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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Mysterious Death of Alfred Wright; Martha Coakley Talks Supreme Court Case on Massachusetts Abortion Law vs. Free Speech; Is Popcorn Defense Stand Your Ground?

Aired January 15, 2014 - 11:30   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I want to bring you part two of a CNN exclusive report on the mysterious death of 28-year-old Alfred Wright. He's the father of two who vanished last November in Texas. His family found his body nearly three weeks later, but that was two weeks after the local authorities there gave up. Just stopped searching for him. The local sheriff told them there were no signs of foul play, but there were some serious signs that were mysterious on his body. The family says so many things do not add up here.

Here's Deborah Feyerick.

I want to warn you, some of the images you may find disturbing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Alfred Wright's body was found less than 150 yards from where sheriff's depths had originally set up their search command post.

LAUREN WRIGHT, WIFE OF ALFRED: How was he so close? And we didn't find him? It's not like he was miles away. He was right there.

FEYERICK: Saying there was no foul play, Sheriff Tom Maddox called off the search after four days leaving the family to find the body on their own.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT, FATHER OF ALFRED: And he said, Daddy, I knew you were going to find me.

FEYERICK: And just as the autopsy had foreseen, the autopsy had seen drugs, three kinds, including meth. Although the family insists they never saw him do any drugs.

LAUREN WRIGHT: I know and believe wholeheartedly someone did this to my husband.

FEYERICK: Despite heavy rain, thick mud, gravel, underbrush, barbed wire and wild animals, Alfred's body was found surprisingly clean and virtually intact 19 days after he disappeared.

RYAN MACLEOD, WRIGHT FAMILY ATTORNEY: If that body was there for 19 days, it would have been in a different state.

FEYERICK: His body was stretched out. He was wearing black boxers, tennis shoes, but one sock. The volunteers who searched for him were caked in mud and their clothing was torn, which made Alfred's appearance even stranger.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: What was weird about his sock is, in this area, his socks were clean and his sock was pulled up with his phone stuck in it as if he was in a Sunday School class. Neat. His tennis shoes was very clean.

FEYERICK (on camera): What about his car keys?

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: I was told by the mortician that came to the burial who was there at the autopsy that when they pulled off his left shoe which did not have a sock, his keys was under his left feet in his shoe.

FEYERICK (voice-over): The second sock was under the body.

Dogs had searched that ranch area in the days after Alfred's truck broke down and some of his clothing was found scattered around the property. Then there was no sign of Alfred, leaving the family to believe his body ended up here after the search.

LAUREN WRIGHT: There's an open gate here almost a straight path. Then his body was right through the gate. The fence here. Down on one of the only open trails in this woods.

FEYERICK (on camera): What doesn't make sense to you about what you were told by law enforcement?

LAUREN WRIGHT: Everything.

FEYERICK (voice-over): We went to the Sabine County jail to talk to the sheriff. He refused to meet with us. But as we waited outside, he did return my call.

(on camera): I understand that it's been turned over to the Texas Rangers, but a lot of -- there are a lot of rumors, a lot of speculation, a lot of allegations. And we just wanted to give you --

(voice-over): Before I could finish, Sheriff Maddox told us to call the Rangers and said he never commented on rumors and speculation.

(on camera): You stand behind your handling of the initial stages of the investigation, sir, and how it was done?

(voice-over): The sheriff repeated that at his request the investigation was turned over to the Texas Rangers. That was one month after the body was found. The sheriff had told the family there was no foul play. The Rangers, however, have since called Alfred's death questionable. And have asked the FBI to assist.

So what about the drugs and the autopsy performed by a local medical examiner and attended by a Texas rancher, who was also a close friend of the sheriff's? The autopsy determined Alfred's death was accidental, caused by a drug overdose with a mix of cocaine, methamphetamines, and meth. Yet, astonishingly, that same autopsy said Alfred Wright died three hours after his family found his partially decomposed body.

The official autopsy found shallow puncture wounds on his left palm, left thigh, leg, and abdomen, but no evidence of severe trauma. And those missing teeth? The report concluded it was due to insect activity. And what appeared to be that straight cut on his neck was due to animal activity.

Suspicious of the investigation, the family had already hired an independent pathologist who made a different finding after examining the body herself.

DR. LEEANNE (ph) ROSEN, PATHOLOGIST: I have a high index of suspicion that this is a homicide.

FEYERICK: Dr. Leeanne Rosen (ph) says that contrary to the autopsy, Alfred did appear to have severe trauma to the neck and head. His missing ear and teeth, evident. And it seemed his throat had been slashed.

