updated 3/17/2005 12:25:15 PM ET 2005-03-17T17:25:15

Guest: Harvey Levin, Julia Protis Sulek, Roger Cressey, Ed Smart, Savannah Guthrie

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALISON STEWART, HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 

Eight days of deliberations and the verdict is in.  Robert Blake is found not guilty of killing his wife. 

In another California courtroom, Scott Peterson is sentenced to death for killing his wife.  And his former in-laws unleashed a barrage of emotion. 

Finding Jessica.  She was last seen three weeks ago tonight.  Police have named a person of interest.  That person is a registered sex offender. 

National planning scenarios.  A list of 12 ways to take out a whole lot of Americans, leaked onto the Internet.  Not created by al Qaeda but by our government. 

And Jesse juice.  Michael Jackson‘s pretrial ritual with a non-sibling Jackson, Jesse.  Not to puppet theater players: you‘re going to need a new puppet. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart, sitting in once again for Keith Olbermann.

One case garnered nonstop national attention.  The other, as it played out, barely made headlines.  Both allegedly crime of passion.  Both pitting a husband as a defendant and a wife as the murder victim. 

Our No. 5 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, an emotional day in California courtrooms.  In a moment, we‘ll take you inside the courthouse for the announcement of the death penalty sentence against Scott Peterson. 

But first, the verdict in Robert Blake murder trial.  Michael Gubitosi, the real name of 71-year-old Robert Blake, the former “Baretta” star, faced one count of first-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.  Two counts of soliciting murder and a special count of lying in wait. 

Bakley was gunned down outside of a restaurant back in May of 2001. 

Prosecutors portrayed Blake as a man who was entangled in a marriage he didn‘t want by a woman who trapped him with an unwanted pregnancy.  Today after eight days of deliberation, this is how the verdict came down. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We, the jury in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Robert Blake, not guilty of the crime of first-degree murder of Bonny Lee Bakley. 

We, the jury in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Robert Blake, not guilty of the crime of solicitation of murder and violation of penal code section 653f, subsection B, to wit, solicit Gary McLarty to commit and join in the commission of the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley, as charged in count three of the information. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  The jury could not reach unanimous verdicts on one of the solicitation counts, one lone juror holding out for conviction on that second solicitation charge.  The judge dismissed it. 

Now when matters of celebrity and justice collide, COUNTDOWN turns to Harvey Levin, the executive producer and creator of “Celebrity Justice.” 

You also happen to be an attorney, too.  Thanks, Harvey, for being with us. 

HARVEY LEVIN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER/CREATOR, “CELEBRITY JUSTICE”:  My pleasure, Alison. 

STEWART:  Was this a weak case for the prosecution or just a strong defense?

LEVIN:  Well, the prosecution had problems here.  And on the one hand, they were arguing that these two guys were solicited to kill Bonny Lee Bakley.  And both of these guys, these stunt men, had credibility problems.  One was kind of crazy, actually.  He talked about aliens coming after him. 

On the other hand, you have the prosecutors saying, well, you know, Blake was soliciting these people.  But then on the other hand, he just decided to do it himself.  And not only did he do it himself, he did it at the Vitello‘s restaurant where everybody knows him, which seems kind of risky. 

And then on top of everything else, you have a situation where, if Blake pulled the trigger, you can‘t link the gun to him.  You have no DNA, you have no blood.  You have no eyewitnesses. 

So this jury felt at the very least, there was certainly a reasonable doubt about the prosecution‘s case. 

STEWART:  He had circumstantial evidence and lack of focus, it sounds like what you just said.  Bonny Lee Bakley got put on trial as much as Robert Blake did here.  How did that play into the decision, do you think?

LEVIN:  Well, you know, it‘s not uncommon.  This happens a lot, where the victim of a crime goes on trial, because you want the jury to feel like that person doesn‘t deserve the kind of sympathy that you would want to go after somebody just for vengeance.  And that probably worked in this case.  The jury wasn‘t out to get somebody to avenge Bonny Lee Bakley‘s murder. 

They were looking at Robert Blake and saying did he do it?

Now, I think it‘s really important, Alison, to understand, they‘re not saying he‘s innocent.  They‘re just saying they had at least a reasonable doubt.  But this prosecution‘s case had problems from the get-go. 

STEWART:  They had one charge they got hung up on, the one lone juror hanging out for conviction.  Should we pay attention to that?

LEVIN:  Not really.  I mean, look, this is an unbelievable loss for the L.A. County D.A.  The fact that, on two counts, he was cleared outright and another it was 11-1 in favor of acquittal.  So this case didn‘t fly.  Or if I can still quote Dan Rather, the dog didn‘t hunt. 

