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NEW DAY

Snow Storms Hit Parts of U.S.; House of Representative Passes Budget; Laser Attacks on Airplane Pilots Increase; Teenager who Caused Fatal Accident While Driving Drunk Gets 10-Years Probation; Does the Punishment Fit the Crime; A.P. Claims American Hostage Was Working For the CIA

Aired December 13, 2013 - 07:00   ET

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


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan, and Michaela Pereira.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Pretty shot for you there. Good morning and welcome back to NEW DAY. It is Friday, December 13th, 7:00 in the east. And there's no way to sugarcoat it. Bad weather is coming and it's 1,000 miles long. Let's get right to Indra Petersons who's watching the situation for us. What do we see now?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: What we've been dealing with so far has just been these chilly temperatures. But no longer will that be the story. Teens as we're waking up, Chicago, Minneapolis, even D.C. and New York City below freezing. But no, that is not the worst story. More snow on the way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETERSONS: It's the third round of wintry weather for the Midwest and northeast this month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's been one storm after another.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Frigid wind chills. They were as low as 31 below in parts of the area last night.

PETERSONS: Another blast of biting cold and lake-effect snow on the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This has been constant all day.

PETERSONS: Already walloping towns like Hamburg, New York and causing multiple trucks to overturn on this Buffalo, New York, highway, the icy roads even causing a 40-car pileup in Michigan. Take a look at this police dash cam video, a semi hitting a cruiser and another one SUV nearly colliding.

A developing system will bring a wintry mix of freezing rain and sleet across the Mississippi Valley to the east coast. As it moves into the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region it will change over to snow. Cities like Pittsburgh, New York, and Boston anticipating more snow this weekend. In Milwaukee, it's so frigid outside kids are, believe it or not, running into school to beat the chill, reporters following their lead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kids about to arrive here, 1 degree outside, wind chill below zero. I don't care if you're seven years old or 27, I'm still going to listen to my mother.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PETERSONS: Check out the winter advisories we already see this morning, spanning from the northeast all the back through the Midwest. We're definitely looking at some snow headed our way. We're give you the full details, break it down for you a little bit coming up in just a few minutes, guys.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Indra, thank you so much.

Let's head to Washington where it looks like Congress has finally passed a budget. The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve a two-year bipartisan plan, a modest deal, but one that would eliminate the threat of a government shutdown. Republicans and Democrats supporting the measure in roughly equal numbers you could say. CNN's Athena Jones is at the White House where they are applauding the vote. But it's not over yet, Athena. Good morning.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kate. That's right, it's not over yet. But the White House is calling the House vote an important moment of bipartisan cooperation. Strong support for this budget bill from both sides of the aisle, which as you know, is a very rare thing in the House of Representatives these days.

But of course not everyone supported it. Conservative Republicans didn't like the fact that this bill gets rid of $63 billion in spending cuts. So it's for precisely that reason that this bill will face a much tougher road on the Senate side. We've already heard from folks who say they're going to oppose the bill. People like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, and Senator Ted Cruz from Texas all say they're going to vote against it.

And as of last night, the folks trying to wrangle up support for this Bill are trying to lock in had the five Republican votes necessary to push it through. So there's still drama to be had here and it's not over until it's over. Chris?

CUOMO: It would be very interesting to hear why people vote against the bill. It would be something interesting to measure for us and people at home. Thanks for the reporting this morning.

Well, it has happened again, another stupid, dangerous act, someone shining a laser at a passenger jet. This time a JetBlue pilot says his vision was badly damaged when he landed in Florida Monday. This is not the first time. Three incidents reported in West Palm Beach just last week, attacks on the rise nationwide. CNN's Rene Marsh has more from us in Washington.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, these laser attacks, they are serious problems. We're talking about laser lights blasting pilots in cockpits midflight with passengers on board. It's a dangerous distraction.

So who's behind it? In every case, it's exactly what investigators want to know.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: In the latest incident, the pilot of a JetBlue airliner says he had to shield his eyes in order to land his plane Monday at a Florida airport all because of another case involving laser lights. It's become such a problem that doctors are concerned.