MACLEOD: Having seen Alfred's body, I know that that's not the case. I know that drugs don't cause that type of severe trauma.

FEYERICK: The medical examiner would not talk to us.

The Texas Rangers acknowledge the high level of mistrust in the community and said the autopsy is only one part of an active investigation.

So why is it that so many things don't add up? The Wright family believes the sheriff and his deputies may know more than they're saying.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: They was defining that story.

FEYERICK (on camera): Before the investigation had concluded.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: Before the investigation concluded. And by the way, I don't think we've really had an investigation.

FEYERICK: OK.

DOUGLAS WRIGHT: Things that have taken place so far is to discredit my son.

FEYERICK (voice-over): The family suspects Alfred may have been held captive and tortured during the time he was missing. They want forensic evidence to determine whether the drugs entered his body before or after his disappearance. And they don't believe he left the liquor store on his own.

That store is owned by a former sheriff's dispatcher whose son is a deputy. And even though there are surveillance cameras and a sign that says 24-hour surveillance, the family's lawyer was given multiple explanations for why no surveillance images exist.

MACLEOD: Within one five-minute conversation, I'm told three different stories. I'm told it was a system that didn't work. Then I'm told that it was kind of malfunctioning. Then I'm told it was a live-feed camera. You could only see what was happening at the time it was happening. The third was that it was a VHS system and there was no videotape in at the time.

FEYERICK: More than two months after Alfred Wright disappeared, his truck had not been searched, and no one from the family formally interviewed.

After his death, wife, Lauren, went through bank records and found three charges her husband made at local hotels when she and the children were away the month before he died.

Texas Rangers are pulling video from one of the hotels to see who Alfred was with.

The family says it wants answers no matter how painful those answers may be. And it has been holding vigils to keep Alfred' memory alive.

Now Lauren Wright and her sons are coping the best they can.

LAUREN WRIGHT: My 4-year-old asks a lot of questions. He doesn't understand why his dad doesn't come home. And my 2-year-old asks for him all the time.

FEYERICK (on camera): What are you telling them?

LAUREN WRIGHT: Well, we told my 4-year-old that the angels came to pick daddy up from work one day and that he needed him, he needed him back.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Deborah Feyerick, CNN, Sabine County, Texas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: The United States Supreme Court takes up abortion today, specifically the distance between protesters and patients. Should it be 35 feet or is any marker an infringement of free speech in this country? We're going to talk to one of the women at the heart of this case, Massachusetts attorney general, Martha Coakley. She's coming live, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is time for the Bill of Rights. Exactly where is the line between freedom of speech and the right of people not to be spoken to if they don't want to listen? In Massachusetts, the line's pretty clear. It's right on the sidewalk. Take a look left of your screen and down. Here's a better view. It's yellow. The yellow line the woman in black is careful not to cross. That woman is Eleanor McCullen, a 77-year-old grandmother, and she is challenging a state law that keeps anti-abortion activists and pretty much everyone else like her at least 35 feet from the entrances of clinics that perform abortions. It also keeps anti-abortionists and pro-lifers and anyone on either side of the equation. Last year, McCullen v. Coakley played out before the Supreme Court. I'm pleased to welcome the Coakley side of the case, the Massachusetts attorney general and also the Democratic candidate for governor, Martha Coakley. She joins me life from the steps of the court.

Madam Attorney General, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. How'd the arguments go?

MARTHA COAKLEY, (D), MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERAL & GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: Well, good morning. And I think that the justices were very interested in many of the issues that you've just talked about, when does the statute accomplish the rights that we're protecting not just the public safety issue, which is a huge one, which the courts have upheld before, but the rights of those who are trying to seek access to health. And that is actually a men and women of all ages trying to access clinics for a variety of reasons, and those who protest. And because we have such a history in Massachusetts of violence, including two murders back in 1994, of trying another statute, of really trying to address this problem in a way to accommodate everybody's interests, that didn't work well. Because you had too much of a -- as the now police commissioner said, we're basically like referees in a sporting event. We're looking at hands and feet. We can't really do this very well. So the legislature I think interested in protecting all of those interests went back to the drawing board, devised this statute that makes it clear what everybody can and cannot do. It is content neutral. That is people can go be in and out of the clinic, hopefully at their own pace and freely, and they are able to be spoken to, but they are given that right of access.

(CROSSTALK)

COAKLEY: We believe the statute works.