And they spent a lot of money on this case, a lot of time.  It took years and they came up dry.  So Robert Blake squarely won this one. 

STEWART:  I want you to put on two hats here.  One as an attorney and one as an executive producer of a TV show. 

LEVIN:  I know what you‘re going to ask. 

STEWART:  Why has the Blake case been under the radar?

LEVIN:  I thought you were going to ask something else.  Because it doesn‘t have the sexiness and the intrigue that has the quality of a soap opera. 

You had a victim who was anything but sympathetic.  Robert Blake‘s time had come and gone.  And there were sexier cases out there.  The Scott Peterson case was far more riveting just in the sense of who the players were.  Michael Jackson, you have a superstar on trial for child molestation. 

You know, I have to tell you, I‘ve heard that Robert Blake was kind of upset that he was ignored and probably this was doubly sweet for him today.  He was cleared, and he knocked Michael Jackson right out of the headlines. 

STEWART:  OK.  What did you think I was going to ask you real quick?

LEVIN:  I thought you were going to ask me if they were going to—if Robert Blake is going to get a job offer from a Hollywood producer.  And my guess is in the next of couple days, some producer will approach him and we‘re going to read it in “The Hollywood Reporter.” 

STEWART:  All right.  I got a two-fer there.  Harvey Levin from “Celebrity Justice,” thanks a lot.

LEVIN:  See you.

STEWART:  Robert Blake‘s surprise was written all over his face.  But no one was really surprised today when Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi denied Scott Peterson‘s request for a new trial and formally sentenced him to death. 

It was supposed to be a fairly routine court proceeding and simply the end of a case that grabbed the nation‘s attention and would not let go.  But that was not to be.  There was nothing anti-climactic about the scene that unfolded in the California courtroom. 

Laci Peterson‘s mother, Sharon Rocha, spoke in court and trembled as she raged against Scott Peterson, calling him, quote, “an evil murderer.”  Scott‘s parents were not allowed to speak, but his father yelled at Laci‘s brother from the gallery at one point.  And then the parents stormed out of the courtroom.  And Laci‘s father ranted that Scott would burn in hell for this. 

Only Laci‘s stepfather spoke publicly outside the courthouse on behalf of the family. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RON GRANTSKI, LACI PETERSON‘S STEPFATHER:  Our family is going to make it.  We‘re stronger because of this.  And Scott got what he deserved. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  But emotions were running high, not only for the two families.  Even the judge had problems concealing his feelings, his voice cracking at one point.  And the jurors openly sobbed during Sharon Rocha‘s statements. 

Ten of the 12 jurors sat in the jury box, hugged the Rocha family as they left and spoke to the press outside about the one person in the courtroom who seemed unfazed. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL BELMESSIERI, PETERSON JUROR:  Scott came in with a great big smile on his face, laughing.  It was just another day in paradise for Scott, another day that he had to go through the motions.  He‘s on his way home, Scott figures.  Well, guess what, Scotty?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  San Quentin is your new home. 

BELMESSIERI:  And it‘s illegal to kill your wife and child in California. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  For a firsthand account from inside the courtroom, I‘m joined by Julia from the “San Jose Mercury News.” 

Julia Protis Sulek, thanks for being with us and sharing your reporting.  First, really, how intense was it in that room today?

JULIA PROTIS SULEK, “SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS”:  It was wild, Alison.  I think you‘re right.  We thought it would be anti-climactic today, because he was just going to impose the sentence. 

But when Sharon Rocha got up there and started confronting Scott, she stared him down.  She asked him questions.  How could you do this?  And she paused and waited for him to respond. 

Everyone was on edge.  And then she just lit into him again and again, staring him down.  It was very, very dramatic.  And characteristic of Scott, he just looked back at her blankly. 

STEWART:  Now I understand it was actually Laci‘s brother Brent.  He‘s 33 years old.  He started off this sort of dramatic testimony.  They were giving statements, really.  Correct?

SULEK:  Yes.  They were just, you know, confronting him and telling him how much pain that he has caused them. 

And during Brent Rocha‘s comments, when he was talking about a time—he was talking to Scott about his childhood and again, about how Scott felt he wasn‘t being a success in his life, that‘s when there was one eruption in the courtroom.  And that came from Scott‘s father, Lee Peterson, who said, “You‘re a liar.” 

And the judge said, “Stop.  I‘m not going to take any of that.  I‘m going to have you escorted out of the courtroom.”  It was really some histrionics in the courtroom. 

STEWART:  And there was also sort of a subtext.  As all this information was coming in this afternoon, and we were reading it.  There was a subtext about Scott‘s being a child of privilege.  Talk to me more about that.