DR. MARC BROCKMAN, FLORIDA VISION INSTITUTE: It bothers me because of the safety factor to start with, that someone is doing this to a pilot, and the potential for all those people on that plane. It bothers me from a personal level because I know the guy.

MARSH: The pilot says he's suffering from severe eye damage and migraines so bad he's had to leave work. Mark Brockman is the pilot's doctor. He believes the damage will not be permanent but the pilot still must undergo more tests.

BROCKMAN: I can tell you the pilot wants to know exactly who did this. And there will be some investigating.

MARSH: It happened as flight 521 from New York was landing at West Palm Beach airport. The pilot said someone on the ground tracked the aircraft, with a laser for about 20 to 30 seconds. This FAA video shows what a laser looks like from an airplane's cockpit. The FDA says a laser's beam, especially from a strong laser, can injure instantly.

STEVE WALLACE, AVIATION SAFETY CONDUCTOR: Lasers will not physically hurt the airplane but lasers can temporarily blind the pilot and also just the effect of this startling burst of light into the airplane cockpit.

MARSH: Nationwide, airplane laser incidents are becoming increasingly common. The FAA reported just 350 in 2006, but 3,400 in 2012. And in Palm Beach alone, there have been 32 laser attacks so far this year. A 2012 law makes it a federal offense to aim a laser at a plane.

BROCKMAN: The word needs to get out that this isn't funny, that this is something that potentially is serious. And it is a felony.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: It is a felony. And just a couple of months ago, the FBI warned of a spike in laser incidents targeting inbounded flight right there in New York City. Because this is becoming such a common problem, the FAA is exploring potential laser eye protection for pilots, like special glasses military pilots already wear. Michaela?

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: When are these people going to learn? Rene, thank you so much for that.

Let's take a look at your headlines at this hour. A new report says an American missing in Iran for nearly seven years was working for the CIA when he vanished. The story alleges Bob Levinson was there on a job for CIA analysts who had no authority to run an overseas operation. The story was first reported by "The Washington Post" and Associated Press. The AP says it decided to report the story after efforts to bring Levinson home came up empty. The CIA also reportedly paid Levinson's family a $2.5 million settlement.

U.N. inspectors say chemical weapons were likely used in five different locations in Syria, including that deadly attack outside Damascus in August. In at least two cases, the new report found evidence of sarin gas. A brutal civil war has divided that nation since 2011, pitting the government against a fractious group of rebels. U.N. inspectors are barred from identifying which side is to blame for the attacks.

Surprise in a Montana courtroom. A newlywed accused of pushing her husband off a cliff pleaded guilty to murder just before closing arguments. Jordan Graham accepted a second degree murder plea and avoided a mandatory life sentence. Graham says she and her husband of eight days were arguing in Glacier National Park. When he grabbed her hand she pushed back, admitting it was a reckless act. Graham now faces at least 19 years in prison.

A rockslide taking two lives in Utah. It happened Thursday afternoon in the southern part of the state, rocks pouring off a hillside and into a two-story home, completely destroying it. The names of the victims are not being released, but authorities have called the slide a freak accident.

It was the news many Fordham University students were waiting for, they got in, at least so said a financial aid notice. Only problem, it was wrong. Some 2,500 early admission applicants received that e- mail and then a follow-up a few hours later saying they may not have been admitted after all. The university is blaming a contractor for mistakenly sending out those notices. Sorry, kiddos. That is just not the way it should be handled.

BOLDUAN: Oh, my gosh, no kidding. Thanks, Michaela.

Let's get back to the story I think everyone is talking about. We're learning more of a trial of a teenager who says he was too coddled to be responsible for manslaughter and the judge who bought the argument. Ethan Couch apparently has a history of arrest, including one for alcohol just months before his car crash that killed four people. We're going to talk with a defense attorney who knows the judge and the defense team about the stunning probation sentence in just a moment.

