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Dennis Rodman Visits North Korea; Theater Ceiling Collapses in London; "Duck Dynasty" Star Suspended

Aired December 19, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news out of London. Police say that they are sending squads to a theater in London where there are multiple casualties -- more on that coming up.

I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead, breaking this afternoon, eight federal inmates all convicted of crack cocaine offenses, President Obama's putting them back on the street because he says the punishment far outweighed their crimes. Do you agree?

Also in national news, we are now well into the backlash against the backlash against the star of A&E's smash-hit reality show "Duck Dynasty." His comments about gays are certainly not going to win him any GLAAD awards, but should he really have been suspended for preaching the Bible according to his faith?

And the world lead. Dennis Rodman once again visiting his best pal, North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. How big of a headache is it for the U.S. government when celebrities go rogue to rogue states?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will have that story breaking out of London in just a moment, but we are going to begin with the national lead.

One of them was a first-time offender who received three life terms in 1993, when he was 22. Another got a life sentence in 1997 for hiding her boyfriend's stash in her house. In all, they are eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offense. Each of them has been in prison at least 15 years. Six were sentenced to life.

But, soon, all of them will be free. Today, President Obama announced he was commuting their sentences, something he's rarely done compared to presidents in the past several decades.

The president released a statement that reads in part -- quote -- "Three years ago, I signed the Bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system."

The president went on to call on Congress to pass sentencing reforms.

I want to bring in Paul Butler. He's a law professor at Georgetown University. He has spoken out against mandatory minimum sentencing, specifically its effects on the African-American community.

Thank you so much for being here. I appreciate it.

What's your reaction to the news today from the president?

PAUL BUTLER, PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW: It's long overdue. Every Thanksgiving, the president pardons turkeys, and we have been wondering when is he going to exercise this power, this constitutional power, to do the same thing for human beings?

So the actual cases shouldn't be controversial. These are people who under current sentencing law would have been out of prison a long time ago, so the issue is whether these harsh sentencing laws that they were subject to get -- whether they get some benefit from Congress' movement on that issue.

TAPPER: So here's the question. The laws were harsher against crack cocaine, I guess, because the belief was that it was potentially more addictive, potentially more dangerous. Why do you disagree with what the sentences used to be, the disparity in sentencing, and -- well, first of all, why do you disagree?

BUTLER: Jake, you would hope that something as important as sentencing law would be based on science, but the federal sentencing laws about crack weren't.

There was this emotional outburst from Congress after a basketball player named Len Bias died. And there wasn't any science in these hearings, but Congress got into this bidding war, familiar partisan warfare between Democrats and Republicans about who was going to be toughest on crime.

The end result was this 100-1 disparity between crack and powder, even though there's no real difference. When I was a federal prosecutor, I had a case where a cop offered to buy cocaine from a young man. The young man gave him powder. He said, I want crack. All the guy did was go upstairs, put some baking soda in with the powder, turned it into crack, and the guy's exposure, his sentence went up to 10 years just because it was crack.

TAPPER: And what would have it been theoretically, even if you don't know in the exact case?


BUTLER: It would have been much shorter, like two or three years.

TAPPER: Two or three years.


TAPPER: And the theory was that this was racial in application or just because poorer individuals tended to use crack and wealthier individuals tended to use powder cocaine?

BUTLER: Yes, it's hard to know who actually uses drugs, but the idea is that crack is consumed more by African-Americans, perhaps because it's less expensive.

It could be, though, that's just a function of who the police arrest. We know that there are certainly white people who use crack. Just like with all the drug laws, though, they are selectively enforced against African-Americans. They're one of the reasons why we have one of the highest prison populations in the world.

We have got 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners. So these very harsh sentencing laws are one reason why. Not only do we lock up more people. We keep them in prison for way longer than other countries like Canada or France or Italy.

A lot of people are asking, not only is it fair, but is it cost- effective? There's no reason to think that we get more crime control benefit from locking up people so long. So this is an important signal from the president about ratcheting down the war on drugs. It's about being smart on crime, rather than just being tough on crime.

TAPPER: Now, I know you oppose mandatory minimum sentencing. In some of these cases, President Obama says, these eight individuals whose sentences he commuted, he says that even at the time, some of the judges expressed disappointment that they had to sentence these individuals to very harsh, even life in prison penalties, but they were forced to because of mandatory minimums.

BUTLER: Yes, which the Supreme Court has changed. The Supreme Court has recognized that the fact that judges had -- they couldn't be judges, they just had to impose these sentences, that wasn't -- unfair.