SULEK:  That‘s a very good point, Alison.  I think that‘s—it‘s a running theme throughout the trial.  I think what it really boiled down to is that behind the arrogance and confidence was, as Brent Rocha said, a big loser, a guy who grew up with wealth and privilege and was daddy‘s boy, mommy‘s boy. 

But really, he lost his golf scholarship.  He, you know, was given money from his parents, and he kept running out of his parents‘ money.  His parents supported him in businesses that failed.  And now, it looked like, his marriage was failing.  So Brent called him one true loser. 

STEWART:  Julia Protis Sulek from “The San Jose Mercury News,” thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us tonight. 

SULEK:  You‘re welcome. 

STEWART:  From verdicts and rulings to unsolved crimes.  Police announce who the person of interest is in the search for Jessica Lunsford.  Ed Smart has been talking to the Lunsford family.  He‘ll talk to us ahead on COUNTDOWN.

And the terror threat here at home.  Leaked scenarios that could cause the biggest loss of life.  How real is the threat?  And what can we do to stop it?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  OK, this is scary stuff.  The Department of Homeland Security draws up a frightening list of possible terror strikes, including the release of the plague.  But is the target list on target?  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  It reads like a Hollywood action thriller, 12 different ways terrorists might attack America, each one more frightening than the last.  But the list doesn‘t come from the imagination of a screenwriter.  It was put together by the government agency charged with protecting the United States. 

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, hypothetical homeland security threats.  Now, according to the “New York Times,” President Bush requested this report 15 months ago after the Homeland Security Department was criticized by Congress for failing to focus its resources on high risk targets. 

Here are some of the doomsday scenarios that the homeland security folks have come up with. 

Should terrorists blow up a chlorine tank, more than 17,000 people would be killed, 100,000 more injured. 

If they decide to spread pneumonic plague in the bathrooms of an airport, train station, sports stadium, 2,500 would die and 8,000 around the globe would get sick. 

Spraying anthrax from a truck passing through five American cities would expose 350,000, killing about 13,000. 

And while a dirty bomb attack would cause a relatively small number of initial deaths, 540, they estimate, it would inflict enormous economic damage by spreading across three dozen city blocks, contaminating everything in its path. 

OK.  So this report is not even finished yet.  It was not meant to be made public.  Officials in Hawaii mistakenly posted a draft on the Internet.  But now that we know what it says, how scared should we really be?

I‘m joined by Roger Cressey, former counter terrorism coordinator for the National Security Council staff, now an MSNBC analyst. 

Roger, so aside from the snafu of posting all this government research on the Internet, is this report a right step forward?

ROGER CRESSEY, FORMER COUNTER TERRORISM COORDINATOR FOR NATIONAL

SECURITY COUNCIL:  Absolutely.  If anything, we should be reassured that they‘re finally doing the type of planning they should have done two years ago. 

Alison, one of the most valid criticisms of the homeland department is that not taking a risk-based approach to budgeting.  So you‘ve got to identify where the vulnerabilities are the greatest.  You‘ve got to develop scenarios that will stress the system the most.  And then allocate resources and money to deal with those greatest vulnerabilities and mitigate risk.  This is the right thing to do. 

STEWART:  Now, based on your expertise and your expertise, does it seem like they had an accurate handle on what the biggest threat and what the biggest threat areas are? 

CRESSEY:  Sure.  I mean, there are the pretty obvious ones: weapons of mass destruction attacks. 

I think the thing to keep in mind is that several of these scenarios could happen simultaneously.  And just about every one of these scenarios, they would overwhelm our existing capability, be it fire, police, medical. 

And so the key here is to do a capabilities based planning process, much like the Pentagon does, in order to come up with the type of road map we need to put the money and resources where the risk is highest, our vulnerabilities are greatest, and then reduce those vulnerabilities accordingly. 

STEWART:  One thing is interesting in the report.  It talks about body count.  It also talks about economic impact.  Now, from your experience in dealing with organizations like al Qaeda, are they concerned about having an economic impact, economic damage, or are they concerned more with physical bodies?

CRESSEY:  Well, the body count‘s a benefit for them, but they‘re really about economic damage.  Now, just look at bin Laden‘s most recent statements.  He‘s exhorting his followers to target economic targets, be it in the Persian Gulf or be it inside the United States. 

I think even al Qaeda was impressed with the economic impact 9/11 had. 

And if anything, they would like to duplicate that. 

STEWART:  So what do you think the public should take away from all this?

CRESSEY:  I think actually the public should be reassured.  Secretary Chertoff has gotten off to a good start.  He says we should be looking at the threats holistically.  We should take a risk management approach toward how we deal with them and bring a little more logic and common sense to our capabilities and our planning.  So this is going in the right direction. 

STEWART:  Roger Cressey, we thank you so much for your time tonight.  Former counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council, also an MSNBC analyst. 