But let's start with "AC 360's" Randi Kaye. You've been looking into much more about how this happened.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I've been covering this case this week, and it still after all these days has me shaking my head. This kid started drinking at a very early age. He drove himself to school at 13 when he was just in the seventh grade. Now his punishment is time at a swanky rehab center where he can ride horses, do yoga, even go to the beach.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE: New details are emerging from inside the courtroom where 16- year-old Ethan Couch escaped prison time, despite killing four people and severely injuring others in a drunken car crash. His bizarre defense, "affluenza," a lifestyle where wealth brought privilege and there were no consequences for bad behavior.

We got our hands on notes taken during couch's manslaughter trial. They belonged to the attorney for Eric Boyles who lost his wife and daughter in the crash. According to that attorney, 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."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need some ambulances, it's bad. We flipped and -- oh, god.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Were you involved?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was in the truck.

KAYE: 911 calls capture the chaos after Couch plowed down bystanders on the side of the road.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Listen to me. Is it just one vehicle?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. There were four or five. There's another child in the ditch. They're gone!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come with me, come here. Come here. Come here. Come here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my god.

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

KAYE: In addition to four people killed, two of Couch's friends were thrown from the bed of the pickup, including Sergio Molina, who is now paralyzed and had been in a coma. His parents, we 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.

BEN FERGUSON, RADIO HOST: There's a reason why we have jails, and it's to put people and hold them accountable for their actions. KAYE: Outrage continues to grow, that with four people dead, all Ethan Couch got for his actions was a slap on the wrist, Judge Jeanne Boyd sending him to alcohol rehab and 10 years probation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE: And defense attorneys strongly believe this is the best thing for Ethan Couch. They say if prosecutors had their way and he got the 20 years, he likely would have only served two years. So this way he's under some type of supervision for 10 years, even if it is just probation.

BOLDUAN: And that is going to be a subject of debate I think for quite some time. It already is now. But what more are you learning about the judge that you mentioned in the piece, kind of her record and how she ruled in similar cases?

KAYE: It's hard to get at her record because she's a juvenile judge so we only have a bit of a snapshot. But I can tell you that she has received all kinds of awards for her courage and her integrity. She's been presiding over that court since 1995.

But one case did come to light that a lot of folks have pointed out to us. It's certainly curious because it took place in 2012. The case involved a 14-year-old boy who punched someone in the head. That man fell to the ground, hit his head on the pavement and died. Now in that case, she gave that boy, who's African-American 10 years behind bars in a juvenile detention center.

So, again, it's a snapshot. We don't know how she's ruled on other cases. But he also admitted to the crime, just like Ethan Couch, he's also a young teenager. It's curious how she ruled. We don't know the history or if he comes from a wealthy family like Ethan Couch.

BOLDUAN: The severity of the crime seems to be the subject here, too. Thank you very much.

KAYE: Sure.

BOLDUAN: Randi, thank you very much. Chris, let's head over to you.

CUOMO: Of course, it's hard to compare crimes. Let's stick with the current situation. We'll bring in somebody now who knows the criminal defense team, who understands the system down there and knows about this judge. He is a criminal defense attorney himself. His name is Brian Wice, joining from us Houston, Texas. Brian, thank you for joining us this morning, appreciate it. You know what the main allegation is here, that this is about money buying special justice. Four people killed, a fifth paralyzed and only probation. It doesn't make sense to people. Explain it to us.

BRIAN WICE, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Sure, Chris. I think the public's initial take is one of outrage, and you can't really blame them. This is one of those cases that doesn't play well on the air at four, five, six and ten and above the fault of the metro section. But if you are looking for a case that underscores the notion that money can buy justice, and I've seen it in 30 plus years in the adult criminal justice system, make no mistake, this is not that case. All that this family's money managed to buy were two talented, experienced, passionate, criminal defense attorneys, who, by the way, continue to represent indigent clients in family court as well and work every bit as hard.

But what they were able to do was craft a compelling punishment narrative. That's not an excuse, but it's an explanation that provides context for how this 16-year-old morally bankrupt kid found himself in that position. This is not a case ultimately where money bought justice. This is a case where justice ultimately tailored a punishment to fit both the offense and the offender.