So, they made the mandatory sentencing guidelines no longer mandatory. Lots of judges are still following them. And one concern now, Jake, is that there are literally 8,000 people in prison right now who are in the same boat as these eight folks who the president sentenced...

TAPPER: Eight thousand?

BUTLER: Eight thousand. There is legislation pending before Congress -- it's bipartisan -- because, again, one of the concerns is it costs so much money to lock up these largely young people for all this time.

Aren't there more cost-effective ways to deal with people who have problems with drugs?

TAPPER: All right, Paul Butler, thank you so much. We appreciate your coming in.

BUTLER: Great to be here.

TAPPER: Breaking news in our world lead. In London, police are responding to reports that the ceiling has collapsed on the Apollo Theatre there.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is at the scene. Nic, you're on the phone right now. What do we know?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, what I can see from where I'm standing are paramedics are still arriving. I have seen a number arriving with stretchers moving towards the theater.

The police here are out in number. They have now cordoned off the street. There are fire trucks in attendance in the area, although there's no indication at this time that there is a fire. But this area that is right next to Piccadilly Circus, in the heart of London, is now being cordoned off by the police, as paramedics are still arriving and still making their way towards the theater.

The details of what's happening inside this theater are still very sketchy to us here at the moment, but this is a major operation that is under way. I'm looking at a fire brigade command unit truck, the sort of vehicle that is deployed for a large incident. I have seen a police officer wearing a smock that indicates that this is a large operation, the commanding officer -- very much a developing situation at the moment, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Nic Robertson, we are going to come back to you later in the show. We appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD: One star of "Duck Dynasty" is being roasted for his comments to "GQ" magazine, but are people flapping over his words taking it too far?

And an arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York has turned into a worldwide controversy, but are we missing the real issue here? Stay with us.


TAPPER: Returning to breaking news in our world lead, we're following reports out of London that the ceiling has collapsed on the Apollo Theatre during a performance. We are keeping an eye on that. We will have more updates with you.

One of the news items of news that we got just recently from London, fire brigade and London ambulance and services which are on scene, they have reports of multiple casualties. No further detail at present. We will come back to this story just in a few minutes, as we get an eyewitness on the phone.

In national news, by now, you have likely heard that one of the stars of the mega-hit reality series "Duck Dynasty," well, he is up to his beard in controversy for something he said in an interview to "GQ." That's of course the magazine for the sharp-dressed man.

Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, said this while lamenting the state of modern secular reality -- quote -- "Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there, bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men." Robertson also opined on the anatomical differences between straight and gay lifestyles and let's just say that when it comes to gay rights, no one is going to mistake Phil Robertson for Harvey Milk.

So, just to clarify, the conservative religious head of a self- described family of rednecks who gets paid to say stuff like this...


PHIL ROBERTSON, "DUCK DYNASTY": Women are like Labrador retrievers. They all have quirks, but you stay married to one 45, 50 years, you learn to go with the quirks.


TAPPER: He offended people? Shocker.

LGBT advocates like the group GLAAD called on sponsors to reexamine their links with the show. Then A&E suspended Phil Robertson indefinitely from his own show, which has raked in $400 million in revenue for the network.

I want to talk about this with Matt Breen. He's editor in chief for "The Advocate," the leading LGBT magazine. And Russell Moore, he's president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. Matt is for the suspension. Russell is against it.

Matt, I will start with you.

Why does the outrage of some outweigh Phil Robertson's right to say what he thinks? Why does he have to be suspended, instead of letting viewers vote with their remote controls?

MATTHEW BREEN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "THE ADVOCATE": Partly because on a show that is enormously popular as this one, the views of -- the views of a person on a reality show like this go far beyond the people who are actually watching the TV show.

I know Mr. Moore suggested turning off the television in response to that. If you don't like what he has to say, just turn off the TV. But we know that when homophobic attitudes like were expressed in "GQ" and racist attitude, we have to remember, infect our society, when bigotry is infecting our society, it redounds to vulnerable people in our society, including LGBT teenagers in particular who are very vulnerable to bullying, to self-harm, to suicide when they find that they don't have acceptance, when they can't find any safe quarter in our society.

TAPPER: Russell, let me ask you a question. It wasn't just that Robertson shared what his religion teaches about sin in the Bible. He definitely put the gay lifestyle on -- in his words, on a slippery slope to bestiality in the interview. Can you see how let's say a gay couple would find that very demeaning to compare the two?