CRESSEY:  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  On the ground in Iraq, insurgent attacks didn‘t keep the new national assembly from its first day of official business.  That country‘s members of parliament gathering as a freely elected body for the first time in 50 years.  The meeting began despite a series of bomb explosions nearby. 

Now just getting there may not have been so easy, but neither is the work at hand.  The assembly has to write a constitution that all factions can agree upon and reach a consensus on picking a new prime minister. 

Moving from the very serious news of the day to the sublime, like lawn mowers that can fly.  Fly, I say.  Soaring towards “Oddball” is next!

And speaking of odd, daily prayers with Jesse Jackson equals puppet theater on COUNTDOWN.  That‘s what‘s up.  Need I say more?

ANNOUNCER:  You‘re getting your news Olbermann style, COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN, part of the best primetime in cable news, MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart, the COUNTDOWN ringer while Keith Olbermann is on vacation.  And it‘s time to delve into the strange and wonderful world that begins when you hear, “Let‘s play ‘Oddball‘.”

We begin in Haugesund Airport in Norway to watch aviation history in the making, the premiere performance of a flying lawn mower.  A fly mo, if you will. 

This is not a real fly mo.  This is only an experiment.  Flying law mowers are only for ground use.  That was the disclosure statement, sort of. 

The beauty of this invention is of Tor Anderson.  He‘s the inventor.  He worked, slaved, toiled on it for a grand total of two weeks before his test run today.  And the darn thing worked.  A smooth takeoff.   And look at it rise through the clouds.  Even a loop deloop.  That‘s a technical term. 

Now all Mr. Anderson needs to do is make his invention useful.  It‘s a flying lawn mower. 

To Seattle, Washington, where inventor Monty Reed has invented something a lot more helpful, a robotic walking suit.  Through a series of Velcro straps, leg braces and air pumps, the machine will actually walk for you. 

And it‘s ecological, too, running on an oxygen tank.  Unfortunately, like a lot of environmentally friendly technology, not really built for speed. 

And finally to Burbank, South Dakota, where two local entrepreneurs are raising a holy stink.  Smells not like teen spirit, but Jesus Christ. 

So how do the inventors know what the son of God smelled like?  Well, first they took a biblical passage that says Christ will return wearing clothes that smell of myrrh, aloe and cassia.  They bought all the oils, combined them into a flowery cinnamon scent and made some candles. 

As for why the inventors hope it will help the faithful get closer to the Lord?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB TOSTERUD, INVENTED JESUS SCENTED CANDLE:  You can‘t see him and you can‘t touch him.  This is a situation where you may be able to sense him, you know, by smelling. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  What would Jesus do?  Would he buy one of these for $18? 

Just asking. 

Retailing for about the same, at least in hardback, “The Da Vinci Code” has been on the best seller list for two years around the world.  In a better late than never category, sort of, the Vatican has decided to tell Christians not to read it at any cost. 

And a possible break in the hunt for Jessica Lunsford.  Police want to talk to a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from the missing 9-year-old girl.  This trail has gone cold.  We‘ll talk with Ed Smart whose daughter, Elizabeth, was missing for nine months after being snatched from her bedroom.

Those stories ahead.  First here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day. 

No. 3, Josiah Johnson of Morehead, Minnesota got pulled over while driving home from a local sports pub this weekend.  Promptly failed that breathalyzer.  Johnson said he feels, quote, “really stupid,” because he thinks the officer pulled him over in the first place because his vanity license plate read, “T-I-P-S-Y.”  Spells Tipsy.

And yes, the stupid part sums it up. 

No. 2, Robert Downey of London, England, tried to hold up his local bookies with a banana wrapped in a plastic bag.  When the bookies refused to give him the cash, he ran away.  Police later found him struggling to pull off the ski mask and a bruised banana nearby.  His own lawyer called the robbery attempt farcical and incompetent. 

I say it‘s a perfectly good waste of fruit. 

And No. 1, an unnamed but red faced citizen of Schmitz, Germany, tried to mail a faulty product back to the manufacturer and it ended up causing a full scale bomb alert at the post office when his package started to vibrate and make strange noises.  Police showed up ready to defuse the device and found instead, a real life blow-up sex doll.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  She was last seen 21 days ago when her grandma tucked her into bed at the family‘s Florida home.  The search for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford continues. 

But in our number three story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, a person of interest in that case, a registered sex offender, last seen in Savannah, Georgia, has now been identified.  Just one day after saying they would search for 48 hours before they released the name to the public, police have now named the person of interest in the case. 

Mark Potter is in Inverness, Florida and has more on today‘s developments—Mark.

