on what was already pretty surprising, that Texas teenage DUI case.

We now have some court notes and 911 calls that show, even after plowing down four people, that young man on your screen, Ethan Couch, was confident that he would get away with it, that his parents would rescue him from the latest mess that he found himself in.

And, ultimately, that's almost exactly what happened. He received no prison time for his actions, again, four people dead, drunk driving, instead, blaming his behavior on something an expert called "affluenza" in the courtroom, maybe better known as "spoiled brat syndrome."

Randi Kaye has the details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: It's two minutes till midnight on June 15th when a terrified teenager calls 911.

CALLER: We need some ambulances. It's bad. We flipped and -- oh god.

911 DISPATCHER: OK, were you involved?

CALLER: I was in the truck.

KAYE: The truck was being driven by 16-year-old Ethan Couch, and the 911 caller is his friend, one of seven friends in the pickup.

The group had been drinking heavily before Couch plowed down four people on the side of the road.

Multiple 911 calls capture the chaos.

911 DISPATCHER: Listen to me. Is it just one vehicle?

CALLER: No, ma'am. There's four or five. There's another child in the ditch. They're gone!

911 DISPATCHER: And how many people need EMS?

CALLER: Ma'am, I'm telling you, it's dark. There's four or five kids. There's kids laying in ditches and street.

CALLER: Come with me. Come here. Come here. Come here.

CALLER: Oh, my god.

CALLER: Come here. I need you to sit here and I need you guys to pray, OK?

KAYE: In the end, four people dead and two of Couch's friends thrown from the bed of the pickup, including Sergio Molina, who is now paralyzed and had been in a coma.

His parents, we've learned, are suing Ethan Couch, Couch's parents and the family business, Cleburne Metal Works, which owned the Ford F-350 pickup truck Couch was driving.

Sergio Molina's parents are seeking as much as $20 million to care for their son in the future. The complaint points out Couch had a history of arrests, including one where he pleaded no contest to charges of possessing and drinking alcohol. That court date was just three months before the fatal wreck.

We got our hands on notes taken during Couch's manslaughter trial. They belong to the attorney for Eric Boyles who lost his wife and daughter in the crash.

According to that attorney, witnesses testify that Ethan Couch was caught fleeing on foot about a quarter mile from the accident scene.

He could be heard at the scene, the attorney's notes say, yelling to one of his passengers, quote, "I'm Ethan Couch. I'll get you out of this."

But in the end with four people dead, all Ethan Couch got for his actions was a slap on the wrist, Judge Jean Boyd sending him to alcohol rehab with 10 years probation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: That was Randi Kaye reporting for us.

And, so, what that judge essentially ruled is this. It is not this poor kids' fault if his parents spoiled him and failed to teach him right from wrong. Let that settle for a minute. Our Anderson Cooper spoke to the psychologist who in court said that Ethan couch has "affluenza," and it is quite the conversation.

Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

G. DICK MILLER, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST: I'm not interested in how much punishment he gets.

I'm interested in taking away things that are important to him and will he placing them with things in his best interest.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "AC360": I know the kid won't have his Xbox, but I'd love to go to a facility for a year and do meditation and yoga and learn cooking skills and one-on-one nutritional counseling and ride horses. You know, that sounds great.

To the man who has lost his wife and daughter and sees this young man who killed -- who has ruined his life, has killed his wife, has killed daughter, has killed two other people, as well, ruined the lives of a number of other people, as well, what consequence -- what consequence is there really for him killing four people?

MILLER: For 10 years, the judge will have the discretion at any time she chooses to send this kid to the penitentiary.

If you have a lot of money, you get people with more skills. You get a better singer. We have you tonight. I'm sure that you make more than the local guy here. That's just the way the world works. And there's some good things about that, some not so good things.

I do believe we used to call these people "spoiled brats." I wish I hadn't used that term. Everyone seems to have hooked onto it. I think we all suffer from "affluenza," not all of us, about 80 percent.

We have a system of justice where we don't take the people that have been offended and have them string him up or lynch him or whatever you want to choose to do, whatever they choose, because it sounds like you -- they want some revenge.

COOPER: They want justice.

MILLER: And we take people who have experience and we sometimes do a jury, sometimes a judge, and that's the way our system works. And it worked this time, I think.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Some people think it didn't work this time. Others disagree.