They are reality TV show stars who are paid to say outrageous things on television and to entertain people with their comments. I think his comments were crude at many points. I don't agree with the way he worded many things, but I think his central point was that there's an entire spectrum of immorality and that the Bible defines what sexual morality is.

Now, most of us wouldn't say it the way he said it, but there are millions of Christians and Orthodox Jews and Muslims who agree that there is a basic pattern of sexual morality. My concern is not so much with the Robertsons or with reality TV. It's with the kind of culture in which we have the freedom to seek to talk with one another and to persuade one another about issues that really matter, most of all, the question of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

TAPPER: Matt, there are tens of millions of Americans who have similar deep religious beliefs about who is going to hell, what constitutes a sin. How do you respond to those who say that those people who have deeply held religious beliefs, well, they deserve tolerance, too.

BREEN: I think Robertson is not representing a majority of Americans or even a large number of Americans. I think his views are real outsider views. I don't see his views as being particularly Christian or American in either respect.

He has the right of course to say what he likes to say. He has the constitutionally protected right to do so.

But A&E made a very -- a good decision -- a good decisive decision when they decided those views are not American views. Those views do not represent the brand as a network and they pulled him.

I think it was a good decision and I think that Robertson should take this time to maybe, I don't know, meet with some LGBT Christian families in Louisiana and see where he might share some common ground with these people. I think he might be really surprised. This might be a growth opportunity.

TAPPER: Russell, in the "G.Q." article, Robertson says quote, "We never, ever judge someone on who is going to heaven or hell. That's the Almighty's job. We just love 'em, give 'em the good news about Jesus, whether they're homosexuals, drunks, terrorists."

Russell, homosexuals, drunks, terrorists.

MOORE: Well, I think his larger point was that all of us have fallen short of God's design. All of us are sinners and there is redemption found through the blood Christ for everyone. The Bible tells us that and gives an entire list of ways that we have fallen short of God's purposes, in order to invite us to receive the gospel of forgiveness that is found in Jesus Christ. That's a very common and in fact, central view of the Christian gospel.

TAPPER: Matt -- MOORE: I didn't read him as equating terrorists with homosexuals. I think he's talking about a story that he's known in his own life as someone who was in rebellion, living a very, very hard and difficult life, running far from God, that he found his way back and that anyone can. That's how I interpreted his words.

TAPPER: -- I know you're not with GLAAD, you're with "The Advocate". GLAAD called on sponsors to reexamine ties to "Duck Dynasty." But in June, after Alec Baldwin apologized for tweeting an anti-gay slur, GLAAD essentially gave him a pass. They said, quote, "Alec Baldwin is making it clear the intent behind his tweets does not excuse his language. Allies like Baldwin are right to use these moments to reinforce support for the community and LGBT equality."

Now, some conservatives are saying that GLAAD is hypocritical. I know you are not here representing GLAAD. So if you disagree with them, feel free to tell me.

But how do you respond to those who say there's a double standard here? How come Robertson can't say this, but Alec Baldwin, who is a liberal Democrat, he can -- he can call somebody a vicious queen or whatever he said?

BREEN: Right. You know, I don't speak for them. I can't speak for the organization. However, I think you'll find that Alec Baldwin has -- those comments were inexcusable and he needs an education about comments that can be very hurtful and damaging to people.

On the other hand, he's had a long career of being progressive in his views towards LGBT people and where those comments were in conflict with his long history of being pro-LGBT, I think maybe that's where a lot of us find the distinction between someone like Robertson's comments and Baldwin's comments.

TAPPER: Matthew Breen and Russell Moore, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for the civil and respectful debate. I appreciate it.

BREEN: Thank you.

TAPPER: When we come back, more on the breaking news coming out of London. A balcony collapse. We will bring you the latest.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're returning to the breaking news in our world lead out of London, England. We are hearing reports of multiple casualties after the ceiling collapsed during a performance at London's Apollo Theater. Our own Erin McLaughlin is standing by live in London.

Erin, what's the latest?


Well, we understand that this incident took place about an hour ago during the production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime." There was about 700 people in the theater at the time when, according to eyewitnesses, the ceiling collapsed on to the audience. People were covered in dust. There was a loud cracking noise when this happened.

Eyewitnesses described seeing casualties. They say it was a full house, around 700 people in total. About 20 casualties counted so far. Eyewitnesses describe seeing people bloodied, there were head injuries. People were being treated on the foyer of this theater.

So, a very dramatic incident that happened there in a very congested part of central London tonight, Jake.