MARK POTTER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, good evening, Alison.  The man that detectives want to question has a lengthy criminal record dating back to the 1970‘s.  That according to the sheriff at a news conference today.  He identified the man as 46-year-old John Couey, a registered sex offender, who lived in a house within sight of the home where Jessica Lunsford disappeared three weeks ago.  Officials say, that he just left recently, using a bus ticket purchased under another name, after reportedly saying he knew that the police would be looking for him.  He headed for Savannah, Georgia, where local police there were asked by police in this county to find him and interview him over the weekend.  They did that.  They located him in a Salvation Army Shelter.  They talked to him, but then they let him go because there was no warrant.  Well, now that search is underway again in full with the FBI and local police detectives and detectives from this area looking for him.  There is now a warrant, but they have not been able to find him.  The sheriff said he is not ready to call him a suspect, but says there are lots of reasons that Mr. Couey is of such interest. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF JEFF DAWSY, CITRUS COUNTY, FL.:  Sexual offender, OK.  He has changed his residence.  He is across the street.  We then look at his history.  He leaves the area.  He makes a copy—a comment that police are going to be looking for me or are looking for me.  Those all start to do some building blocks for us. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

POTTER:  Now among Couey‘s past charges, a sex offense involving the fondling of a child under the age of 16.  And a burglary in which he allegedly broke into the bedroom of a juvenile female, grabbed her and put his hand over her mouth.  Now as for the parents of Jessica Lunsford, her father and grand parents, they say they have never heard of this man.  They‘ve never seen him.  And so they are reluctant to say that this is a break in the case.  But the sheriff says this could be their biggest lead yet.  And he is now asking the public for help—Alison.

STEWART:  Mark Potter in Florida, thanks for all those details.  To help us analyze these new developments, we‘re joined by former FBI profiler and MSNBC analyst, Clint Van Zandt. 

Clint, good evening to you. 

CLINT VAN ZANDT, MSNBC ANALYST:  Hi, Alison, good evening. 

OK, a registered sex offender in the neighborhood.  I‘m assuming the police knew about him.  Now, what had to happened from him to go being a person on a list to a person of interest. 

ZANDT:  Well, on the list, if you start to look at the sex offenders in any area, particularly in that county since that‘s where the little girl disappeared, you‘re going to find dozens if not maybe 100 or more.  So, you start to narrow that list down.  You either do it by investigation, Find some of them that are in jail.  And in this particular case, they found someone on the list of known sex offenders that was literally right across the street, that had a 25-year background of having done offenses like this.  Was in the neighborhood, disappeared within the last couple weeks.  Changed his name, used a phony name when he got out of town.  All of this says, I would be interested in this guy.  But let me tell you, Alison, one thing, if you and I think back to the Jessica Smart case—to the...

STEWART:  Elizabeth.

ZANDT:  ... Elizabeth Smart case, there were at least two different individuals who had similar backgrounds who got out of town.  In the case of one, all did he—the only reason he ran was for fear.  So, the authorities need to find him.  He‘s a good person to look at.  But it still doesn‘t make him the offender. 

STEWART:  It‘s sort of interesting that the police actually questioned him in Georgia. 

Why couldn‘t they hold on to him? 

ZANDT:  Well, you know, you need a warrant.  You need a reason to hold on to someone.  Now, once again, the authorities were identifying known sex offenders all over the state and out of state who might have been in that county.  This gentleman was just one of those.  Evidently the local police found him and questioned him.  But there was no outstanding arrest warrant on which to hold him.  So, you know, it falls back to the old, either hold me or kick me free. 

And evidently, they kicked him free at the time.  Now they‘ve get a warrant.  Now they‘re looking for him again.  Evidently, the answers he gave over the weekend, either weren‘t the right answers or that the sheriff and the FBI has even more questions. 

STEWART:  Let‘s talk bigger picture here, and this is kind of the tough question to ask.  But when you‘re talking about sex offenders, in terms of their profiles, what kind of news is this for the family?  If there is a sex offender involved.  Is it bad news or really bad news?  Do sex offenders keep their victims?  Do they hold on to them or do they kill them?

ZANDT:  Well, statistically, when a child disappears under these types of circumstances, the longer it goes by, when we get into a half a day, a day, a week, and as you suggested now, three weeks, the statistical probability is much lower.  But again, we keep talking about Elizabeth Smart.  I mean, they kept the porch light on and their daughter came home.  So, you never want to give up hope.  But you always have to balance out with the potential reality. 

STEWART:  And before I let you go, one quick question, yesterday we talked about this, the sheriff released the information about the grandmother‘s polygraph.  That it had raised some red flag.  Why do you think they allowed so much speculation about the grandmother, when they clearly had the other lead? 