And for the LEGAL VIEW, just right to the core of what the law says, let's bring in HLN legal analyst Joey Jackson and criminal defense attorney Heather Hansen.

And I just want to start with a little background, you two, on the district -- on the judge, the district judge, Jean Boyd, juvenile district judge.

Our Randi Kaye also found out that in 2012 this same judge sent an African-American kid to juvenile detention for 10 years, that boy admitting to punching a man who fell and hit his head and died.

So, should I start thinking that race is a component here? And since there's an obvious race component between you and me, I'm going to let you answer that.

JOEY JACKSON, HLN LEGAL ANALYST: Ashleigh, it's problematic, because when we look at and think about justice, what we think about is fairness. We think about equality. We think about a system that builds public confidence because when justice is meted out, it's equal as to all.

And so when you look at the sentence that we're speaking about here that was meted out with the unfortunate excuse that, you know what, he has the money to do it and he's treated differently than the African- American male who was 14-years-old, by the way, who the judge sentenced to 10 years for killing one person, it doesn't instill confidence. It doesn't instill trust. It doesn't instill what we need to do.

BANFIELD: Can I get nitty-gritty on that one?

JACKSON: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: And I'm going to -- full disclosure, I don't know anything about that case that Randi unearthed. I don't know anything.

But just based on the fact alone that a kid intentionally reaches out and drills someone and that horrible result is death, is that different than partying, getting behind the wheel, never intending to kill someone, and you kill four?

JACKSON: I think it's worse.

HEATHER HANSEN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yeah, there are differences in the crimes, but here the differences in the punishment are just too extreme.

BANFIELD: They're too extreme.

HANSEN: If they had stepped in and used this defense at any of his other violations, any of his other criminal interactions with the law, then perhaps it would be appropriate to send him to this place and this never would have happened.

But to wait until he's killed four people and then send him away to a country club just is not sitting well with the public.

JACKSON: It's problematic.

BANFIELD: So, one of the things that we always hear is that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

JACKSON: Right.

BANFIELD: And yet it seems to me that that's exactly what was argued here. This child was ignorant of right from wrong because his parents didn't teach him and he's getting a pass.

How does that work?

JACKSON: It works in a horrific way. And when you look at the further facts of case with respect to drinking before that, his prior background, the .24 of alcohol, the plowing over and killing of four people.

BANFIELD: Stealing the beer beforehand -

JACKSON: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: Having a young, semi-naked 14-year-old girl in his back seat prior to this as well.

JACKSON: But if you look at it, and I understand the tenets of the justice system. We want to talk about rehabilitation.

BANFIELD; Right.

JACKSON: We want to talk about deterrence, right?

BANFIELD: I'm good with all that rehabilitation business, but the deterrence and punishment seem to be completely missing here.

JACKSON: It's 100 percent disproportionate, and it's troubling and it's just a problem, I think, for everyone.

BANFIELD: Heather, really quickly, weigh in on this, and it's something that's bothering a lot of people.

Is there any potential for a move to reconsider? Meaning, can the judge bring it back herself because of the public scrutiny on this case? Can anybody bring up a move to reconsider the sentence?

HANSEN: The prosecution could. And we saw that in that rape case in Montana that --

BANFIELD: Yeah, but there was a legal problem in that case. There was no legal problem in that case. What can we do?

HANSEN: I don't think that it's going to happen, Ashleigh.

And I think, you know, when I look at this case, the thing that strikes me is the possibility for a civil suit here against the parents when it's been admitted in court --

BANFIELD: Already there.

HANSEN: But the numbers are going to be huge. If they're paying half a million dollars a year for this country club --

BANFIELD: So what?

HANSEN: Money cannot bring things -

BANFIELD: That's a lot of money for you and me. Apparently it's not a lot of money for these folks, if that was just so quickly agreed upon.

And that civil suit, already there. I'm still -- I'm sorry. Civil won't cover it.

JACKSON: No, it won't.

BANFIELD: Civil won't cover it. Four people are dead, innocent wonderful people.

JACKSON: Judges sit in judgment, and I think they have to have the judgment to do, I think, what's right, what's proper and what's equal for everyone.

BANFIELD: Don't they earn, discretion, Joey? Don't you earn the right to judicial discretion --

JACKSON: Well, you earn the right to sit on a bench, no matter what that bench is.