CUOMO: All right, so explain to me how this is the punishment that fits the crime when, again, you are faced with just the most horrible form of consequence, not only multiple fatalities and someone paralyzed, but just really good people on top of it. And then you have a kid who winds up seemingly getting a message that you're going to get away with it.

WICE: Sure. I think, Chris, what your viewers need to understand is this. This is not the adult criminal justice system where job one is vengeance, retribution and deterrence. This is the juvenile system where the Texas legislature has mandated that rule one in the playbook is what is in the child's best interest. And that's rehabilitation.

In that situation, Judge Boyd had a mandate from the legislature to do what she could to put this kid into a system where he could be rehabilitated and ultimately find his way.

And when the public looks at this crazy notion of affluenza, that's one line, that's one sound bite, from a three-day punishment hearing. That's a snapshot in a motion picture. And the people whom I talked to in Terrant County, Chris, including a former juvenile court judge who served with Judge Boyd, tells me that three-day punishment hearings in juvenile court are virtually unheard of.

This is a situation where the system was confronted with a difficult and tenuous fact situation and a judge who does nothing else but family law cases -- and as we heard in the intro to this piece, Chris, Judge Boyd is the gold standard. She has won every award short of Heisman Trophy that a juvenile court judge can receive. This is all that she does. She couldn't save those victims, Chris. That's a tragedy. But she tried to save this young man and that's her job.

CUOMO: Kids get time all the time. I mean, excuse the pun there. But, I mean, juveniles go to jail for what they do all the time, and this kid doesn't. Why wouldn't justice demand, yes, you get your treatment, yes, we respect addiction, yes, we respect rehabilitation, especially because you're young, but you must go to jail because you took life.

WICE: And of course nobody can disagree with that, Chris. But as we're having this conversation this morning, this kid is in jail. This kid isn't going anywhere. He's going to be transferred to a lockdown facility in California that his parents, not the taxpayers of Tarrant County are ultimately going to pay for.

And make no mistake, if he stubs his toe and he messes up, he is going directly to juvenile prison. Don't pass go. Don't collect $200.

CUOMO: Right, I get it.

WICE: On his 19th birthday, will be transferred to the end of the line, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

CUOMO: I get that part, Brian. And, by the way, I'm not distracted by the nature and cushiness of the addiction program. You know, if the family can pay, they should pay. A lot of hay has been made about, ooh, what a facility and you get a horse and you get a gym. I don't care about that. What I can about is, do you think you could find many other kids who take life on this level and don't see the inside of a jail cell?

WICE: Well, but you need to understand, nobody has ever claimed, including the state of Texas -- Richard Alpert, one of the most talented prosecutors in Texas, and I've had the privilege of trying cases against him, understands that this young man didn't wake up this morning and intend to take life. This is not a murder case, Chris.

This is a case where, as a result of accident, mistake and intoxication, a tragedy of unspeakable proportions occurred. And this judge, who does nothing else but these kind of cases decided that in this case, this was the appropriate punishment. And I don't really think we get to second guess that decision.

CUOMO: I understand it, and I know it's been said in the media that the prosecutors could appeal. And I understand that under Texas law there probably is no basis for an appeal here.

But just one last question in understanding whether this was fair. This kid in particular, the idea that he has a background where he's made mistakes in the past, he's been involved with the law in the past, and he hasn't gotten a lesson, is that a fair appraisal of the kid?

WICE: Well, I think when you view it through the prism of what the facts actually are, and the facts are stubborn things, the only involvement this young man had was a minor in possession of alcohol. There's been no indication in this kid's history, upbringing or background that he's engaged in any kind of criminal wrongdoing that would have been a precursor, that would have told people, "Look, this kid is a ticking time bomb." This is a kid with the affect of a 12- year-old. And the fact that money can buy happiness in this case didn't really involve this young man's family, Chris. These weren't the Cleavers. They had money, but at the end of a day, this was a family that was morally bankrupt.

CUOMO: Brian Wice, we're very fact poor on this sensitive -- in this sensitive case, so I'm happy to get the insight from you about filling in the picture. But it's still painting one that's disturbing to people. If we were to find out that this judge had given sentences that were like this in the past, it would probably help, but that's difficult given the confines of privacy within the juvenile system. But I appreciate you giving us more facts you gave us today, Brian. Thank you.