ZANDT:  Yes, I think, that‘s going to be interesting.  I think, perhaps, they may have felt the grandmother may have known something or may have had some—even speculation in her mind that she hadn‘t shared with the authorities.  I think, they wanted to know everything she thought and every suspicion she had, either about a family member, a neighbor or an outsider.  But again, I think what may have caused that is perhaps just feeling a little guilt because she was there when her granddaughter went missing. 

STEWART:  Clint Van Zandt, former FBI profiler and MSNBC analyst, thanks so much. 

ZANDT:  Thank you.

STEWART:  For the family of Jessica Lunsford, the waiting is certainly unbearable.  And no one knows this better than our next guest, Ed Smart. 

It must sound all too familiar to him.  His daughter, Elizabeth Smart, was taken from her home in the middle of the night in June of 2002.  And after nine long months, she was found and reunited with her family. 

I spoke with Mr. Smart earlier this evening. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Mr. Smart, thanks so much for being with us tonight. 

ED SMART, ELIZABETH SMART‘S FATHER:  You bet. 

STEWART:  Police have named this person of interest, this registered sex offender.  Now, I know in your family situation, there was also a person of interest as well, who did not turned out to be the person who abducted your daughter.  Now, if you can think back in hindsight, how much did that change the investigation, once this person of interest was introduced? 

SMART:  You know, there was a real focus on that person.  I mean, Richard Ricci was focused on very strongly.  And once they focused on him, it was hard—I mean, because of the circumstantial evidence, it was hard to take the focus off of him.  So there was a lot of focus.  And of course...

STEWART:  Was that frustrating at all. 

SMART:  I mean, I personally felt that he had something to do with it.  I—you know, because of him going into the house at night when everyone was there and coming around the bed the same way Brian Mitchell did in our case, I mean, it was hard to eliminate him. 

STEWART:  Now, I need to get your point of view on something else.  Just yesterday, when all this person of interest information came out, they also released information about the grandmother‘s polygraph tests, that it raised some red flags.  And the sheriff reiterated that the family was not entirely ruled out as suspects. 

What is it like when the police begin asking you questions, the family questions, with a suspicious tone?  How did you deal with it? 

SMART:  Well, you know, the biggest concern that we had was, we were willing to do whatever it took.  I mean, you know, polygraph us, do whatever.  But just get us out of the way, because—I mean, I knew that none of my family was involve.  And the point was that we were now wasting time with the focus going off of Elizabeth on to the family.  And so we were anxious.  I mean, it was hard.  It is not an easy thing to go through, a polygraph.  You know, I think you sit there and revisit your past.  Any mistakes that you‘ve made, anything of consequence.  And it‘s difficult. 

And I think that to have it come off where, you know, potentially somebody is, well, they didn‘t pass their polygraph test.  I mean, that‘s not a for sure thing.  I mean, it is hardly admissible in court.  So, I mean, it doesn‘t say a lot.  But it certainly takes the focus off of where you want it to be. 

STEWART:  And before I let you go, considering that your youngest daughter is the person who really helped break this case, what advice would you give to the Lunsford family in terms of any information they might have?

SMART:  We had to just keep revisiting anyone who had come into the house, any workers that had been there.  Anyone that had associated with Elizabeth.  You know, we tried to go oh any friends.  They talked with her friends extensively.  And just trying to think of anyone that could possibly have been there. 

STEWART:  For Mary Katherine to have come up with, I think it is Emmanuel, was a true revelation for us, because I never would have remembered him.  And it is those types of people that potentially might have her. 

Ed Smart, we thank you so much for sharing your insight on this important matter. 

SMART:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  The Vatican takes on a work of fiction.  Why the church is so threatened by the “Da Vinci Code.”  Why speak out about it now? 

And will Jay Leno hold the key to keeping Michael Jackson out of prison?  New information about the trap defense attorneys laid for the accuser this week.  And another gripping edition of Michael Jackson puppet theater. 

Now in lieu of only three sound bites of the day, we pay tribute to Robert Blake celebrating his not guilty verdict. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT BLAKE, ACTOR:  You‘ve interviewed my friends, you‘ve interviewed producers that worked for me.  Well, guess what?  They‘re all liars.  And about half of them are commode scum. 

I‘m going to get a job.  I‘m broke.  Right now I couldn‘t buy space (ph) for a humming bird.  But before that, I‘m going to go out and do a little cowboying. 

You don‘t know what that is?  No, you don‘t know what that is.  Cowboying is when you get in a motor home or a van or something like that, and you just let the air blow in your hair and you wind up in some little bar in Arizona someplace.  And you shoot one handed nine ball with some 90-year-old Portuguese woman that beats the hell out of you. 

Anybody got a question that makes sense.  Any of you guys on the cameras?  Any of you gaffers have a pair of dice? 