TAPPER: What can you tell us about the Apollo Theater? It's obviously legendary in London. I'm not sure if you know how old it is, how -- whether or not it's been repaired lately.

What can you tell us about it?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it is an incredibly famous theater, pretty much unheard of, an incident happening like this, especially in the midst of a theater production, in the midst of a packed house. So, incredibly famous theater and this also happening in the middle of the Christmas period. So, there would be plenty of tourists there as well so really shocking incident.

I'm sure it's something the investigators will be looking into, however, when the ceiling that now authorities say has collapsed was last looked at and why exactly this happened, questioning -- questions that authorities no doubt will undoubtedly be looking at, Jake.

TAPPER: Let's get back to Nic Robertson on the phone.

Thanks, Erin. We'll come back to you in a bit.

Nic is on the scene.

Nic, tell us what you're seeing.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Well, Jake, still seeing people being taken away from the scene here, one walking wounded wrapped in a blanket, another person on a stretcher being wheeled away by paramedics.

I talked with one lady who was inside the theater when it happened. She was sitting quite close to the front, she said about 40 minutes into the performance, it was dark inside the theater, then she was aware of people moving, people saying watch out, watch out.

Then, she said the ceiling started collapsing. First of all slowly, then much faster. She believed the collapse was more towards the back of the theater. She could see plaster and wood coming down. The air was full of dust. She said at least one woman she was aware of had a broken leg. Paramedics taking the worst (ph) just to the theater immediately next door to the Apollo and one of those injured wheeled away and taken away by paramedics.

This is a developing situation. It's still an ongoing situation, Jake. This particular eyewitness we talked to was uninjured. She said she had seen other people who had cuts and scrapes but she said mostly people left the theater in quite an ordered sort of way.

She said everyone was shocked as the situation developed, very unaware of what had caused this. She said it just seemed that the ceiling suddenly just started giving away and collapsing in on the theater goers, particularly at the back of the theater, Jake.

TAPPER: We're told, just to give you an update, while you were talking there, the London fire brigade announced they estimate about 700 people were inside the theater. Erin told us that earlier. They are also estimating that they believe somewhere between 20 and 40 people were injured in the ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theater.

Do we have any idea, Nic, about the extent of the injuries, how bad they are?

ROBERTSON: The one casualty that we have been able to see, that did seem to be the most injured, was on a stretcher, on a metal gurney if you will with a neck brace on, stabilized there. There were three or four paramedics around that person, wrapped up because it's a very cold night here in London. Again, we don't know the nature of the injuries but the fact that on a hard gurney with a neck stabilizing brace on, that's an indication of perhaps some injuries to the back or other limbs, Jake.

TAPPER: And right now, you're looking at live pictures from the scene. We're just getting these in right now. We will, of course, try to get more as they come on.

Nic, the London fire brigade also announced that there were individuals who were trapped in the theater at one point, but as of now, they say the London fire brigade that all those people have been safely evacuated. So, it would seem that everyone in the theater is now out of the theater.

ROBERTSON: And the eyewitness we talked to told us that her husband had bought them the tickets to go to the theater tonight, that he told her he had gotten the last two seats available. So we do know from this eyewitness that the theater was near to capacity, if not at capacity this evening. Of course, they close for Christmas, almost no surprise, the theaters here, I was at one over the weekend, the theaters here absolutely really full and crowded at this time of year, Jake.

TAPPER: So, if you're just tuning in right now, we are covering live from London, there has been a ceiling collapse at the famous Apollo Theater in the theater district. There were 700 individuals who were thought to be in the theater. London fire brigade is saying somewhere between 20 and 40 were injured in that.

Let's go to Erin McLaughlin back in the studio in London.

Erin, what can you tell us?

MCLAUGHLIN: That's right, Jake. We are hearing from the London fire brigade of the 700 people that were in this theater, 20 to 40 people were injured. Everyone who was at one point trapped inside this theater has now been freed and evacuated. There is still treatment for those who suffered casualties during this roof collapse in a very busy holiday time here in London.

Eyewitnesses describing a rather frightening scene of a roof cracking, the dust falling down on to the theater audience in the middle of this production. Many members of this audience, children and families, now the London fire brigade telling us thankfully that everybody has been evacuated from that theater, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. We're going to take a very quick break. And when we come back, more on this collapse of part of the theater in London, England, with a report of up to 40 casualties.

Also coming up on THE LEAD, Senator Max Baucus likely to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. But is that more of a chess move from Democrats than anything else? That's our political lead, next.