WICE: Thank you, Chris.

Kate?

BOLDUAN: All right, coming up next on NEW DAY, more on the report about an American detained in Iran, now the longest-held American hostage in history. Why are revelations coming out now -- just now that he was working for the CIA? Should these revelations have come out at all?

Also ahead, trouble at the National Zoo, more animals dying than usual in the last few months. What's behind the spike and what's being done about it? We're gonna have a look.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BOLDUAN: Welcome back to NEW DAY. More now on that new report about an American missing nearly seven years in Iran. The Associated Press and the Washington Post say Bob Levinson was working for the CIA when he vanished despite years of denials from the agency and Levinson's family.

Jim Sciutto is in Washington to look more into this report. So Jim, what are you hearing about why the A.P. and the Washington Post decided to make these revelations public now? He's still in custody.

JIM SCUITO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a very sad -- it's a very sensitive story. This is what the A.P. says now. They say they first confirmed this three years ago in 2010 and that they agreed three times to delay publishing the story.

But here's the A.P. statement saying it's "reporting the story now because nearly seven years after his disappearance, government efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life," it says, "for three years." And it also says that top U.S. officials say his captors almost certainly already know he worked for the CIA.

That said, the U.S. government still pushing back. They issued a statement last night saying the U.S. government strongly urged the A.P. not to run the story out of continuing concern for Mr. Levinson's life.

We've also been in touch with his family, our own Susan Candiotti speaking to Levinson's family. They're clearly concerned. They told her, quote, they "are deeply concerned over the risk created by this story."

That said, the family also already frustrated up to this point with government support, government help in getting their father, their husband released. They say the U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man's life the priority it should be. So really a lot of frustration from the family here and a lot of fear.

CUOMO: Jim, you know, we talked to the family on NEW DAY and they said that they thought he was there on a business trip. You know, we asked them about it repeatedly and what they know, what they don't know, obviously this type of work, who knows the truth of what's going on.

Let me ask you; let's stick with the media here for a second. I get what you say that several times they've been told they'll hold the story. But then putting this out there, does this do anything but jeopardize the situation?

SCUITTO: Well, listen, it's a fair question. Clearly the U.S. government feels that it only jeopardizes the situation. You know, the family is concerned about his safety for sure. I mean, the A.P. makes a good point, that for seven years there's been no progress.

You know, from my perspective -- and I've talked to families that have Americans held or have been held in the country before. Right now, there's a former American Marine that is held in Iran, Amir Hekmati, accused of being a spy.

You remember the case of Roxana Saberi, journalist worked for ABC and FOX, held there, accused of being a spy. You remember the American hikers in Iran released three years ago; they were accused of being spies. And you just have to wonder that when a story like this gets out there and gets confirmed that that gives the Iranian government ammunition for these kinds of accusations with many of these people that are baseless accusations. That's a real fear. It's a real sensitivity.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And worth noting yet again, he is he now the longest- held American hostage in history. It doesn't seem like this can help his case at all.

SCUITTO: That's right. And, you know, the Iranian government still has not acknowledged that he is in fact in their custody.

Now, on the good side, speaking to these -- I spoke to another family the other day, the family of an American pastor who's held in Iran accused of trying to overthrow the government, really another baseless charge.

There's some hope now that in the warming of relations between the U.S. and Iran that that might bring a change, but they haven't seen that change yet. In fact, the families were hoping that this interim nuclear deal wouldn't happen until these Americans were already released. But they're hoping now that at least Americans and Iranians are talking that it might move the ball forward.

BOLDUAN: Jim Sciutto, thanks so much, Jim.

Coming up next on NEW DAY, the National Zoo under fire and under investigation over allegations of serious neglect. How is the zoo explaining a string of animal deaths? CUOMO: You got your ticket yet? Mega millions fever is gripping the wallets again. The odds are OK, they're less in your favor than before. But why not? You're gonna save a dollar and your dream? We'll discuss.

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