What do you want, man? 

QUESTION:  Who do you honestly believe killed your wife?

BLAKE:  Shut up. 

People have always said I‘m crazy.  That‘s all right.  Just so I ain‘t a fool.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Great buzz, best-seller list, a movie in the works starring Tom Hanks: this is the literary juggernaut that is “The Da Vinci Code”—I read it.  But after the smashing success now—now, the Catholic church is all but fit to be tied.

In our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, though much of the Christian community expressed their outrage when the book hit bookstores back in May of 2003, one Vatican cardinal, it seems, just got the memo.

He admits, he may of quote, “arrived to late.”  But he‘s nonetheless calling on Catholics to avoid the thrill like quote, “rotten foot.”  Dubbing it a sack full of lies.

Why speak out about this now, you might ask?  And won‘t it just boost the book sales?  Our correspondent is Pat Dawson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAT DAWSON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  25 million copies in print.  Two years on the best-seller list.  Even a mini tourist boom visiting the book‘s locations across Europe. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Part of what is interesting is guessing how much is true.  I didn‘t start reading it believing it would be true. 

DAWSON:  The phenomenon known as “The Da Vinci Code” seems to have no end.  And the Vatican has apparently had enough.  Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a senior church official who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, has emerged as the Da Vinci debunker.  In his opening salvo, he called the book cheap lies. 

Today, he starts a series of public forums attacking the thriller.  And a parroted mission by the church that the novel‘s blurring of history and fantasy might just take on a life of its own. 

FR. THOMAS WILLIAMS, VATICAN UNIVERSITY DEAN:  A lot of people coming to Rome asking, is it really true Jesus had children with Mary Magdalene? 

DAWSON:  That sensational idea at the heart of author Dan Brown‘s best-seller has been called shameful and blasphemous by church officials. 

(on camera:  Full of historical references and real figures from history, the book has a ring of truth.  But it remains a work of fiction.  And even within the church, there are those who think “The Da Vinci Code” might, in the long run, be just a good read, not a threat to a 2,000-year-old faith. 

WILLIAMS:  I don‘t think Dan Brown, has any pretensions to be writing a work of history.  He‘s not a historian, he‘s a novelist. 

DAVID BARRATT, AUTHOR “SECRET SOCIETIES”:  I‘m (UNINTELLIGIBLE) not to make such a fuss.  It might excite a few people into reading.  it who otherwise not have done.

DAWSON (voice-over):  Assuming by that time there‘s anyone left who hasn‘t read it.  For today, Pat Dawson, NBC News, London. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Another religious book tops our list of celebrity stories in keeping tabs.  The “Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.  The self-help book rocketed from 54th to second place on Amazon.com‘s best seller list after Ashley Smith told reporters that she read it allowed to suspected murderers to Brian Nichols after he allegedly took her hostage.  She credits the book‘s message with helping her convince Nichols to turn himself in. 

It turns out she is not the only young woman to think that book might have helped an alleged murder suspect.  Amber Frey gave a copy of the same tome to Scott Peterson over a month after his pregnant wife disappeared.  He even had her gift with him when police finally arrested him for murder. 

And at the top of the COUNTDOWN, the Michael Jackson trial.  News leaks outside the courtroom.  And bizarre advice for Jackson.  Of the solicited and unsolicited variety.  OK.  Grab the popcorn.  It is almost puppet theater time.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  To our top story on the countdown now, and if you haven‘t even mentioned Michael Jackson, even in passing conversation over the course of the past year and four months, well then allow me welcome you back from the ashram (ph).  How are you shockers doing?  Are you spiritually centered?  Not anymore. 

Your entertainment and tax dollars in action, day 485 of the Michael Jackson investigations.  Well, today‘s testimony primarily centered around the November 2003 raid of Jackson‘s Neverland ranch, with various investigators taking the stand to catalog the amount and the variety of pornography seized during their search. 

The focus of the day was unchanged.  The defense hit hard on the equally varied inconsistencies in the accuser‘s statements regarding the alleged molestation he suffered at the hands of Michael Jackson. 

And more contradiction in the boy‘s testimony coming from outside the courtroom today.  ABC News obtaining transcripts of an interview with a potential witness for the defense:  yes, Jay Leno on the stand yesterday.  The 15-year-old accuser testified he‘d never spoken to Leno directly.  But, in what appears to be a statement to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff‘s Department, Mr. Leno had a different story.  Quote, “Essentially, they were sort of looking for money.  I don‘t know if he‘s reading from a script but it just sounded coached.”  That‘s from Jay Leno‘s interview. 

Savannah Guthrie is an attorney and a Court TV correspondent.  She‘s been covering this trial since it began.  Savannah, great to see you. 