And we can only hope that the people who do that are people who take into act the effective communities and victims and their families.

HANSEN: There's a petition to remove her, because she's not running for re-election, so there should be some consequences for people's actions.

BANFIELD: All around.

JACKSON: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: Consider it, the move to reconsider. Maybe you can just bring it yourself, ma'am.

Heather, Joey, thank you for that. Stay tuned.

Other stories for you, as well. And the family of a former FBI agent missing in Iran says it is time for the government to quote, "step up."

Next, the new revelations about what that man was actually do in Iran before he was nabbed.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It's been almost seven years since retired FBI agent Robert Levinson flew off to Iran and never came home.

Instead, he disappeared there and he hasn't been seen on video since this clip surfaced in 2010.

That same year, the Associated Press says that it confirmed a very big detail that the United States government and Levinson's family had consistently denied, that Bob Levinson was, in fact, was on a mission for the CIA when he was captured.

The Associated Press says it held off on reporting that news three different times at Washington's request, but now, they said they're going forward in a joint expose with "The Washington Post."

And I want to bring in CNN's Susan Candiotti, who's done her on reporting on this.

And let me just self-correct for a minute there. The first image that we saw, we saw Bob Levinson, more or less cleanly shaven, and then subsequent to that, we saw this.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's correct, yeah.

BANFIELD: And this came out fairly recently. And it was a very worrisome image to a lot of people.

CANDIOTTI: It was actually a couple of years ago, and it was the so- called "proof of life" that you saw that he was being held. And we've shown some of these images in the past to indicate that he is being held captive.

BANFIELD: So we have a progression of his captivity.

CANDIOTTI: That's right.

BANFIELD: But, ultimately, things stopped and we have no proof of life for some time now, correct?

CANDIOTTI: Correct.

BANFIELD: So, start me from the beginning. Why on earth would the AP go ahead and release this? Because the conventional wisdom would be that will not bode well for the man who, if he's still being held captive, wants to get out.

CANDIOTTI: That's right. Well, the AP states that the reason that it decided to go forward was, as you explained in the very beginning here, that it had had the information finally documented in 2010. And yet, the AP felt that the government was not -- kept saying we'll find him, we've got some promising leads, please hold back. But because of that, and in addition to what sources tell me and what the AP is reporting, that because they believe the captors already know by now --

BANFIELD: They do? They have some reason to believe that the Iranians know they've got a CIA guy?

CANDIOTTI: With near certainty, according to my sources, and according to what the AP is reporting - it felt as well that there's near certainty that as long as he's been there and undoubted what he's gone through, that they must know by now.

BANFIELD: And we're several years since we've heard anything, right? CANDIOTTI: It's unclear where he is, even now, and what his condition is right now. It's obviously a very delicate situation.

BANFIELD: To say the least. And the new Iranian president says I don't know what you're talking about, I don't know this man or his whereabouts. I don't know anything about him.

CANDIOTTI: That's been the ongoing position of the Iranian government as well.

BANFIELD: Well, keep us posted on whether this makes any difference in this very distressing case. Susan Candiotti, thank you. Appreciate that.

Just before a jury hears closing arguments, a bride makes a stunning admission in a courtroom. It's a cliff hanger. And this was a cliffside murder. Hear what she said about her implication in court. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: This would have been their first Christmas together. Boy, that's a happy picture. Instead, though, that bride, Jordan Graham, is going to be spending the first of many Christmases locked up in prison, because there was one stunning twist on day four of her murder trial. After pushing her husband off a cliff and killing him, the Montana newlywed took a plea deal instead of finishing out the trial. Kyung Lah looks at the reaction from both sides.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jordan Graham, a former bride now inmate with her sentencing only months away. In a last- minute deal, Graham pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for dropping a first-degree murder charge. She came clean before the federal judge about what really happened the day her husband died at Glacier National Park.

She and the man she'd married just eight days earlier, Cody Johnson, got into a heated argument. Graham said she told her new husband that she wasn't feeling like a happy newlywed. Facing the cliff, Graham says Johnson grabbed her arm. She said "let go." Then, she pushed him, one hand on his shoulder, one hand on his back, face first off the cliff.

"I wasn't thinking of where we were," Graham told the judge. "It was a reckless act. I just pushed." Graham says she left her dead husband at the bottom of the sheer cliff without telling anyone "because I was so scared."