BANFIELD: OK. So it seems like a pretty simple argument, until you dive a little bit deeper. As I was looking at it -- and correct me if I'm wrong, but there is an exception to this 35-foot rule. Again it's everybody has to stay outside the 35-foot line, but the exception is for employees. On its surface, that sounds like it makes complete sense, but the argument against that, that now you're discriminating based on the views of the person as opposed to making it homogenous for everybody. Will that be a sticking point in this case? Because employees are actually exempted from this law, that makes the challenger have an argument that makes sense?

COAKLEY: Well, there's two ways to approach that. First of all, we think that, as written and this is applied, it is not relating to speech. It's relating to behavior. In other words, employees, in the scope of their employment, are to enter the zone only to make sure the people are able to know where they're going, they're able to get in and out of the building. There is no evidence that any other kind of advocacy or speech takes place. But if the justices are concerned about that, that is a piece of the statute. It shouldn't necessarily -- you could remove the exemption if you felt that was a concern. But it shouldn't invalidate the entire statute, which does work in a content-free neutral zone. BANFIELD: Can I ask you, I always try to read tea leaves. It's the dumbest thing to do on television, but I'm doing it anyway. When I line up the judges, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan seem to line up in support of the 35-foot rule. Alito, Roberts, Thomas, Scalia seem to line up against that rule. And again, Kennedy would be the decisive vote here, but he has dissented in the past. What do you think your chances are given Kennedy's past on this?

COAKLEY: I agree with you. Reading tea leaves is difficult. Nobody is expert in it. Interestingly, neither Justice Thomas nor Justice Roberts asked questions. It was a bit unusual. And I think some of the questions that Justice Alito asked -- it's impossible to tell as they asked both sides arguments. But I think it's hard to know now where people will come down on that. Justice Kagan did have questions about the distance. But if you say the statute is OK, it should be 25 feet, I'm not knowing that the courts get involved in that micromanagement. But we're not sure what they'll do here.

What I am confident of, though, is that today's arguments pointed out that, in the past, historically, not only have the courts protected these kind of buffer zones around protected behavior, like those accessing health clinics, but they've also done it in other interests, other areas, like in voting or in protest areas, where the interests in making sure that we have public safety, we have an orderly ability for people to go about their business, has been balanced just the way we did it in this statute. So we won't know until we see the decision. I'm fairly certain we won't have Justice Scalia on our side. There are probably a couple of others. But where come out, I am cautiously optimistic. When this court really digs into what they've said before about this and when they look at our record that we'll be successful.

BANFIELD: We'll watch closely.

And Martha Coakley, it's good to speak to you. I followed your career for a long time. It's a delight you accepted our invitation today. Hopefully, it's not the last time.

COAKLEY: Thank you very much. I look forward to talking to you soon.

BANFIELD: Madam Attorney General, thank you so much.

We are back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: The 12-year-old boy accused of opening fire Tuesday at a New Mexico middle school may have actually warned some of his classmates before the attack not to come to school. Two students are recovering after being shot. A teacher is being called a hero for convincing that boy to put down the shotgun.

A woman is suing McDonald's over hot coffee. Again. 20 years ago, a woman sued McDonald's after spilling hot coffee on her lap. Now another woman, named Paulette Carr, claims she was burned by McDonald's and its coffee when it was handed to her through the drive- through window. She also says the lid to the coffee was, quote, "put on carelessly." McDonald's did release this statement reading, "Nothing is more important to us than the safe operation of our restaurants, especially the safety of our customers." And Ashley, the supervisor, says, "I'm aware of the claim by Paulette Carr and actively investigating this. As this is a pending legal matter, it would be inappropriate to comment further." But there you have it. Yet again. Another McDonald's suit.

The Winter Olympic Games are just less than a month away. And these are athletes who train every single day, good or bad. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who I just happened to bump into in Los Angeles, believe it or not, last night, has some information now on how one of these athletes actually overcame scalp surgery.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As she jumps into her sled, Julia Clukey has one focus, getting down that track as fast as possible.

(LAUGHTER)

JULIA CLUKEY, OLYMPIC LUGE ATHLETE: The speed is definitely a big adrenaline rush.

GUPTA: She says her life experiences help give her perspective when she is on the track.

CLUKEY: I think any time something happens to you, you have to decide to feel, decide what you're going to do to get there, and then stick to it and do what you have to do every day.

GUPTA: Clukey has had plenty of life obstacles. Her father passed when she was 19. She has had training injuries, her knees, torn meniscus and ACL to herniated disks in her neck. But she overcame them all to make her first Olympic team in 2010.