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, ATTORNEY AND COURT TV CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Alison. 

STEWART:  So, more, many more inconsistencies brought to light.  Transcripts of this apparent police interview with Leno contradicted the testimony the kid gave.  Today the lead investigator says the accuser originally told him he‘d been molested five times, but he only testified to two incidents. 

What do you think this all means? 

GUTHRIE:  Well, when you pile inconsistency upon inconsistency, that‘s obviously bad for the prosecution because this is the key witness.  You know, but, some of the statements can be explained a little bit. 

For one where you said he‘s sort of changing the number of times he allegedly was molested, the fact of the matter is, he‘s always from the very beginning described two specific incidents of molestation, but he felt that there may have been other additional times but he couldn‘t really remember them, and that‘s where that five to seven number came in. 

But, again, if you have too many inconsistencies—and I have to tell you, setting up a credibility contest between this accuser and Jay Leno, that‘s not boding well for the prosecution. 

STEWART:  All right, let‘s talk a little bit more about some of the more salacious things that happened today.  A lot of porn apparently taken out of Neverland.  Can‘t even mention most of the titles, I think “Barely Legal” is about the only magazine that we can actually mention. 

How was that received in court? 

GUTHRIE:  It was so interesting.  You know, we have this giant screen inside the courtroom and these pictures which were extremely explicit with very explicit captions on them—I can‘t even repeat them here—are you know, broadcast on this screen.  Can you imagine a more awkward moment for Michael Jackson?  He‘s sitting there, these pictures are on the screen, the 12 jurors deciding his fate are watching him, his parents are right behind him, and most of the media from the national press and international press are furiously scribbling notes.  Not a great day for Michael Jackson, at least personally. 

STEWART:  And where did the jury look?  They looked at him, they looked at the screens.  Where did he look? 

GUTHRIE:  Little bit of both.  They were taking notes, looking at the screen.  You know, they didn‘t keep the pictures up for long.  They took them down.  They tried to be respectful.  I think Jackson did look a little fidgety at times, like he couldn‘t quite sit still, and after some of the most explicit covers of videos were shown on that screen, I had saw him kind of motion to his attorney and get a piece of candy from the court reporter.  So, I don‘t know if it was to take his mind off things, or what, but it was definitely kind of an awkward moment in court. 

STEWART:  We‘re coming up on the week anniversary of Michael Jackson showing up to court in his pajamas.  How‘s his behavior been this week? 

GUTHRIE:  You know, he actually has been well behaved this week.  Obviously that was sort of an anomaly for now.  But his dress has gotten a lot more bold.  He was wearing suits and ties and looking pretty conservative last week.  This week we‘ve seen him in a bright red dress and today he was wearing electric blue, so I don‘t know if he‘s trying to send a message, but he certainly is easy to spot in that courtroom. 

STEWART:  Court TV‘s Savannah Guthrie from outside the courthouse in Santa Maria.  Thanks for stopping by; we appreciate it. 

GUTHRIE:  You bet. 

STEWART:  Whether or not the clampdown on the “crazy” actually came from the defense team is anyone‘s guess.  Regardless, there is no shortage of advice for the pop star on how to handle himself in a manner that will swing the court‘s public opinion any way in his favor.  But who better to give such counsel than Britney Spears.  Herself, no stranger to press of any kind, the young Mrs. Fetterline—remember, she got married again? -- issued the follow pearls of wisdom to Michael Jackson in the latest issue of Allure magazine.  I don‘t know if Michael reads it but, quote, “He needs someone to be like, OK, let‘s buck you up.  Let‘s give you a mustache.  Let‘s rough you up.  Let‘s go to a bar.  Let‘s get drunk and be a man.  Either way, he needs to get in a fight.”  Britney Spears, ladies and gentlemen. 

Can‘t imagine why Michael Jackson would choose to go elsewhere for guidance but apparently he has.  Now, according to his spokesperson, the king of pop—is what he calls himself—begins everyday with a call to his new spiritual adviser, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.  During the Jackson/Jackson chats, which evidently take place around 4:30 in the morning, the two talk, and they pray together. 

The Reverend Jackson confirming the phone calls, saying the prayer he shares with the singer is nondenominational.  Thus you know it makes ripe picking for our hardly factual, completely ridiculous presentation of Michael Jackson‘s puppet theater. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bling-bling.  Bling-bling. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Hello? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Hello, Jesse Jackson.  It‘s me, Michael Jackson. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Michael, let us pray that on this day, at this hour before I rise to take a shower, I‘ll remember to call the phone company so I can get me some caller I.D. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Click—eeeeeh. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I feel like a loco (ph), Jesse Jackson. Whoo....

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for watching.  I‘ll see you back here tomorrow night.  I hope so.

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

Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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