(INAUDIBLE) This is a young girl who made some poor choices, you still hold that belief?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do.

LAH: The defense says Graham is a young girl who made poor choices in the wake of her wedding. The prosecutors believe Johnson's death was premeditated. Graham plotted to kill her husband because she regretted getting married. In court, when Graham uttered the word "guilty," her former mother-in-law wept, her parents remained silent, leaving the courthouse, their daughter in the custody of U.S. marshals.

Officers cuffed Jordan Graham in the courtroom, while Johnson's friends held hands and shook their heads in satisfaction. They left the federal court house saying few but powerful words.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God will take care of it.

LAH: As will a judge when she's sentenced in March.

Kyung Lah, CNN, Missoula, Montana.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: Sentenced in March. I wonder how long for? I want to bring back HLN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson and criminal defense attorney Heather Hansen.

Heather, let me start with you. How long for that plea will she spend in prison?

HANSEN: It's a federal case because it happened in a federal park. So, it's federal sentencing guidelines. They're complicated. It's 580 pages. It looks like somewhere from 19 to 25 years.

BANFIELD: Nothing less than 19, though?

HANSEN: It should not be anything less than 19.

BANFIELD: And federal case, you usually serve just about all of the sentence you're given.

HANSEN: Oh, you do.

BANFIELD: You don't get a whole lot of good time.

HANSEN: Absolutely. It's the exact opposite of what we're talking about before with judge's discretion. They don't have a lot of discretion. They can't suspend sentences. They can't put in for parole. She is serving time, but she just traded it - a life sentence for something lesser.

JACKSON: She did.

BANFIELD: Here is the weird thing. I think a lot of people wonder, wait. On the 11TH hour during a trial you can just do that? And in fact, it happens quite often.

JACKSON: It does. And I think a lot of times judges facilitate that. They might say to the defense council, you know what, if your client gets convicted, it's a life sentence. And say to the prosecutor, this isn't really a first-degree murder trial, is it? And so ultimately, not suggesting it happened here - we don't know what happened - but it's about doing justice.

And everybody has exposure and a risk. The prosecution wants first- degree murder conviction. They may not get it. If the defendant gets convicted of it, they get life. And so, you don't want to take the chance and you want to do justice for the victim and the victim's family. And second-degree murder was apparently justice here.

HANSEN: That's the other benefit here. The family got to hear her say, I did it, I'm guilty. And I think that that is something that the prosecution can't take lightly. It's important for the family to be able to hear.

JACKSON: It's big. And you know what, although the statute and the guidelines notwithstanding, the second degree murder statute itself says she could still spend up to life in jail.

BANFIELD: So that's still hanging out there.

JACKSON: That's still hanging in the balance.

BANFIELD: So, come back -

(CROSSTALK)

HANSEN: I doubt that will happen, but it's a possibility.

BANFIELD: At least the two of you have to come back in March.

HANSEN: That's right. We'll talk about the sentence.

JACKSON: I'm sure there will be a lot more to discuss prior to that.

BANFIELD: You've got to come back in about three minutes because I've got a Rob Ford moment.

JACKSON: Not again.

BANFIELD: I'm sorry. Can't go a couple of days without a Rob Ford story. Back on that. Toronto mayor. Just the gift that keeps giving.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Speaking of gifts, I'm sure you've got holiday shopping and parties and things to do this weekend. Get your snow tires out. There's a winter blast coming. And if you think, I don't know, that you live in a state where this is not your story, have I got a story for you. We're back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Well, it is not a done deal. And we have certainly been here and been burned before. But I'm here to tell you, there's a real possibility, maybe a strong possibility that the United States Congress will give the nation a bona fide bipartisan crisis-free budget. You heard me. It's a big holiday gift. And it's the first one in more than four years.

The Senate has plans to vote next week after a House vote that was much more of a slam dunk than many on the right would have liked. CNN's Wolf Blitzer joins me now from Washington, D.C. Let's talk numbers in a moment. First, but really honestly, I've got to ask you about John Boehner. This is a big deal and a lot of people are saying he's got some serious power back.

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: He certainly does. It was a slam dunk. An overwhelming amount of Republicans and Democrats obviously voted in favor of this compromise, bipartisan budget deal worked out by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray on the Senate side. So, it was impressive that they got it through. There were a whole bunch of Republicans, more than 16 who voted against it.