CLUKEY: It was a great honor, you know, for myself and for my family. You know, they had seen all the good and bad days, highs and lows.

GUPTA: But her Olympic high was short-lived.

CLUKEY: I was diagnosed with Arnold Chiari Syndrome shortly after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

GUPTA: Chiari is a disorder in which the fluid around her brain doesn't circulate properly.

CLUKEY: A lot of the symptoms I was having were severe headaches and pressure in the lower part of my skull, and then a lot of problems with the right side of my body.

GUPTA: For her, surgery was the only option.

CLUKEY: They go in and removed a little under a centimeter of my skull bone to create access for the spinal fluid to flow freely. GUPTA: She didn't let that stop her, though. Just 14 months later, she was back on the sled.

CLUKEY: I never lost sight of where I wanted to be after my surgery, and that was back competing in the sport of luge.

GUPTA: While she fell short of making her second Olympics by just a fraction of a second, she is staying sharp as the team's first alternate.

CLUKEY: I wake up every day, knowing I'm going to fly, knowing that I'm training for something I love. I think it's a big gift.

GUPTA: And it's that gift that Clukey wants to make sure other young girls like her also get to experience.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: Coming up after the break, in a movie theater, some words get heated and the popcorn flies. And now there is a man in court who is saying that popcorn made him think he had to fight for his life, shooting a man dead. Is this really a Stand Your Ground case? Really? A Stand Your Ground case?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Here is a new one for you, the popcorn defense. Get used to it. It's going to make a lot of headlines, because a man accused of murdering a father who was texting at a Florida movie theater claims he was afraid for his safety. Police say before the shooting, there was zero physical contact between these two, unless you count the popcorn that Chad Olson apparently threw at the 71-year-old Curtis Reece, who now is being held without bond on second-degree murder charge.

Want to bring back in CNN's legal analyst and defense attorney, Danny Cevallos; and HLN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney, Joey Jackson.

All right. Joey, I'm going to begin with you.

The judge, in hearing just these preliminaries, was none too pleased with this. And the fur is flying throughout the legal community that Stand Your Ground was even broached in this case. Is that wrong?

JOEY JACKSON, HLN LEGAL ANALYST: No, they certainly have a legitimate point. And the judge certainly did by being none too pleased as you put it, very mildly. The point is this. Whenever a person acts, the law looks at the reasonableness in their actions and the law protects reasonableness, not a rationality. Therefore, when a person, for example, oversteps their bounds and is not in imminent fear of a threat that can cause them great bodily harm, then you really have to question whether or not you could even speak to the issue of Stand Your Ground and whether it's relevant at all here. Popcorn? I mean, that's something that, you know you have mild annoyances that occur. But does this mean that you kill someone? Finally, Ashleigh, in any instance, the force used has to be proportionate to the threat posed. And when you take out a gun and kill someone because they hit you in the face with popcorn, where has society gone?

BANFIELD: That's exactly where I wanted to go to is the proportionate response and also the notion of Stand Your Ground being in your head.

So, Danny, walk me through this. I get it. You've got to have -- you've got to understand that Stand Your Ground is all about what's in that person's mind when they act out of fear. But then the big word, reasonable, keeps working its ugly way into this. And apparently Reece is 6'1", 275. Is it reasonable for him to think he's going to die because popcorn is coming at him?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So there are a number of criticisms of Stand Your Ground. And number one is the one you're honing in on, determining whether or not it's reasonable. But that ties into another problem that people don't talk about much. And it's procedural. Stand Your Ground is not an affirmative defense. Instead, it creates this bizarre immunity. And that immunity attaches before and at the time of the crime. So now the effect is you have police officers at the scene of a crime, having to make a legal determination whether or not this individual is immune. Because later on, they could be held civilly liable if retroactively a judge determines that at the moment of the crime, he was immune. It's the procedural issues with Stand Your Ground that create a problem, as well as the societal issues. Will it turn the world into the Wild West? That is a concern. But procedurally, we're seeing how it is an oddity. Is really is a retroactive analysis. And look at the uncomfortableness that the police officers have to go through when they're on the scene, having to determine at the moment, make a legal determination, was this man immune.

BANFIELD: All right.

Well, listen, I have to leave it there. But I think we're going to be talking a lot more about this as it works its way through the court.

Danny, Joey, thank you both. Appreciate your insight, as always.

JACKSON: My pleasure, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And thank you all. It's been great having you here in Los Angeles. I'm back live in New York tomorrow. But right now AROUND THE WORLD starts. Stay with us.